Since 1630, when John Winthrop proclaimed the Puritan colonists' intent to establish "a shining city on a hill" to inspire the world, America has grappled with notions of a national destiny led by the hand of God.
Now questions of a divine national purpose are playing out in a new setting: the Thanksgiving table. Agenda-driven groups are equipping gatherings nationwide with reflections on the holiday's meaning.
Like the snippets of American history invoked in each, the readings vary according to each sponsoring group's answer to the divine destiny question. They differ as to whether Thanksgiving should conjure thoughts of America as God's chosen instrument, as an affront to all things sacred or as a mixed bag where glories and shames of the past trace to human rather than divine decisions.
To look closely at these reflections is to see distinct worldviews aiming to define what the holiday -- and the nation -- are all about. The efforts to define Thanksgiving's deepest meaning, one dining room table at a time, mirror larger, sometimes political, agendas to shape how Americans understand their country as one nation under God.
Thanksgiving "has a series of possibilities that are built into the institution," said anthropologist Bradd Shore, director of the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life at Emory University in Atlanta. "It's about America, it has the Pilgrims, it has thanking God, it has turkey."
He said suggested reflections are "an attempt to renegotiate a holiday that was ambiguously religious." If groups can get enough people to accept their vision of Thanksgiving, "then you've changed the culture," he said.
That's what Barbara Rainey, an evangelical Christian, said she had in mind when she authored "Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember," a 2002 reflection that takes about 45 minutes to read or to hear on a newly released compact disc.
Rainey said she worried that schoolchildren were not hearing about the faith that had inspired Pilgrims to reach the New World, so she began the book by characterizing Thanksgiving as "both distinctly Christian and exclusively American, a holiday for celebrating faith, family and freedom."
The book describes how early European settlers nearly starved on their God-given mission to establish a haven for religious freedom, but "sustained by God's grace," she wrote, they survived.
"Children growing up in America don't really understand our Christian heritage," said Rainey, who is married to Dennis Rainey, president of Family Life, a $43 million evangelical ministry in Little Rock. "I just want to see Americans become more grateful for the privileges we have because we may not have them always -- and the surest way to lose them is to lose understanding of where [freedom] came from and why we have it -- and to realize that being a free people is a great gift."
On the other hand, the American Jewish Committee and 10 other groups have offered another type of reflection: on the country's immigrant history, emphasizing human rather than divine agency.
The 20-page reflection, which can be downloaded free from the American Jewish Committee's Web site, tells the stories of eight contemporary immigrants who found refuge and opportunity in America. It contends that preservation of this tradition rests squarely on human shoulders.
"We are the stewards of America," the text says. "In America, each of us is entitled to a place at the table."
But it notes that those rights have not always been protected.
"Not every journey was easy," the text reads. "The first arrivals sometimes shunned those who followed. Not every journey was voluntary. The first African slaves landed in Jamestown a year before the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth. Not every journey was righteous. Native Americans were devastated by a new nation's need to conquer, cultivate and build."