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Tempest in a Treaty: Does the Treaty of Tripoli Support a Secular America?

Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 28 years.

Was the United States a Christian nation when they fought the Muslim states?

Was the United States a Christian nation when they fought the Muslim states?

Treaty of Tripoli

One of the great international challenges for early America was the constant plundering of American commercial ships by Muslim states, who were pirating American ships in the Mediterranean.

Presidents Washington and Adams, following the policy of the British, paid out millions of dollars in ransom in order to see kidnapped Americans returned to American shores safely. After all, we were not a naval power, so we were vulnerable and the Muslim tyrants knew it.

In an effort to quell the attacks, the United States entered into a treaty with the Muslim state of Tripoli in 1797. In that treaty, the Treaty of Tripoli, Article XI of the treaty says that

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion...

Article XI is often used by some to support the thesis that America is not a Christian nation, which I will call the “Secular America Thesis” (SAT). They do this for good reason: Article XI is probably the best prima facie evidence that SAT supporters have for their claim.

Given the large number of statements from history claiming that America is a Christian nation, is this one phrase from a single treaty enough to infer SAT as the more plausible thesis?

On the Surface

Let’s first consider how Article XI fares without any background knowledge. Here, I think is its greatest strength. The statement is straightforward: “The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

However, we don’t have to venture far beyond this statement to note that prima facie value is about all that this piece of information holds when it comes to supporting SAT.

A Nation or a Government?

First, Article XI refers to the “government” of the United States, not the “nation.” Nations are groups of people that are often bound together by a common religion, language, and historical experience. Governments, on the other hand, are those institutions of coercion, used by the nation for the purpose of upholding that nation’s laws.

In America, we are a nation in possession of a government. So, if SAT supporters want to address the “Christian Nation” question, Article XI will not help them. It’s entirely possible that the nation is soundly Christian, yet its government is neutral toward religion.

In fact, the prominent Christian viewpoint since the Great Awakening until this day has been that Christ extends the gift of eternal life to all that will receive it. This gift must be received and not forced upon others. Therefore, it is “Christian” not to impose the Christian religion upon others.

A common definition of "religion" used by the founding fathers was used by George Mason of Virginia: religion is "the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it."

A common definition of "religion" used by the founding fathers was used by George Mason of Virginia: religion is "the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it."

The Founders' Narrow Definition of Religion

At this point, perhaps we can let SAT supporters shift gears and say, “OK, perhaps Article XI does not support SAT, but Article XI does show that the government is not Christian.” At this point it would be helpful to know what the makers of the treaty meant by the statement “Christian religion.”

Words and phrases change meaning over time, it goes without saying. This is certainly true of the word “religion.” Today, when we say “religion,” we tend to use it for anything “churchy” or “pertaining to God.” Today, religion is sloppily used as a synonym for “faith” or “belief.”

However, the Founders had a more precise meaning. George Mason, called the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” used this definition in the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776:

Religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other...(1)

Common Definition

To my knowledge, this definition was the most common used by the Founding Fathers. A similar definition shows up in Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance (1785), Constitution-ratifying convention debates in the states of Virginia and North Carolina, Justice Joseph Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution (1833), and the definition for “religion” used in Reynolds v. US (1878).

In Davis v. Beason (1890) the Court adopted Mason’s definition as the definition of religion for the Constitution.

Mason’s definition provides for us a more precise interpretation of Article XI. To say that the United States government was not founded (or established) on the Christian religion is to say that the United States government would not be the source of imposing Christian religious duty and the means of doing so.

For example, it is a Christian duty to worship God, but the government will not enforce the action of worship. So it is possible that the government could embrace “Christianity” but not impose the “Christian religion.” Given the definition of religion above and Article XI, it would be reasonable to say the following

The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian system of determining what duties we owe our Creator and the manner of discharging those duties....

Comrade Lenin and President Washington

Apparently, it was acceptable for the government to suggest to Americans what man’s duties to God were and to suggest the means of discharging them without translating such statements into enforceable government policy. For example, in George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, he said:

"...the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor . . . and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions..."(2)

This would be an odd statement for the representative of an atheistic government to make to a non-Christian nation. Imagine Comrade Lenin making such a proclamation at a May Day parade!

But more to the point of the definition of religion, if we are to harmonize the “Christian religion” statement in Article XI with the above proclamation, Washington found it completely appropriate to beseech the nation to uphold its duty to God with suggestions on how to carry out such a duty, but without imposing a national policy as to how to carry that out.

In Washington’s mind it was completely appropriate to prescribe religious statements pertaining to duty to God, but stop short of imposing such prescriptions by force.

If we take this understanding of Washington’s proclamation, it harmonizes with the second part of Mason’s statement pertaining to religion, which says that the duties man owes the Creator and the means of discharging them “can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence."

George Washington said, "The duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor..."

George Washington said, "The duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor..."

In Conclusion

Whatever SAT supporters would have us conclude about Article XI, we cannot infer from Article XI support for the secular America thesis. If SAT supporters want to shift gears and tailor their argument to the government and not the nation, that is a different matter.

But I have already offered some problems with using Article XI as reliable evidence to support that the U.S. government is “godless.” SAT supporters need to be more careful in their definition of religion and recognize that the founders found it compatible to promote belief in the Christian religion without promoting a program for its enforcement.

Notes

(1) George Mason, Virginia Declaration of Rights. 12 June 1776. Revolutionary War and Beyond website <http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/virginia-declaration-of-rights.html> (accessed 9 June 2009).

(2) George Washington, National Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. 3 October 1789. LeadershipUniversity website <http://www.leaderu.com/humanities/washington-thanksgiving.html> (accessed 9 June 2009).

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2009 William R Bowen Jr