Essay Assignment – Thanksgiving as a Religious Phenomenon
Due Sun. Dec. 18, 6 pm
This semester we have studied various components or aspects of “religion”, including sacred power, myth, ritual, sacred time, sacred place, religious experience, religious organizations and religion and politics. We have read and discussed a wide variety of theories related to these aspects of religion, including readings by Tylor, Durkheim, Eliade, Gastor, Watson, and others. We have examined how these concepts and theories can be applied to case studies from a wide range of religious traditions. We have also read the important essay “Civil Religion in America” by Robert Bellah, wherein he argues that there is in the United States, alongside of the traditional religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, an American “Civil Religion” that has its own integrity and seriousness, that should be studied as a legitimate religion, and that Americans can believe in and participate in together with their more traditional religious beliefs.
This essay assignment asks you to employ and deploy the theories and concepts you have read and thought about, by analyzing an interesting case study in the area of religion: Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving represents a particularly interesting and ambiguous example of a possible religious phenomenon. It is a holiday and a celebration rooted in specific religious traditions such as Puritanism and in specific events and periods in our nation’s history such as the Civil War. Yet today it can be embraced by Americans of many religions. (See group of background readings on Thanksgiving in this module. You do not have to read all of them but browse it to get a sense of the history, tradition and current practices of the American Thanksgiving holiday.) Thanksgiving is often seen by many Americans as a secular phenomenon, linked to aspects of American life such as football and shopping. But given our study of religion and the various aspects of religion, and in the context of American society and history, can Thanksgiving be understood as a religious phenomenon?
In your five paragraph (or a bit more if you need it) essay, using the theories, ideas and examples of religion we have studied this semester (“sacred power”, “myth”, “ritual”, “sacred space”, etc.) analyze how Thanksgiving is (and/or is not) a religious phenomenon. Refer to and use specific theories and ideas by the various thinkers we have studied. In particular, you should discuss Bellah’s idea of an “American Civil Religion”, what is the nature, in his view, of such a “civil religion”, and how, or if, Thanksgiving fits into American civil religion. Since this examination is open book, you should use in your analysis specific theories and ideas by the various thinkers we have studied during the semester, including direct quotes. You can also use information and examples from the background reading on Thanksgiving, and personal examples related to Thanksgiving from your own experience. In addition, at various points it may be helpful to contrast aspects of Thanksgiving with examples we have studied of other religious stories, practices, holidays, etc.