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OPINION

How The Navy Reaffirmed America’s Christian Roots

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MC3 Kenneth Abbate

The American Left loves Joel Barlow. An obscure 18th century diplomat and poet, Barlow is celebrated by authoritarians and others for writing in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli that, "The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” 

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Barlow’s assertion flies in the face of history. For centuries, presidents, jurists, lawmakers and countless others in the political sphere have described America as a Christian nation with a Christian founding. 

These historical facts tend to enrage the Left so whenever they find anyone saying otherwise, like Barlow, they cling to it like a drowning man to a life preserver. 

Of course Barlow was wrong. So wrong, his false assertion was later diplomatically repudiated, and credit for correcting his error is owed in large part to the United States Navy and Marine Corps. How did all this happen? 

In the 18th century, America’s maritime commerce was plagued by the Barbary pirates of North Africa. Notorious for hundreds of years of violence and slave trading, the Barbary pirates aligned with the Muslim states of Algiers, Morocco, Tunis and Tripoli routinely raided American ships. They plundered their cargos and pressed American sailors into slavery or held them for ransom. 

The U.S. Navy was established in 1775, but was disbanded after the Revolutionary War so there was no way to keep the sea lanes open to American ships. Recognizing the threat posed by the Barbary pirates, and unable to confront them, President George Washington sought a treaty.

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As American consul to Algiers, it fell to Barlow to draft such a treaty. It was in Article 11 of this treaty that Barlow falsely declared that America was not founded on Christianity. 

Perhaps Barlow wrote that passage to assuage the fears of Muslims who were afraid of another crusade akin to those of medieval times. Perhaps it was a byproduct of Barlow’s involvement in the French Revolution and the anti-Christian sentiment that accompanied it. 

In any event, America’s back was against the wall. With limited resources and fewer options, the treaty was unanimously ratified by the Senate and signed by President John Adams in 1797.

Barlow’s mischaracterization of America’s founding did not escape criticism. Secretary of War James McHenry said the Senate, “ought never to have ratified the treaty alluded to, with the declaration that 'the government of the United States, is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.' What else is it founded on?”

Unfortunately, Barlow’s treaty didn’t hold. Within a few years, the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on America when President Thomas Jefferson refused the pasha’s demand for more tribute. So in 1801, the Barbary pirates were making trouble again. 

But this time was different. While George Washington was seeking peace with the Barbary states, he also made plans to establish a navy. The Naval Act of 1794 began the process of building America’s first regular fleet and by 1801, the United States Navy had been reborn and was ready to fight.

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The American Navy ultimately defeated the pasha and executed the successful amphibious landing of Marines on the shores of Tripoli. The military action resulted in the 1805 Treaty of Tripoli, ending the First Barbary War. 

American Leftists want to forget this second Treaty of Tripoli and don’t want you to know about it. Unlike Washington, Jefferson was negotiating from a position of strength and something remarkable happened. In rewriting the treaty, the denial of America being a Christian nation was excised. 

Removing a provision from a treaty is a big deal. Diplomats understand that to excise a treaty provision is to repudiate it. That is what the new treaty did. It did not declare America to be a Christian nation but it didn’t need to; the refusal to perpetuate Barlow’s falsehood was sufficient. 

The Treaty of Tripoli provides a civic parallel to the denial of Jesus by his disciple Peter. All four Gospels include accounts of how Peter, after the arrest of Jesus, denied knowing Him three times. Peter’s denials were foretold by Jesus and the Gospel of Mark notes that, upon realizing his mistake in denying Christ, Peter “broke down and wept.”

Fear can make us do wrong things. Peter feared for his life after Jesus was taken into custody, and it’s not unreasonable to presume his survival instinct prompted his denials.  Similarly, fear of the Barbary pirates compelled a young America to sign a treaty denying our Christian founding. 

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Thanks to the courage of the newly reconstituted Navy and Marine Corps, Jefferson was able to demonstrate the spine needed to stare down the Barbary states and repudiate the earlier denial of our Christian roots in the process. 

Jefferson deserves credit for correcting Barlow’s error but it could not have happened without the mettle of America’s sailors and Marines. It was their blood that made it possible, and that is worth remembering. 

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