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Tempest in a Treaty: Does the Treaty of Tripoli Support a Secular America?

Updated on December 18, 2017
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Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 26 years.

Was the United States a Christian Nation When They Fought the Muslim States?
Was the United States a Christian Nation When They Fought the Muslim States?


One of the great international challenges for early America was the constant plundering of American commercial ships by Muslim states, who were pirating American ships in the Mediterranean. Presidents Washington and Adams, following the policy of the British, paid out millions of dollars in ransom in order to see kidnapped Americans returned to American shores safely. After all, we were not a naval power, so we were vulnerable and the Muslim tyrants knew it.

In an effort to quell the attacks, the United States entered into a treaty with the Muslim state of Tripoli in 1797. In that treaty, the Treaty of Tripoli, Article XI of the treaty says that

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion...

Article XI is often used by some to support the thesis that America is not a Christian nation, which I will call the “Secular America Thesis” (SAT). They do this for good reason: Article XI is probably the best prima facie evidence that SAT supporters have for their claim. Given the large number of statements from history claiming that America is a Christian nation, is this one phrase from a single treaty enough to infer SAT as the more plausible thesis?

On the Surface.....

Let’s first consider how Article XI fares without any background knowledge. Here, I think is its greatest strength. The statement is straightforward: “The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” However, we don’t have to venture far beyond this statement to note that prima facie value is about all that this piece of information holds when it comes to supporting SAT.

A Nation or a Government?

First, Article XI refers to the “government” of the United States, not the “nation.” Nations are groups of people that are often bound together by a common religion, language, and historical experience. Governments, on the other hand, are those institutions of coercion, used by the nation for the purpose of upholding that nation’s laws. In America, we are a nation in possession of a government. So, if SAT supporters want to address the “Christian Nation” question, Article XI will not help them. It’s entirely possible that the nation is soundly Christian, yet its government is neutral toward religion. In fact, the prominent Christian viewpoint since the Great Awakening until this day has been that Christ extends the gift of eternal life to all that will receive it. This gift must be received and not forced upon others. Therefore, it is “Christian” not to impose the Christian religion upon others.

A common definition of "religion" used by the founding fathers was one used by George Mason of Virginia which said that religion is "the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it."
A common definition of "religion" used by the founding fathers was one used by George Mason of Virginia which said that religion is "the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it." | Source

The Founder's Narrow Definition of Religion

At this point, perhaps we can let SAT supporters shift gears and say, “OK, perhaps Article XI does not support SAT, but Article XI does show that the government is not Christian.” At this point it would be helpful to know what the makers of the treaty meant by the statement “Christian religion.” Words and phrases change meaning over time it goes without saying. This is certainly true of the word “religion.” Today, when we say “religion” we tend to use it for anything “churchy” or “pertaining to God.” Today, religion is sloppily used as a synonym for “faith” or “belief.” However, the Founders had a more precise meaning. George Mason, called the “Father of the Bill of Rights” used this definition in the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776:

Religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other...(1)

Common Definition. To my knowledge, this definition was the most common definition used by the founding fathers. A similar definition shows up in Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance (1785), Constitution ratifying convention debates in the states of Virginia and North Carolina, Justice Joseph Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution (1833), and the definition for “religion” used in Reynolds v. US (1878). In Davis v. Beason (1890) the Court adopted Mason’s definition as the definition of religion for the Constitution.

Mason’s definition provides for us a more precise interpretation of Article XI. To say that the United States government was not founded (or established) on the Christian religion is to say that the United States government would not be the source of imposing Christian religious duty and the means of doing so. For example, it is a Christian duty to worship God, but the government will not enforce the action of worship. So, it is possible that the government could embrace “Christianity” but not impose the “Christian religion.” Given the definition of religion above and Article XI, it would be reasonable to say the following

The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian system of determining what duties we owe our Creator and the manner of discharging those duties....

Comrade Lenin and President Washington. Apparently, it was acceptable for the government to suggest to Americans what man’s duties to God were and to suggest the means of discharging them without translating such statements into enforceable government policy. For example, in George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, he said,

the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor . . . and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions...(2)

This would be an odd statement for the representative of an atheistic government to make to a non Christian nation. Imagine Comrade Lenin making such a proclamation at a May Day parade! But more to the point of the definition of religion, if we are to harmonize the “Christian religion” statement in Article XI with the above proclamation, Washington found it completely appropriate to beseech the nation to uphold its duty to God with suggestions on how to carry out such a duty, but without imposing a national policy as to how to carry that out. In Washington’s mind it was completely appropriate to prescribe religious statements pertaining to duty to God, but stop short of imposing such prescriptions by force. If we take this understanding of Washington’s proclamation, it harmonizes with the second part of Mason’s statement pertaining to religion which says that the duties man owes the Creator and the means of discharging them “can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence."

George Washington said, "The duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor . . ."
George Washington said, "The duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor . . ." | Source

In Conclusion

So, whatever SAT supporters would have us conclude about Article XI, we cannot infer from Article XI support for the secular America thesis. If SAT supporters want to shift gears and tailor their argument to the government and not the nation, that is a different matter. But I have already offered some problems with using Article XI as reliable evidence to support that the United States government is “godless.” SAT supporters need to be more careful in their definition of religion and recognize that the founders found it compatible to promote belief in the Christian religion without promoting a program for its enforcement.


(1) George Mason, Virginia Declaration of Rights. 12 June 1776. Revolutionary War and Beyond website <> (accessed 9 June 2009).

(2) George Washington, National Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. 3 October 1789. LeadershipUniversity website <> (accessed 9 June 2009).

