There is another interesting document in American history, which has brought great controversy to the debate over the Christian roots of our nation, the 1796 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tripoli.
Following the Revolutionary War, America’s next war was with Tripoli of Barbary, otherwise known today as Libya. Tripolian vessels would often attack American merchant ships engaged in trade on the high seas. In an effort to retrieve American citizens taken captive by the Tripolians, the U.S. entered into a series of negotiations and treaties—even making what amounted to ransom payments to get them back! This often quoted treaty, ratified by the U.S. Senate stated:
“As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…”
When opponents argue against the Christian history of American government, this quote often stops here. They simply quote enough to make the point that a Senate-ratified treaty openly denied America was founded upon Christianity. But, the actual article (XI) continues well beyond where Christian history’s opponents leave off:
“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 (I.E., Muslims), and the said states have never 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 Treaty of Tripoli did not deny a belief in Christianity, or a utilization of Christian principles in the formation of American governments (it is apparent that the states did use such principles). It simply stated that religious differences between states, and not nations, were not a sufficient cause for military conflicts. In this manner, the treaty protected the integrity of the federal government without speaking about the principles upon which the states governments were derived. It should also be noted that in the subsequent treaty of 1805, which superseded the treaty of 1796, much of the language of Article XI (from 1796) remained the same, yet the sentence about America not being “founded on the Christian religion” was completely removed in Article XIV (of 1805).
The Faiths of the Fathers
While the Founders of the first American states recognized the importance of religious principles in all affairs of consequence, what individual Founders actually believed about Jesus Christ and the Bible has been the subject of protracted debate. Some hold that many of the Founding Fathers were Born Again Christians. Others contend that a good number of them were deists—believing in a supreme being, but not believing in the deity of Jesus Christ. This subject has been eloquently addressed in many previous Christian history texts. However, though relevant, whether or not the Founding Fathers were Born Again Christians, is not the central point to understanding the truth or falsehood of the current separation doctrine. What is of primary importance is understanding what influenced them. This is not to say that many of the Founding Fathers were not Christians—their own writings and speeches incline us to the position that they were. But, if we say that America has a Christian foundation, do we mean it was founded by Christians, or do we mean that America was influenced in culture and government by Christian principles?
Let us entertain for a moment the contrary view to history and assume the Founders were all deists. If this is the case, why the oaths requiring belief in the Old and New Testaments; or the required affirmation of biblical principles? Could these state constitutions have been ratified without a majority?
By way of a biblical example, the first Jewish nation was not founded by sole believers in one God. Israel was first founded as a people group, and then organized into a political nation in the desert under Moses and the Law. God gave the Law. Moses and his party were believers but many of the people, while committed to Godly principles, were not believers. Forty years in the wilderness and the testimony of the idols they carried with them offers proof. (Ezekiel 20:5-17, Amos 5:25-26.)
Neither were all Americans believers, or the representatives they elected. Two of the most famous Founders were not Christians—Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Yet, both men praised Christianity as having the ability to stop crime before it starts, and change the face of the world.
Benjamin Franklin was not a Christian, yet when the 18th century evangelist George Whitefield held crusades across America, Franklin supported him with finances and a place to stay. Whitefield repeatedly tried to get Franklin to become a Christian, but to no avail. Franklin himself, profiled his own attempts at attaining moral perfection in his autobiography. His long attempt, though approached quite logically, failed miserably. Writing about his moral character, he decided he should be satisfied with a “speckled axe,” instead of a shiny one.
The Bible was without a doubt the most important influence for the Founders and the whole of American culture. When revolutionary writer, Thomas Paine, wrote his classic, Common Sense, he included an extensive Bible study on political power and its abuses. Even Paine, a true deist, understood that to motivate the general population, biblical proofs should be provided. Paine also wrote, Age of Reason, arguing against a straightforward interpretation of the Bible. His later work repudiating biblical truths so angered Americans that they vilified him. But, even Paine was not immune to the truths of Christianity he saw lived out in the American people. He knew that to successfully make his case for revolution, he needed to appeal to the conscience of Americans, which was biblically derived.
Unlike Paine, George Washington embraced Christianity, even at the close of the War for Independence. His resignation from war–time service, and official exchange with President Mifflin of Congress reads more like a religious admonition by a retiring pastor or priest than an army general:
“I consider it an indispensable duty to close the last solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them to his holy keeping.”
President Mifflin of the Congress then concluded the preceding:
“We join you in commending the interests of our dearest country to Almighty God, beseeching Him to dispose the hearts and mind of its citizens to improve the opportunity affording them of becoming a happy and respectable nation. And for you, we address to Him our earnest prayers, that a life so beloved may be fostered in His care; and that you may be as happy as they have been illustrious; and that He will finally give you the reward which this world cannot give.”
Even if it were true that the Founders were not Christians, their open support in public documents for biblical influences in public policy brings the modern notion of separation to a crashing defeat.
Tomorrow: Personal Behavior