Sunday, September 19, 2010

Maybe not a Christian nation

I think I'd heard a reference to this passage before, but didn't have a reference to it until I read the enlightening article "Notes on the Founding Fathers and the Separation of Church and State," courtesy of the Quartz Hill School of Theology. Now, I'm not going to claim sufficient knowledge of things religious to know whether this is a well-reasoned article or not, but the reference to the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tripoli seems valid enough. Said treaty states, in Article XI (translated from Arabic):

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 Musselmen,-and as the said States 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.

This treaty was initially signed on 4 November 1796 and later ratified by the U.S. government on 10 June 1797.

Why should we care about this seemingly insignificant document? Well, Article XI would certainly seem to put the lie to the assertion by various conservative commentators, including the singularly uninformed but relentlessly glib Sarah Palin, that the United States was "founded as a Christian nation" and that the Founders intended the nation to be Christian. The treaty, after all, was signed during the presidency of one Founder (George Washington) and ratified during the presidency of another (John Adams). The very inclusion of Article XI in a treaty that otherwise focused on maritime issues suggests that both sides were anxious to avoid Crusade-like hostilities arising from religious fervor. And while the phrase "is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion" in a speech could be passed off as overcompensating hyperbole, a treaty is a legal document; the phrase thus carries tremendous significance as an expression of policy and intention.

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