We have had some local kibbitzing about our upcoming history lectures at Trinity Fest, and our so-called “revisionism.”
Critics of the thesis that America was an explicitly Christian nation in its establishment and founding often point to the first Treaty of Tripoli (1797), which concluded hostilities with the Barbary Pirates. In the course of that treaty, it is stated that as “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion . . .” This little gem has been seized upon by numerous modern secularists in order to show what they desperately want to show, which is that our nation has never acknowledged the lordship of Jesus Christ.
In order to refute this, all that is necessary are a few counterexamples. For example, the Treaty of Paris (1783), which concluded hostilities with Great Britain, is contracted in “the name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.” The same thing is done by the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland in 1822, in a treaty that begins in “the name of the Most Holy and Indivisible Trinity.” If the Treaty of Tripoli means everything that those who whoop for it are claiming, then apparently the United States came back from its “apostasy” by 1822.
But the Treaty of Tripoli need not be understood as an apostasy. The general Christian commitments of our early nation are unmistakable. This language from the treaty should best be understood as an attempt to communicate to Muslim pirates (who had no concept whatever of a separation of church and state) that the United States had no established church that would necessitate hostility to Muslims, which is what this clause in the treaty goes on to say. There is nothing in the character of the United States government that requires war on Muslims, on the basis of a “pretext arising from religious opinions.”
Even today this confusion about church and state is common. It is thought the America’s rejection of a federal church (which is as clear as it gets) is the same thing as a rejection of the truth of the Christian faith. But separating church and the federal state is not the same thing as separating the triune God and state, or particular churches and particular states, or Christian morality and state. This can work because our government is a federal system, not a national system. If the federal government adopts the bald eagle as the national bird, this creates no conflict with Maryland and the oriole. But if there were a federal church, there would have been immediate conflict with the established churches at the state level. And at the time the Constitution was adopted, nine of the thirteen states had different Christian churches as the official church of that particular state. To put it bluntly, at the founding, there was nothing whatever unconstitutional about an individual state establishing a particular faith as the faith of that state. It was not required, and Thomas Jefferson labored to get Virginia to disestablish the Anglican church. But if he had failed, and the Church of Virginia had remained, there would have been nothing whatever unconstitutional about it. I believe that Connecticut retained her established church well into the nineteenth century.
In considering all these things, we would do well to remember some particular words that George Washington delivered to the Delaware Chiefs on May 12, 1797: “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ.” And amen to that.