Thanksgiving and Secularization -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Although Halloween is the next holiday, Thanksgiving is just weeks away.  It has become the key moment in our consumerist society, when we head out to the stores to get the good deals for Christmas.  Martin Marty takes note of those who resent the encroachment of secularization on this holiday that once had religious observances attached.  Marty notes that services once held on Thursday morning and then sent to Wednesday evening have faded away.  I will add that there still are services -- but often poorly attended.   Rather than resent and whine, Marty offers some sage advice -- advice we might carry over into the Christmas season.   

Thanksgiving and Secularization
Monday | Oct 21 2013
 djLicious / flickr
Having had enough of talk about Congress and the Affordable Care Act and “default,” let’s look ahead, not back. I propose a glance at the calendar, with Thanksgiving Day several weeks off. It is in the news already because Macy’s stores, one of which is close, across the street from us, have announced that they are opening and selling in the course of Thanksgiving Day, and are taking heat for announcing that they will do so.

For religiously sensitive citizens, such a change is one more evidence of secularization. They resent it. The epigraph to Jeffrey Stout’s chapter on “Secularization and Resentment” in his fine book, Democracy and Resentment, quotes John R. Bowlin: “Resentment is easy. Theology is hard.”

Stout chronicles complaints by religious thinkers about “secularization,” which can mean so many things. Let’s look at what has happened to Thanksgiving Day.

Decades ago, when advising the BBC about a series on world religions and asked about how to “cover” Protestantism in the United States, I suggested that they come in Thanksgiving Week to observe, interview, and document. Why? At that time Thanksgiving Day was a religio-secular highlight, ecumenically Christian and “interfaith.” In many communities there were worship services on Thanksgiving morning, before the big familial fests.

Many complications arose, and soon some retreated to Wednesday night worship, and, progressively, joint worship and worship of any sort faded. We were left with commerce as the main agent for idiosyncratic forms of communal expression.

Soon “Black Friday” was invented as a great economic booster for pre-Christmas sales. Manic scenes of shoppers followed. And, now, “Black Thursday” has begun to edge out religious, familial, and communal experiences in thousands of communities and millions of homes.

Isn’t that to be resented? Rather than resent, many use the occasion to “do theology” and engage in hard religious and cultural analysis and conversation. What has become clear is that millions of the resenters are accomplices. Macy’s and Wal-Mart and JCPenney’s and Target and other sometimes expansive, often desperate retailers, need to adapt and anticipate the expressions and demands of commerce.

Most phenomena that get tagged as “secularizing” agents and events occur because of practical adaptations and the choices citizens make. One hears of the challenges of atheism and how it chips away at worship, the sacred, and more.

Look again: Nietzsche and Company long ago and Dawkins and the “new atheists” now get blamed by resenters, but changes in behavior, observance, and setting of priorities are far more powerful. Two weeks ago I could look out the window or down the street (on the way to church I am supposed to say) on Sunday morning while tens of thousands of marathoners run by for good causes and self-improvement. Not many include worship or the thought of worship on what many of their grandparents called “the Lord’s Day.”

Abandoning sanctuaries and worship for shopping and running is only one of the many ways a public “secularizes.” Those who put their energies into resenting may be pointing to the main factors that produce “secularization,” however defined.

If they divert energies from pointless whining to positive affirmations of faith and community and inventing new approaches, they are likely to achieve some surprising results about which they and the larger public could be thankful. They could be generous enough to say Happy Black Thursday, and Happy Black Friday to those who choose to make or, let’s face it, have to make, other choices about that formerly holiday weekend.


Tuttle, Brad. “Hey Thanksgiving Shoppers: Macy's Isn't the Only One to Blame for Ruining the Holiday.” Time, October 19, 2013. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Stout, Jeffrey. Democracy and Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Image Credit: delicious / flickr
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.


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