Happy Treaty of Tripoli Day!

kitty_wigThe Treaty of Tripoli was negotiated while George Washington was president; eventually ratified by the U.S. Senate on June 7th, 1797; and then signed by President John Adams on June 10th, 1797. Although this treaty is no longer in effect today, Article 11 provides some significant insight into the infancy of the United States as a nation.

Art. 11. 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.

This ratification by the Senate was recorded as one of the few unanimous votes be the Senate (339 votes taken). Additionally the entire treaty was printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and two New York newspapers. There is no evidence of any government or public opposition to the terms of the treaty.

This isn't like some of the 100-plus-page bills that go to the Senate today, where they might sneak this paragraph in somewhere. The Treaty of Tripoli is a single page.

In my opinion this is a clear indication of what our founding fathers, the government, and the public in-general thought. To maintain "freedom of religion" the government must remain "free from religion."

We recently saw President Obama reference the Treaty of Tripoli; and many people gasped that a modern-day politician had even heard of it. Unfortunately he skipped over that first sentence in Article 11, but did point out that "the Government of the United States of America…has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of [Muslims]."

There are a few separation of church and state advocates urging people to update their Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, or other social-site status to remind everyone of today's anniversary.

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Since we are on this topic, I'd like to briefly hit on some of the arguments I've heard as to why people think the U.S. was established as a Christian nation. Neece had a Separation of Church and State post awhile back, and illustrates a nice example of how it benefits everyone (both religious and non-religious). I want to focus on some of the individual arguments though.

The laws of the U.S. are based on the ten commandments.

How many of the commandments do we have equivalent laws for? So many religious people argue this case without thinking about it long enough to realize. Of the biblical ten commandments, only TWO are laws: 20%. Thou shall not kill and Thou shall not steal. Some people argue a third, Thou shall not bear false witness because of perjury laws; but outside of a courtroom you can lie without legal repercussions so you can’t really count it.
Say you work at a company that says they have based their entire employee policy from a management book that the president of the company once read. Then you go through the employee policy handbook and compare it to the original management book. You find that only about 20% of the message from the original book actually made it into the policy handbook. Yet the handbook has a multitude of additional policies never covered in the original book. Would you personally conclude that the handbook was based on the original? Or would you conclude ideas might have been taken from the original, but they just as likely came from another source?

What about the fact that "don't kill" and "don't steal" are the two most basic universal laws in every society; even those that have never been exposed to the Bible, and especially those who predated the Bible.

The founding fathers referred to "God" in the Constitution.

This one is great because it illustrates that they don't know the difference between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence has "God" appear once, and "Creator" appear once; but neither appear in the Constitution.
...to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them...

...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...

Neither of these refer to Jesus, and neither specify the judeo-christian god Yahweh; in fact this is very similar to the language used by deists of the time (which leads to our next claim).

The founding fathers were all Christian.

There were many founding fathers who were Christian, but there were many who were agnostic or deists; some would probably be considered atheist by today's standards (or with today's scientific knowledge). More importantly the majority agreed in opposing the idea of christianity or any religion being allowed in government.

Thomas Jefferson was an openly admitted deist. He believed in a generic 'Creator' that created the world, and then left man to his own devices; he did not believe in the judeo-christian god and openly stated that the church had twisted religion for its own gain.

George Washington, although being a practicing Christian, is speculated by many to have been a deist; he repeatedly avoids using 'God' or 'Jesus' in speech and text, instead only referencing the 'Creator.'

Benjamin Franklin was also a deist who thought the church had it wrong and was corrupt besides; and often expressed philosophies that would be considered atheist by today’s standards.

The Presidential Oath of Office has the president swear on the Bible "So help me God."

Neither the Bible nor the phrase "So help me God" are required parts of the oath of office. For early presidents it was common place to say a prayer after completing the oath; although others might have said it, Chester A. Arthur is the first president officially on record having ended his oath with "I will, so help me God." Another interesting tid-bit here is that since it is not part of the oath, it is technically illegal for the Chief Justice to say it; the president has the option, but the Chief Justice shouldn’t prompt it. Something else of interest with the most recent oath, since the Chief Justice botched it so badly at the inauguration it was considered possibly invalid; so President Obama retook the oath the morning of the 21st, and did it without a Bible.

The founding fathers created "In God We Trust" as a national motto and put it on money. Besides that they put "under God" in the Pledge.

I really love this one too, because so few people realize how "young" these are. Any reference to God was not placed on money for the specific reason that it could be seen as the government backing a form of religion. "In God We Trust" did not appear on money until 1864. After the Civil War is was a popular sentiment for church leaders to point to the nation moving away from God as the reason for the war. This lead to many appeals written to the government; among these were direct appeals to the Secretary of the Treasury stating that the US currency should display that the US is a "god fearing" country. So on April 22, 1864, Congress passed an Act (that over turned several other Acts, and ultimately went against the Constitution), directing that "In God We Trust" be stamped on two-cent coins. In March of 1865 they passed an Act allowing all coins to be minted with the motto.

The Pledge of Allegiance was not even written until 1892, and "under God" was not added until 1954. "In God We Trust" was not made the official motto until 1956.

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So what other arguments have you heard?


  1. Great post, Johnny. It's great to see all the arguments laid out in one place... and effectively refuted. If only it would "sink in" for some people. :-)

  2. Excellent post. I'm always amazed how many revisionists try to claim we're a "Christian Nation", and how many others regurgitate their propaganda without ever checking facts.

  3. Ooo! Good stuff! Though I know the Declaration was done well before the Constitution and had nothing to do with our laws, it never really struck me that it makes a perfect argument against fundie nonsensical claims. Thanks for that!

  4. This is excellent and so thorough!
    I can add one thing. The Declaration of Independence was also written to the British king to make a case for our independence from them. Since the king held his position by the power of god's will, it makes sense that the DI would also use a small reference to divine power as a way out, our basic rights given us by the creator, whoever or whatever that might be.

    But yes, it's not a founding document. That's really well said.

    Thanks so much for doing this, Johnny. :)

  5. John Adams took his oath for office on a Law book! Though he was religious, he was quite sensible in some respects.

  6. An excellent tid-bit!

    I'd postulate that many of those men, even the religious ones, were fairly sensible when it came to separation of church and state type things. Many had seen religious oppression by 'government' firsthand; and those who had not had the stories of their fathers and grandfathers. They did not want a repeat in the country they were establishing.