we were NOT founded as a christian nation: thoughts on article 11 of the u.s. treaty with tripoli

The U.S. Treaty of Tripoli

With Libya continuing to be in the news, I was reminded this morning of one of the earliest treaties the United States ever signed with another nation. (See complete list here.) It is the Treaty of Tripoli, signed with Ottoman Tripolitania in Tripoli on November 4, 1796, unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate on June 7, 1797, and signed into law by President John Adams on June 10, 1797.

While the treaty is a typical diplomatic agreement with a Mediterranean state, Article 11 of the treaty has attracted much attention as a corrective to those like Glenn Beck, who believe that the “Founding Fathers” founded the United States as a “Christian nation.”

Article 11 of our first treaty explains rather precisely what the founding fathers intended, how the Senate interpreted it, and by signing it into law, how the President applied it:

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 Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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.

The point of the United States was to deliberately found a new nation that was not founded upon a single religion, but one that tolerates all beliefs, including the choice not to believe in any religion. The entire point was not to have a particular religion (the Church of England at first) dictating law in the country. Our founding documents, while acknowledging and appealing to a higher power deity (akin to simple Deism), took great strides to avoid founding this secular nation on a particular religious foundation. Rather, it was intended to be tolerant of all faiths and beliefs. Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli made this crystal clear.

10 Responses

  1. Either that, or it was founded by Christians who’d perjure themselves on international documents just to keep up good diplomacy.

    Either way, it’s close enough to the same point. ;-)

  2. I think that Bill might be more correct.

    Perhaps the members of Congress at that time, and the Adams administration, were handing the Muslims a dose of their own taq’qiya.

    My understanding is that one of the first expenditures authorized by Congress after the ratification of the Constitution was to fund teachers on the western frontiers (beyond Pennsylvania!) to teach the Indians, “for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”.

    And, there are several well-known quotes from the Founders — most notably, Patrick Henry — that state that our nation WAS founded upon Christian principles.

    Christian or not, our country has drifted away from the truth, and from obeying the Constitution. We do these at our peril.

  3. There’s no such thing as a christian nation because no nation has ever been baptized, so far as I know.

    Some of the principles used by the founders were fostered in Chistendom. Others were heathen to their very core.

    At any rate, claims about “christian america” are nothing but posturing.

  4. Had the founders tried to set up a “Christian” nation, they quickly would have run smack into the question of what that meant specifically. It likely wouldn’t have been adequate to stop at “Christian”. What kind? Quaker? Baptist? Roman Catholic? Anglican?

    Picking any one would not have been taken very well by the others. There were anti-Catholic riots in England at about the time of the revolution, and Catholics’ rights there were restricted. France had outlawed protestantism in 1685, only 20 years before the birth of Ben Franklin, so at the time of the revolution there would likely have been some grandchildren of French Huguenot refugees with a chip on their shoulder against Catholics. Baptists were big on separation of Church and State. Quakers had been persecuted in England (and likely elsewhere).

    The only way the Founders were going to succeed in getting a country up and running was by deliberately tiptoeing around religion in the spirit of the Establishment clause, so as to avoid inflaming any of these latent conflicts. They certainly didn’t put anything specific in the Constitution, which they very well could have had they been so inclined.

    It’s not like all references to Jesus in the Constitution were expunged by liberal hippies and beatniks in the 20th century.

  5. It should also be noted that the Tripoli treaty was published at the time, apparently with little or no public outcry at the offending article. This suggests the notion the US is not a ‘Christian nation’ was accepted by the people in 1897.

  6. Jon’s point ignores some key historical facts.

    Although the USA as a whole did not designate any “national religion”, in terms of a specific denomination, the individual states were divided largely along denomiational lines. My understanding of those divisions includes these.

    Maryland (i.e.: “Mary land”) was settled by Catholics
    Pennsylvania was settled by Quakers, who allowed other denominations
    Massachusetts was settled by Puritans
    Georgia was settled by Baptists

    There were likely other such divisions, but these are the ones that I’ve seen written about in the past.


    Bill, in the year 988, the nation of Kievan Rus was baptized — albeit many people were baptized at the point of a spear.

    Before that (around the year 211, I think) the nation of Armenia was the first (but not last) to declare itself a Christian nation.

  7. (revised from comments elsewhere on dec 2, 2011)

    the u.s. was not founded on ‘christian beliefs’ or principles, unless by ‘christian principles’ it is meant the general *deist* principles of ‘love your neighbor’, which are universal to just about all theistic religions.

    the u.s. founding fathers (many of whom were agnostic deists, not christian) went out of their way to *not* base the u.s. and its constitution on christianity. this is why there only mentions of a general ‘creator’, a ‘supreme judge of the world,’ and ‘nature’s god’ (note, no mention of ‘jesus’, ‘jesus christ,’ ‘our lord and savior’, or ‘god the father’) in the declaration of independence, and absolutely *no* mention whatsoever of jesus or god by the time they got around to writing the constitution and the bill of rights. ideas of a ‘universal architect’ and ‘laws of nature and nature’s god’ are *deist* principles, not specifically christian. (for the record, ‘deism’ is the belief in a god who is responsible for setting the universe in motion, but who does not intervene in the history and lives of its creation.)

    and just to be clear, by the time the founders got around to making treaties with other nations, they specifically spelled out that the u.s. is (and i quote), *not*, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,’ in article 11 of the us treaty with tripoli. (see above)

    the idea that the united states was founded as a ‘christian nation’ is a complete myth perpetuated by the likes of glenn beck (and many, many others) who *want* to believe (and want others to believe) something for which the evidence says the complete opposite.

    the point was to create a nation that *separated* religion from politics, and allowed people the independence to practice whatever religion they chose (including no religion) without fear of persecution from the state, and that prohibited the state from establishing a state religion.

    we were *never* founded as a christian nation. our nation just happened to have a lot of early christian immigrants (puritans, quakers, etc.), but the founders (while *some* professed christianity) wrote a intentionally deist constitution.

  8. The actions of our forefathers speak louder than words. They acted as though guided by Genesis and spoken to directly by Thomas Aquinas as they orchestrated a hostile takeover using promotion of misogyny and slavery called “freedom”. This country was built on misinformation from everyone, most of all the Church.

  9. […] For more on this topic, read my earlier post: we were NOT founded as a christian nation: thoughts on article 11 of the u.s. treaty with tripoli […]

  10. […] the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” I have written on this before here and here. The U.S. was founded by many Christians, but they chose not to found it as a […]

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