I promised some posts on the arguments I was seeing on Facebook… with regards to the articles about the Obama administrations attempts to remove religion (specifically Christianity) from the public sphere.
So there was a commenter who made the statement that we were founded as a Christian nation and Christianity should continue to have a role. Here was part of the response he received.
“No, it did not. Ive already proven that. Treaty of Tripoli 1796 “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” Signed by John Adams. get your facts straight.”
And followed up by another comment
“also the text was approved by Washington and passed unanimously by the Senate”
So the question is; how do you respond to historical revisionism such as this? WallBuilders provides a very good article on the topic. If I may steal some of their research and add a few other tidbits.
First, you should probably point out the obvious fallacies of their statements. There were several treaties made with the Muslim Barbary Countries over the course of the Barbary Wars. The treaty they are referencing was made in 1797. A second minor point is that Washington never approved the treaty. In fact, he never saw it. It did not arrive in America until several months after Washington left office. No secure email back then. But none of this gets to the crux of the issue…it just reduces the credibility of the history major.
The real issue is the statement itself. The above mentioned line was indeed in the treaty of 1797, but as you can imagine, that was not the only line. Here is the surrounding text of article XI of that treaty:
“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 [hatred] against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] and as the said States [America] have 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 second half (or rather 4/5ths) of the statement is pretty important. “Is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” is qualified with what that means in this instance. The Americans knew the history of the wars between Muslims and Christians in Europe. Wars fought over religion. This statement in its entirety was expressing to these Muslim nations that America’s Christianity was different than that of Europe. We had no intention of fighting a war solely based upon religion (although neither was Europe but not from the point of view of the Muslims). It is also important to know that these Barbary countries were also fighting England, France, Spain, and Denmark during this time (because they were Christian…see a pattern). Our diplomats wanted to distinguish the US and these counties in an effort to protect our merchant ships because at the time we did not have the naval power to protect them. The results were treaties such as this one and protection payments (jizya tax) among other things. Those that have studied Islam know that the jizya tax is a tax imposed upon nonbelievers in order to allow them to live in dhimma status. According to Islam, it was convert, pay the tax and live in dhimma status, or die. These nations were following this precedent set by Muhammad. I guess if you want to get technical, you can say that Muslims threw the first stone…so much for that America got what it deserved argument…but that is a whole other conversation.
The bottom line is that when you read the entire article in context it shows that the intention of the line was not to say that the nation was not founded upon Christian principles. I think any honest historian would be compelled to agree with this stance, even if they have a personal disdain for Christianity. But as further confirmation, I think it is good to look at the man who actually did sign the treaty, John Adams. Here are a few quotes from John Adams that add credibility to the argument.
“Human government is more or less perfect as it approaches nearer or diverges farther from the imitation of this perfect plan of divine and moral government.”
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
“Statesmen by dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand . . . . The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a great Measure, than they have it now, they may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty.”
“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were. . . . the general principles of Christianity. . . . I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature.”
These comments are indicative of not only John Adams view of government, but also most of the other founding fathers. They contradict the revisionist argument and support the full reading in context. Since he obviously believed that Christianity had a significant role in the formation of our government, it does not make sense for critics to interpret the wording of the treaty in the way they have.
Of course, the founders were not the only ones that came to the realization that the newly formed United States was indeed a Christian nation. If you have read my blog for some time I have posted the following book quotes before, but I thought they were relevant in this discussion.
From the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, published in 1835:
“Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.”
From French atheist Achille Murat, in A Moral and Political Sketch of the United States, published in 1833
“It must be admitted that looking at the physiognomy [discernible character] of the United States, its religion is the only feature which disgusts a foreigner…There is no country in which the people are so religious as in the United States; to the eyes of a foreigner they even appear to be too much so…The great number of religious societies existing in the United States is truly surprising; there are some of them for everything; for instance, societies to distribute the Bible; to distribute tracts; to encourage religious journals; to concert, civilize, educate the savages; to marry the preachers; to take care of their widows and orphans; to preach, extend, purify, preserve, reform the faith; to build chapels, endow congregations, support seminaries; catechize and convert sailors, Negroes, and loose women; to secure the observance of Sunday and prevent blasphemy by prosecuting the violators; to establish Sunday schools where young ladies teach reading and the catechism to little rogues, male and female; to prevent drunkenness…”
From English atheist Harriet Martineau in Society in America, published in1837
“There is no evading the conviction that it [Christianity] is to a vast extent a monstrous superstition that is thus embraced by the tyrant, the profligate [immoral], the weakling, the bigot, the coward, and the slave…The institutions of America are, as I have said, planted down deep into Christianity. Its spirit must make an effectual pilgrimage through a society of which it may be called a native; and no mistrust of its influences can forever intercept that spirit in its mission of denouncing anomalies, exposing hypocrisy, rebuking faithlessness, raising and communing with the outcast, and driving out sordidness from the circuit of this, the most glorious temple of society that has ever yet been reared.”
I think the last two were especially significant since the two men that gave the revisionist view on the Treaty of Tripoli are also atheists (as revealed from subsequent comments on that article). While they may not agree with the idea of Christianity, they should not let that prejudice influence what they say about historic events in an effort to mislead others. Especially the one who lists himself as a history major at Texas A&M.