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.

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