November 27, 2008
From February 20 to March 13, 1943, while World War II was being fought,
The Saturday Evening Post published a series of four Norman Rockwell paintings. Rockwell took his inspiration for these paintings from the State of the Union Address that President Roosevelt delivered on January 6, 1941. The President realized that the United States would soon be dragged into World War II. At the close of that speech, President Roosevelt described four freedoms that our country wished to defend in face of the tyranny being inflicted on Europe.
Roosevelt insisted that people "everywhere in the world" should have the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear. These basic freedoms were fundamental to the dignity of the human person. These values were worth any struggle. Roosevelt actually was placing before the country the high ideals that make America free.
Norman Rockwell decided to bring these four freedoms to life in everyday scenes of American life. Using his neighbors in Vermont as models, he worked for six months and produced four of his greatest masterpieces. His third illustration, published on March 6, 1943, is his most recognized and best appreciated work. It is
The Freedom From Want. It is a Thanksgiving Day classic.
In the painting, the Rockwell family cook appears as the kind grandmother. With her dignified husband next to her, she is serving a very large turkey. The table is set with the best china and dinnerware. Parents and children are happily seated, smiling and talking. Rockwell spent much time working on the painting. He succeeded in doing what he intended. He gave us a treasured icon of our deepest hopes for Thanksgiving: joy, family, abundance and freedom.
Thanksgiving cannot be divorced from freedom. When the Pilgrims joined together with the Native Americans in the autumn of 1621, they celebrated their first successful harvest. They also reveled in their newly acquired freedom of religion.
The Pilgrims had left their native England to avoid religious persecution. State and religion were one. Since their religion was not the state religion, they first fled to Holland and then to America. The Pilgrims rightly understood that, where religion enjoys freedom, people respect and cherish one another and there is protection for all other freedoms: the freedom to work, to speak and even the very freedom to be born.
Unlike Easter, Passover or Ramadan, Thanksgiving does not celebrate the faith of one particular religion. Rather, Thanksgiving is a celebration of our common history as Americans. It is a reminder that this great country was founded by people with strong religious convictions. They valued the freedom to practice their religion without persecution, reprisal or ridicule.
Our celebration of Thanksgiving today challenges us to insure that our country does not take the radical secularist path of evicting religion from our national patrimony. Thanksgiving inspires us to enshrine in every new law the freedom of conscience for individuals to live according to their beliefs that respect life and work for the common good.
Despite our religious differences as Americans, we join together on this national holiday in a common act of gratitude to God. We return thanks for the blessings that God graciously bestows on us. At a time in our national history, when some wish to define freedom only in secular terms, our celebration of Thanksgiving calls us back to the founding of our great country and to the basic religious principles that inspired our ancestors to leave their homelands, risk life and fortune, and come to the shores of a new home.
In the right-hand corner of Norman Rockwell’s classic Thanksgiving dinner, one man has his face turned toward the viewer. With his smile, he is inviting us to join the others at the table. We are already seated at the table. We have our place at the banquet of life that God has given us from his goodness. As we thank God for his blessings, may we do all we can to invite all, born and unborn, to their rightful share in the fullness of His bounty.