Role of faith in the early republic

A Liberal Dose


“The United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

That’s what I closed with last week. It is a quote from the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli (today the capitol of Libya). That’s where the line in the Marine Hymn comes from, “to the shores of Tripoli.” That treaty was initiated by George Washington, signed by his successor as president John Adams, and passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate. I also referenced the “wall of separation between church and state,” a quote from Thomas Jefferson. After some discussion of the Founding Fathers and Christianity, I said this time I would explain what all this means.

It’s not that hard. When George Washington or Thomas Jefferson spoke about their own personal beliefs or opinions about God, the Bible, or Christianity, they were NOT stating that the Christian religion was or should be enshrined in law, or even in tradition, as the basis of the new government they were establishing - a government founded on principles of freedom, including freedom of religion. You cannot have a government framed in freedom of religion if that government officially promotes, enshrines, or prioritizes one religion over others. And that’s exactly how I, and many, many others, still look at it: as an individual, I am a Christian, but that does not mean I want my government to force everyone else to be Christian or to punish them if they are not.

Jefferson considered “The Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” which he wrote when he was governor of Virginia, in 1779, to be one of his proudest achievements. In that bill, he wrote that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,” and that any attempt to prevent a citizen from holding office or voting “unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously” of his “natural rights.” In 1782, he said, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.” In the same 1802 letter where he praised the Constitution for its “wall of separation between church and state,” he said that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.”

Let’s look at that treaty more closely. Tripoli was on “the Barbary Coast” of North Africa and base for many independent pirates who were long tolerated, and even supported, by the Muslim government of that city-state. In fact, many of the pirates were actually privateers, financed by Tripoli. The treaty was an agreement between the U.S. and Tripoli that American shipping would be protected in the Mediterranean (which did not last long, but that is another story). The crux of the U.S. language was that this was NOT a case of a “Christian country” and a “Muslim country” who were naturally at odds because of religion, which is what the government of Tripoli was used to dealing with in relations with western powers. Here is the whole text, from article 11:

“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 (Muslims); and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan (Mohammedan) 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.”

In other words: we are a secular nation, and don’t care what your religion is. It’s not an issue.

Next time we’ll talk about what all this means today and in reference to Christian Nationalism.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here