It's a question that strikes fear in the secular progressive. It sends shivers down the spine of a skeptic. It rattles the cage of cultural combatants. And it prompts flat-out anger in the hearts of religious antagonists: Is America a Christian nation?
Did our country's Founders build a nation upon the bedrock of Christian beliefs and practices? Or was their republic irreligious or a secular state, embedded within a dominantly deistic worldview?
For those who find our country's Christian origins both implausible and untenable, the greatest alleged witness and support they cite is Amendment XI in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, in which we find the words "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."
But do those words prove what they so plainly are quoted to proclaim? One of the errors of the Barbary States was that they considered America a Christian nation in the lineage of its European predecessors. The way they understood Christianity was through the lens of the crusades, so they perceived any Christian country as a militant threat to their existence. In that context, there was simply no way that America was going to align itself with European Christian countries.
So prevalent was this warlike view of Christianity that, in his April 8, 1805, journal entry, even Gen. William Eaton said of Muslim radicals, "We find it almost impossible to inspire these wild bigots with confidence in us or to persuade them that, being Christians, we can be otherwise than enemies to (Muslims). We have a difficult undertaking!"
Amendment XI in the Treaty of Tripoli is not a simple historical declaration of national non-Christian origins or denial of America's religious roots, but a diplomatic negotiation intended to free U.S. sailors and ships and to avert further international attacks and warfare on the very young and war-torn United States.
Why is it antagonists cite complex wartime negotiations and yet avoid the explicit words of our Founders during times of peace?
John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, appointed by George Washington, wrote to Jedidiah Morse Feb.
28, 1797 (the same year the Treaty of Tripoli was ratified), "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers. And it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of a Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
John Adams, America's second president and the same one who signed and sent the Treaty of Tripoli to the Senate, just one year later delivered these words in a military address: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."