we were NOT founded as a christian nation: thoughts on article 11 of the u.s. treaty with tripoli

The U.S. Treaty of Tripoli

With Libya continuing to be in the news, I was reminded this morning of one of the earliest treaties the United States ever signed with another nation. (See complete list here.) It is the Treaty of Tripoli, signed with Ottoman Tripolitania in Tripoli on November 4, 1796, unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate on June 7, 1797, and signed into law by President John Adams on June 10, 1797.

While the treaty is a typical diplomatic agreement with a Mediterranean state, Article 11 of the treaty has attracted much attention as a corrective to those like Glenn Beck, who believe that the “Founding Fathers” founded the United States as a “Christian nation.”

Article 11 of our first treaty explains rather precisely what the founding fathers intended, how the Senate interpreted it, and by signing it into law, how the President applied it:

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.

The point of the United States was to deliberately found a new nation that was not founded upon a single religion, but one that tolerates all beliefs, including the choice not to believe in any religion. The entire point was not to have a particular religion (the Church of England at first) dictating law in the country. Our founding documents, while acknowledging and appealing to a higher power deity (akin to simple Deism), took great strides to avoid founding this secular nation on a particular religious foundation. Rather, it was intended to be tolerant of all faiths and beliefs. Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli made this crystal clear.

excellent article on glenn beck’s call to a generic american civil religion

American Civil Religion

American Civil Religion

Robert Parham, Executive Director of  EthicsDaily.com and of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has written an excellent analysis of Glenn Beck’s recent MLK Day substitute, “Restoring Honor,” in the “On Faith” blog of the Washington Post entitled “Glenn Beck’s Generic God.” It is well worth the read.

Beck’s rally was little more than an attempt to cast himself as the new leader of an American civil religion (similar to how Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan used the 1995 400,000 Million Man March to cast himself as the new leader of the U.S. civil rights movement). Blending nationalistic themes with a piecemeal selection of biblical passages and “American Scripture” (i.e., passages from famous U.S. founding documents and speeches given by U.S. politicians), Beck attempted to craft together an American civil religion that equates belief in God with belief in country – specifically, belief in political conservatism.

The problem with American civil religion is that it reduces faith to a particular brand of nationalism, which is precisely the opposite of the message preached by Jesus and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. By ignoring passages about social justice and community and highlighting appeals to individual liberties, Deuteronomistic theology, the Exodus, and conquest narratives, Beck attempted to weave together a generic, nationalistic religion that he hopes will appeal to the lowest common denominator of both faith and politics – personal ‘salvation’ via individual liberties – and overlook the more pervasive themes of social justice, equality, and community – which all people of faith are called to do! We are called to live together in community together as one body, not as rugged individuals.

I have no problem with the regular “God bless America” at the end of political speeches, but I suffer a well-concealed apoplexy every time I witness a church worship service that integrates state-related functionaries and activities. I’m all for having religious individuals in the U.S. government, but preying on religion to push a political agenda, or worse yet, blending nationalism and religion to create a diluted religio-political amalgam that equates proper faith with American patriotism betrays both faith and the founding principles of the nation.

It is highly ironic that Glenn Beck, a conservative who regularly appeals to the U.S. Constitution and the writings of the Founding Fathers to make his appeals, had to blend church and state together to make his point. Beck’s political goal is simple: to cast anyone who dares oppose his conservative viewpoint not only as unpatriotic, but as unfaithful.

Parham’s conclusion hits the nail on the head:

No amount of Bible reading, sermons masquerading as prayers and Christian hymns can cover up Beck’s civil religion that slides back and forth between the Bible and nationalism, between authentic faith and patriotic religion.

He treats the “American scripture” – such as the Gettysburg Address – as if it bears the same revelatory weight as Christian Scripture.

What is important to Beck is belief in God – God generically – not a specific understanding of God revealed in the biblical witness, but God who appears in nature and from which one draws universal truths.

Not surprisingly, Beck only uses the Bible to point toward the idea of a God-generic. He does not listen to the God of the Bible who calls for the practice of social justice, the pursuit of peacemaking, the protection of the poor in the formation of community. Beck has little room for God’s warning about national idolatry and rejection of fabricated religion.

For Beck, God-generic is a unifying theme and religion is a unifying force for what appears to be his revivalist agenda for Americanism – blended nationalism and individualism.

%d bloggers like this: