“The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Advocates of church-state separation will happily agree with the statement above. It states what they clearly recognize to be the case, that the United States is not a Christian nation in a legal-institutional sense. Its government and political institutions are not philosophically-doctrinally dependent upon the Christian religion in any direct or primary sense of dependence.
Advocates of Christian America dismiss the statement above as “historical revisionism” of the Founding Fathers’ intent to create a “Christian nation” in the legal-institutional sense of “nation.” They appeal to selected statements by the founders, most often misinterpreted or taken out of historical and textual contexts, to argue that the unique principles of the Christian religion constitute the direct and primary foundation of the national government that originated in the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
In fact, the leading statement above is taken from an official government action and document, the Treaty of Tripoli, which was ratified unanimously by the United States Senate in 1797. The treaty was negotiated with Muslim Barbary states in order to protect American ships subject to piracy. Article 11 sought to eliminate any religious root for conflict with the Muslim states.
The complete statement of Article 11 is:
“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 (emphasis added).”
Notice that it is not “in any sense” the case that the United States of America is founded on the Christian religion. Advocates of Christian America ignore these plain words and attempt to water down the denial. They argue that a distinction is merely being drawn between the United States and Christian nations of Europe, with their political establishments of Christianity and their historical conflicts with Muslim states.
But the statement does not merely deny that the government is founded upon the Christian religion in an “establishment sense” of founding. Rather, the government is not founded upon Christianity in any sense—including broader senses such as the philosophical-ideological sense of “founding” advocated by the Religious Right advocates of “Christian America.”
For those who might argue that Article 11 is incidental to the purpose of the treaty, and that one cannot take the ratification of the treaty as an endorsement of its denial that the United States is founded upon the Christian religion, John Adams’ signing statement is instructive:
“Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, every clause and article thereof (emphasis added).”
There is some question regarding the origin of Article 11, as to whether it was part of the original, negotiated treaty. Some scholars argue it was added later, perhaps by the translator of the treaty, Joel Barlow. Nevertheless, Article 11 was included in the treaty text as ratified by the Senate on June 7, 1797, and as signed by John Adams on June 10, 1797. The Treaty of Tripoli was subsequently published to inform the American public.
If the founders and their political contemporaries saw themselves as a “Christian nation” in a legal-institutional sense, it is politically and religiously incomprehensible that the Senate would have endorsed such a statement. That they did endorse this “separationist” statement evidences that they did not consider themselves to be a Christian “nation” in the legal-institutional sense.
The Treaty of Tripoli is of great significance for understanding the founders’ intention and understanding of the national government’s independence from religion.
Mark Weldon Whitten is professor of philosophy at Lone Star College-Montgomery in The Woodlands, Texas. He is the author of The Myth of Christian America: What You Need to Know About the Separation of Church and State (Smyth & Helwys, 1999).