It’s a question that strikes fear in the secular progressive. It sends shivers down the spine of a skeptic. It rattles the cage of cultural combatants. And it prompts flat out anger in the hearts of religious antagonists.
Is America a Christian nation?
Did our country’s Founders build a nation upon the bedrock of Christian belief and practice? Or was their republic irreligious or a secular state, embedded within a dominantly deistic worldview?
The coup de grace of secular evidence?
For those who find our country’s Christian origins both implausible and untenable, the greatest alleged witness and support they cite is Amendment XI in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, in which we find the words, “…the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…”
But do those words prove what they so plainly are quoted to proclaim?
In my last article, I shared how we can learn a “200-year-old lesson on 9/11” from the treaties with Tripoli and the other Barbary Powers. However, we can also learn something about the Islamic worldview of our nation and Christianity, then and now.
The religious context of the treaty of Tripoli
To properly understand the alleged rejection clause of America’s Christian foundation in Amendment XI, one must understand the historical, diplomatic and religious contexts in which the treaty was given. The former two I already addressed in last article – now I will discuss the religious one.
One of the errors of the Barbary States was that they considered America a Christian nation in the lineage of its European predecessors. The way they understood Christianity was through the lens of the Crusades, and so perceived any Christian country as a militant threat to their existence.
So prevalent was this warlike view of Christianity that, in his April 8, 1805 journal entry, even Gen. William Eaton said of Muslim radicals, “We find it almost impossible to inspire these wild bigots with confidence in us or to persuade them that, being Christians, we can be otherwise than enemies to [Muslims]. We have a difficult undertaking!”
With that grave Islamic misunderstanding of Christianity, how would and should a Christian nation’s delegates answer the question, “Are you a Christian nation?” If you answer “yes,” you are quickly categorized into a Crusade-form of Christianity and an enemy. If you answer “no,” then you appear to be denying the basis upon which you were founded. Add to the mix that you are negotiating in a time of war, have very limited naval resources, are in recovery from another (Revolutionary) war, and that “yes, with an explanation” is not exactly the answer that is going to bail your seamen, cargo and ships out of Muslim extremist captivity.
In that context, there was simply no way that America was going to align itself with European-Christian countries. U.S. leaders believed, as Noah Webster later elaborated, “The ecclesiastical establishments of Europe which serve to support tyrannical governments are not the Christian religion but abuses and corruptions of it.” The perception, however, that the U.S. did support a Euro-brand of Christianity had already exacerbated the holy war and caused the enslavement of thousands of our citizens. But America simply had no might, right or fight to pick with Muslims and the Barbary Powers.
After months of deliberation over the treaty, from before its inception Nov. 4, 1796, in Tripoli to its further discussions in the Senate from May 29-30 and June 7, 1797, it was accepted and ratified, because our government leaders understood its context, meaning, and the strategic, diplomatic and expedient nature of this negotiation.
The full context of Article XI clearly reveals that American leaders wanted Muslims to know that the U.S. rejected the Muslim pejorative understanding of Christianity, which was nothing more than an anti-Islamic, European-Crusade religion.
- As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] and as the said [United] States have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Islamic] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. [Italics mine]
Amendment XI in the Treaty of Tripoli is not a simple historical declaration of national non-Christian origins or denial of America’s religious roots, but a diplomatic negotiation intended to free U.S. seamen and ships and to avert further international (Muslim) attacks and warfare on the very young and war-torn United States.
Other declarations of national Christian identity
It’s amazing that antagonists who disavow America’s founding as a Christian nation will quote (out of context) complex war-time negotiations and yet avoid the explicit words of our Founders during times of peace. Why don’t skeptics ever cite any of the following governmental leaders from the same period as the Barbary Wars?
John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, appointed by George Washington, wrote to Jedidiah Morse Feb. 28, 1797 (the same year the Treaty of Tripoli was ratified), “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers. And it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of a Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
John Adams, America’s second president and the same one who signed and sent the Treaty of Tripoli to the Senate, just one year later delivered these words in a military address Oct. 11, 1798, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
And to what religion is Adams referring? He gave us an answer when he wrote Thomas Jefferson June 28, 1813, “The general principles on which the Fathers achieved independence were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite. … And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were united.”
Patrick Henry wrote to Archibald Blair Jan. 8, 1799,”The greatest pillars of all government and of social life: I mean virtue, morality and religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone, that renders us invincible.”
Charles Carroll, a signer of the Constitution, wrote to James McHenry Nov. 4, 1800, “Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion whose morality is so sublime and pure. … are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.”
John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, spoke at an Independence Day celebration in 1837, “Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth? That it laid the corner stone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity…?
Andrew Jackson, our seventh president, pointed to a Bible as he lay sick near death in 1845 and said, “That book, sir, is the rock on which our republic rests.”
How much clearer can it be? There are no contradictions between the preceding leadership sayings and those drafted by Joel Barlow, the author and diplomat of the Treaty of Tripoli, when one understands the historical, diplomatic and religious context of it all.
America was founded as a Christian nation.
Now whether or not it has remained one is the discussion for another day!
(In next week’s article I’ll be sharing about a trip I am on right now in Iraq – my second in a year to encourage our troops, at the invitation of Gen. Robert Magnus and the Marines.)
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