Growing up, I mustered little enthusiasm for an uncle's long Thanksgiving Day prayer. Once, he deferred to a nephew, who tersely uttered: "God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for this food. Amen."
This youngster caught gratitude's genius and heart. We refuse to hype our achievements, lest we sound bombastic like Rush Limbaugh, who boasts that his talents are "on loan from God." We stretch beyond self's circumference. We thank the one who has given the gift of life. That simple prayer about God, food and who's great in the universe echoes Hebrew psalms: "Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise! Give thanks for God. Bless His name!" (Psalm 100:4).
The last presidential election raised a referendum on what authentic gratitude looks like. Do thankful hearts share beyond self-interest to help the helpless? Or is gratitude lost in self-adulation?
God favors the former; atheist Ayn Rand, the latter. She rejected the credo etched in stone at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington. Roosevelt, in his 1937 Inaugural Address, said, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide for those who have little."
Rand despised Roosevelt. Her novel "Atlas Shrugged" runs 1,100 pages, during which Rand denies government's role in spreading charity as an act of communal gratitude of the rich for the poor. Her book reads like a futurist fable. It depicts government as a sinister power. It grooms bureaucrats to devise schemes that rob risk-taking innovators. In this novel, the economy plummets. Then, Uncle Sam takes over personal liberties in the name of the public good.
Rand clashed with Roosevelt over how to express gratitude. According to her, charity stays at home, where individuals not coerced by government parcel out aid.
Roosevelt, in contrast, believed effective government cared for more of the needy than shelters and church-sponsored food kitchens.
A few weeks ago, the American electorate voted on these divergent ways of showing gratitude. The majority resonated with voters who rejected Rand's rant on government.
When gratitude shrivels into a clever defense for self-serving, Shakespeare supplies a corrective. He dramatizes mistakes, bad habits, destructive idiosyncrasies and sins. What ranked as the worst? The Bard has a character that declared, "I hate ingratitude in a man / (More) than lying, vainness, babbling drunkenness, / Or any taint of vice when strong corruption / Inhabits our frail blood" ("Twelfth Night," Act III, Scene IV).
Donald Trump typifies how gratitude is distorted into self-serving ways to make a buck. On his show "The Apprentice," the Donald sells Rand's brand of success.
He lists seven rules for business. Rule No. 5 cuts the nerve of gratitude. "I love pitting people against each other," Trump says. "My whole life is based on that. It brings out the best and the worst in people. If the worst comes out, you don't want them working for you."
Trump spends his life training star employees to compete like snarling pit bulls. Where's the semblance of grace or gratitude in this picture of how we are to act? God is good, but need we be good in quarrelsome competition?
What does life look like with gratitude drained from it? Don't competitors feast on proving self-worth by defacing opponents' reputations? Filching their reputations? Turning on those who already have what you want but aren't eager to share it with you?
That's the upshot? Only those clever and self-seeking enough will graduate from apprentices to masters in a thankless world.
"I'm Paul Ryan, and I approve this message" said the vice presidential candidate who applauded and then retreated from his infatuation with Rand. He instructed staff to read her novels. Rand's "the reason I got involved in public service, by and large," he testified. "If I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. My philosophy in essence is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life."
So how does this worldview regard Thanksgiving? Gratitude has less to do with serving others and more to do with heroic resolve to make, rather than take. Rand's toxins infect Ryan's fiscal plan: cut taxes on the rich so they are grateful for more stuff, slash aid to the poor so their ingratitude will force them to start working and limit government because its welfare increases generations of moochers.
Show gratitude by remembering those who mentored us to reject Rand's selfish ethic. Samuel Johnson tipped a toast to friends who "guard, excite and elevate one's virtues." Gratitude's excellent way is practiced when we share, sacrifice and show compassion.
God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him on this Thanksgiving Day by refuting Ayn Rand's assault on gratitude.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.