Dwight Eisenhower spoke of the need to “bow before God in contrition for our sins.” Both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush acknowledged George Washington on “our shortcomings and transgressions.” But any suggestion of national failings, let alone sin or perversity, has gone missing from the Thanksgiving proclamations of recent decades (and so has much of the majesty).
Without it, we lose any sense that we have an obligation to live up to a national standard that derives, if not from the God of the Bible, from the natural law. This has always been part of what makes America different from other nations. France will always be France no matter what, but America involves striving toward an ideal. The great political scientist Samuel Huntington, in rebutting the new Left of the 1960s, whose sense of the nation’s sinfulness exceeded all reasonable bounds, stated it nicely. “Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals,” he wrote. “They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.” Or as Lincoln put it in his famous phrase, we are “the almost chosen people.”