Treaty of Tripoli: America Not “Founded on the Christian Religion”

For a number of years I have debated atheists who claim that America was established as a secular nation based on an excerpted line from the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli and that religion was regulated to the private world of thought and church attendance. If you believe atheists, every founding member of America going back to 1607 was a budding Richard Dawkins wannabe, an atheist born out of time.

The facts of history do not support the atheists’ claim as I’ve pointed out in several books and dozens of articles. As far as I’ve been able to find, there were no atheists among the founders. This isn’t to say that all the founders were Christians. They weren’t. But atheists don’t believe in God at any level. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were not atheists.

The new atheist monument that will be debuted and dedicated on June 29th is replete with historical citations that the American Atheists claim support their view of the atheist founding of America, otherwise, why would they put them on an atheist monument?

One of the citations is from the 1797 “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli of Barbary” that was signed by President John Adams and members of the Senate. Article 11 of the treaty reads as follows:Tripoli_Article 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 law, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims],—and as the said States [of America] never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan 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 atheist monument only quotes a portion of Article 11: “the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

As noted in the full citation above, there is a line that follows and qualifies the segment that the atheist monument cites: “as it has in itself no character of enmity against the law, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims].”

Atheists never ask why, given the context of the article and historical situation of the time, why put such a specific statement regarding the Christian religion in a treaty with a Muslim nation? Why is this treaty the only one that includes the phrase?

Like today, there was a poorly conceived diplomatic reason for the inclusion of the “Christian religion” line that did not work, as the 1805 treaty shows (see below).Barbary Pirates

The Treaty of Tripoli is nothing more than a pronouncement “that ‘the Christian religion’ as a formal institution was not a part of the American government in the same way that the religious structures of Islam are a part of Islamic governments.”1

According to Frank Lambert, Professor of History at Purdue University, the assurances found in Article 11 were “intended to allay the fears of the Muslim state by insisting that religion would not govern how the treaty was interpreted and enforced. John Adams and the Senate made clear that the pact was between two sovereign states, not between two religious powers.”2 This is an important point missed by atheists (on purpose?). Islam merged mosque and State. In the United States, there is a jurisdictional separation between church and State and a constitutional provision that the national government cannot establish a national religion.

Even the late anti-theist Christopher Hitchens made the following point: “secularists like myself who like to cite this treaty must concede that its conciliatory language was part of America’s attempt to come to terms with Barbary demands.”3

In drafting the treaty, the United States had to assure the Dey (ruler) of Tripoli that in its struggle with the pirates “it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,” that “the said states never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan [Muslim] nation” due to religious considerations. These are the qualifying statements in the treaty that explain why the phrase “founded on the Christian religion” was used.

A survey of the state constitutions, charters, national pronouncements, and official declarations of the thirteen state governments would have convinced any representative from Muslim Tripoli that America was a Christian nation by law.

For example, Article XXXII of North Carolina’s Constitution:

“No person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.”

The American consul in Algiers, Joel Barlow, had to construct a treaty that would assure the Dey of Tripoli that troops would not be used to impose Christianity on a Muslim people.Tripoli-Exocutions

It is important to note that the 1805 treaty with Tripoli, drafted during Thomas Jefferson’s administration, differs from the 1797 Treaty in that the phrase “as the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” is conspicuously absent. Article 14 of the new treaty corresponds to Article 11 of the first treaty. It reads in part: “[T]he government of the United States of America has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen.”4

Atheists rarely if ever mention the 1805 treaty. I wonder why?

  1. Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1989), 9. []
  2. Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 11, also 239-241. []
  3. Christopher Hitchens, “Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates,” City Journal (April 20, 2007). []
  4. William M. Malloy, Treaties, Conventions, International Acts, Protocols and Agreements between the United States of America and Other Powers, 1776–1909, 4 vols. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), 2:1791. []