Recently “Dean” posted a comment on this blog claiming the United States is not a Christian nation, and citing as evidence an alleged clause from the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli stating that “…the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,– as it has in itself no character of enmity against the law, religion or tranquility of Musselmen.” I’ve seen the Treaty of Tripoli cited a lot recently in church-state discussions, so an explanation is appropriate.
As a preliminary, let us assume, just for the sake of argument, that the clause is a genuine article of the Treaty. If so, it says nothing beyond what is already stated in the First Amendment—that there is no official church or established religion at the federal level in the United States. It does not say the American government is divorced from God, that Biblical values are not the basis of American law, or that American Christians have no place in the public arena. The Treaty was ratified by the Senate unanimously and with no recorded debate because it says nothing with which any American Christian in 1796 would disagree or with which I would disagree today. Does anyone seriously believe I want Barack Obama to be head of the church?
James Patrick Holding correctly observes that the so-called Article 11 does not say America is in no sense founded on the Christian religion; it says the government of the United States of America is in no sense founded on the Christian religion. The nation is not the same as the government. The nation was founded with the Declaration of Independence in 1776; the government was founded with the Constitution in 1787-89. Saying the government is not founded on the Christian religion is much different from saying the nation’s social/political network was not founded with Christian principles in mind.
But having said that, let me add that it is very doubtful that this language was ever part of the original Treaty. I make the following observations:
1. The clause does not appear in the Arabic version of the Treaty; it was inserted into the English translation. Please note the following entry from Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949, XI:1070:
“Most extraordinary (and wholly unexplained) is the fact that Article 11 of the Barlow translation with its famous phrase, ‘the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,’ does not exist at all. There is no Article 11. The Arabic text which is between Articles 10 and 12 is in form a letter crude and flamboyant and withal quite unimportant, from the Dey of Algiers to the Pasha of Tripoli. How that script came to be written and to be regarded, as in the Barlow translation, as Article 11 of the treaty as there written, is a mystery and seemingly must remain so. Nothing in the diplomatic correspondence of the time throws any light whatever on the point.”
A likely explanation is that the Dey of Algiers wrote this note on the Treaty to mollify concerns of the Pasha of Tripoli about entering into a Treaty with an “infidel” (non-Islamic) nation like the United States. The translator assumed this was part of the Treaty and translated it along with the rest of the document. Very likely the clauses of the original document were not numbered, so the translator numbered this Clause 11 between Clauses 10 and 12.
2. Translations of Treaties and other documents can differ greatly. Consider Barlow’s translation of Article 12:
“In case of any dispute arising from a violation of any of the articles of this treaty no appeal shall be made to arms, nor shall war be declared on any pretext whatever. But if the Counsel residing at the place where the dispute shall happen shall not be able to settle the same, an amicable reference shall be made to the mutual friend of the parties, the Dey of Algiers, the parties hereby engaging to abide by his decision. And he by virtue of his signature to this treaty engages for himself and successors to declare the justice of the case according to the true interpretation of the treaty, and to use all the means in his power to enforce the observation of the same.”
However, in 1930 Dr. C. Snouck Hurgronje of Leiden prepared a more literal translation (http://avalon NULL.law NULL.yale NULL.edu/18th_century/bar1796e NULL.asp) of Article 12:
“Praise be to God [Allah]! Declaration of the twelfth article. If there arises a disturbance between us both sides, and it becomes a serious dispute, and the American Consul is not able to make clear (settle) his affair, and (then) the affair shall remain suspended between them both, between the Pasha of Tripoli, may God strengthen him, in the well-protected Algiers, has taken cognizance of the matter. We shall accept whatever decision he enjoins on us, and we shall agree with this condition and his seal (i.e., the decision sealed by him); may God make it all permanent love and a good conclusion between us in the beginning and the end, by His grace and favor, amen!”
The differences between the two translations are obvious.
3. Joel Barlow, an American diplomat, was a key figure in negotiating the Treaty, and some credit him with the translation. Barlow had been a chaplain under General Washington during the War for Independence, but many believe that after the War he left Christian orthodoxy and became either a deist or an atheist. Some have speculated that Barlow’s religious unorthodoxy may have influenced his translation of the Treaty. However, it is uncertain whether Barlow translated the Treaty; some claim he did not know Arabic.
4. Those who believe the Treaty of Tripoli establishes the secular character of America argue that it doesn’t matter what the Arabic version of the Treaty says; it was the English version (Barlow translation) that was read and approved by the Senate. I believe it does matter. A treaty is a contract between two (or more) nations, and essential feature of any contract is an agreement on terms, commonly called a “meeting of minds.” If A contracts to sell his house to B, and A’s version of the contract lists a selling price of $200,000 while B’s version lists the selling price as $100,000, there obviously is no meeting of minds and therefore there is no valid contract. If the difference is over an essential element, this lack of a meeting of minds results in the invalidation of the contract; if the difference is over a non-essential element, then maybe only that provision of the contract would be invalid. At the very least, there was no meeting of minds between the United States and Tripoli concerning the alleged Article 11; therefore, at the very least, that article is invalid.
5. Piracy continued despite the Treaty, resulting in war with Tripoli in 1801. The Jefferson Administration negotiated and adopted a new treaty with Tripoli on April 17, 1806. The 1806 treaty does not include the so-called Article 11 of the old Treaty or any language remotely similar thereto.
All things considered, it is very unlikely that the so-called Article 11 is genuine, and even if it is genuine, it is a very frail reed on which to base an argument that America was not founded on Christian principles.
Finally, those who use the Treaty of Tripoli to prove that America is not a Christian nation, usually ignore the Treaty of Paris of 1783 (http://www NULL.ourdocuments NULL.gov/doc NULL.php?flash=false&doc=6&page=transcript). The Treaty of Paris, negotiated by Ben Franklin and John Adams among others, is truly a foundational document for the United States, because by this Treaty England recognized American independence. And there is no question about the validity or the wording of the Treaty of Paris. It begins with the words: “In the Name of the most holy and undivided Trinity… .”