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Richard Geldard Headshot

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

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The campaign for president in 2012 has once again raised the usually dormant issue of whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. The assertion that it was has been declared almost unanimously by the Religious Right, and now with candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich making similar statements and voters claiming that President Obama is not really a Christian, we are once again engaged in this controversy.

The Religious Right assumes that even though no positive statement from the founders saying that we are a Christian nation can be found among the founding documents, they just assume that the Christian faith is the founding faith. And since no specific negative statement was found either, that is until 200 years later in 1997, there the argument stood.

The wonderful irony of the resolution of the controversy is that it has a Muslim source.

During the 1790s pirates along the Barbary coast in North Africa were harassing and attacking American shipping in the Mediterranean. After some negotiations with Tripoli, a peace treaty was signed in 1796. The treaty is a short document, only a little more than 800 words, but Article 11 makes a clear statement about the issue of a Christian founding. It reads as follows:

Art. 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 tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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.

When President John Adams proclaimed the treaty to the nation, his declaration said in part:

Now be it known, that I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof.

Here is the negative statement that many have searched for in the writings of the founders, and, ironically, it appears in a treaty with a Muslim nation. The simple truth is that as a religion, Christianity is not in danger of being wiped out in America. There is no need, therefore, for its leaders to try and wrest control of the government in order to preserve its non-existent Christian source, or for that matter, to proclaim otherwise.

What could be clearer than "the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion?" Even the phrase "in any sense" was seen as necessary to assert forever the principle of religious neutrality.

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