© 2009 William R Bowen Jr


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    • profile image 

      10 years ago from upstate, NY

      Lots of typo's on my last comment, here is the corrected version; " Excellent insight on the definition of religion and how it applies to the Christian nation debate. Context here is everything, you have to realize that the nations of Europe were waging a crusader type war with the Muslim nations for a thousand years, often imposing the Christian religion by the sword. It was vital for America to separate themselves from this type of government. But the peacetime actions and words of the founders provide overwhelming evidence that America is a Christian nation and that its government was designed for a Christian people and upheld by Christian principles.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Too bad, Pres. Obama quoted Barlow's Article 11 in his June 4, 2009 Cairo speech to justify calling the U.S. a nation of Muslims. Obama and other Western leaders are history ignoramuses when it comes to Islam, else they'd never permit mass Muslim immigration, the Ft. Hood Massacre proving that they are all ticking time bombs because their Quran commands them to destroy all govts. not submitting to Sharia and kill all who resist and to ignore all infidels and their constitutions. Don't be an Islam history ignoramus any longer, it's getting too dangerous. Learn the key facts of Islam's rise, spread and core beliefs fast accurate and free from the Historyscoper, just click the url and get started.

    • Bibowen profile imageAUTHOR

      William R Bowen Jr 

      11 years ago from New Bern, NC

      Yes, you are correct. My only point to make here was a modest one which is that the Treaty of Tripoli is worthless in advancing the secular nation thesis. However, as you read, any claims that the government is necessarily secular (which I guess means, white-washed of religion) must take into account reliigous proclamations such as Washington's in 1789, the use of government buildings for Sunday worship, etc. A better thesis that takes many more facts into account is that the acknowledgement of God by the government is not necessarily only a religious function, but also has a secular function as well. Thanks for reading.

    • profile image

      Captain Spaiulding 

      11 years ago

      Interesting, but I am not sure it takes you very far. Even the most rabid atheist doesn't normally contend that the Nation is secular. Polls consistently show that this is a majority Christian nation. The secularist argument, from what I can tell, is that the Government must be secular. That seems to be precisely what you conclude.

    • Bibowen profile imageAUTHOR

      William R Bowen Jr 

      11 years ago from New Bern, NC

      Joshua C.

      Although people interchange them in conversation there is a clear difference between a government and a nation. "America" is our nation; the "United States" is our government. America existed before the United States. You are correct; America is not Christian in the traditional sense that it is ruled by the church. A Lutheran view was that both church and state were under God. The king did not go through the priest and vice versa. But both church and state are under God. The state is not some sort of "secular zone" where God has been whitewashed from it.

      I am not suggesting a divorce between the people in their collective capacity (nation) and their government (this is in response to your question "can you separate a government of, for and by the people from the people."). But they are two different entities.

      Thanks for taking the time.

    • profile image

      Joshua C 

      11 years ago

      Insightful to separate the Government from the Nation. I believe this was the in tention founders when they set up a limited government, but can you separate a government of, for and by the people from the people. Surely this is where some of the confusion comes in. On the other hand America is not Christian in the traditional sense of the government being run by the Church.

    • Bibowen profile imageAUTHOR

      William R Bowen Jr 

      11 years ago from New Bern, NC


      You have obviously given this a lot of thought. In the article, I was not so much concerned about our modern understanding of what relgiion is as much as what the men who wrote the Treaty of Tripoli would have thought about its definition. What did they have in mind when they discussed the "Christian religion"? Thanks for taking the time.

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      11 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Would you say that the vatican is a nation rather than a government?It is called the nation of God !

      If so,then are all of the governments that are supported by that nation secular?

      Is the government of Ireland secular?

      Is the government of Islam secular?

      Is the government of any place secular that is supported by a nation?

      Are there any secular governments?Of course there are.But that wasn't and still isn't in some places where religion has replaced secular government.

      Some of the people who came to america were persecuted in their former homeland for their beliefs.That's why they came here for asylum.

      Like the puritans,jews,irish,muslims,sometimes because of their religious beliefs.

      The secular government of the states of the unitedstates are designed to tolerate all religions.However no matter what religion you belong to it's all the members of a government that together decide what rules or laws they are willing to live under in public.In effect people who live under self imposed religious rules and rules that are imposed by the majority under a civil government are living under two sets of rules or laws For instance the practice of not earting pork is a strict muslim rule or law ,or eating kosher as in traditional jewish religious law,as well as not eating meat on friday's as in the Catholic religion .These rules self imposed by their respective religious beliefs Their religion may have it's own rules,but they have no bearing on any other religion,unless those other religions all agreed to them already or if those laws were agreed upon by all the people in a civilian government vote by 75 percent such as is required in a contitutional amendment in the unitedstates although only two thirds is required for any non constitutional law civil law.

      All of the above is in agreement with your statements here.In fact I believe that the idea that certain secular rules or laws which ever word you prefer we are in agreement. A small percentage that may not have voted for such a law would be in disagreement with the majority However we could never probably be in 100 percent agreement about everything so to be practical an overiding majority is the best we can hope for as the founding fathers knew..

      Your statement about the definition of religion may be the same as some others here.

      but in my mind believing in one God by whatever name is not a religion.although some call it Gnostism, to me it is a personal opinion based on what I see in the world around me and the questions all human beings have had about existance since time began.Religion is a formalised extention of that belief in a God.Not simply a belief in God.A big diference.Otherwise we wouldn't have so many wars in the name of religion.As for atheists who don't believe in anything I can't fathom how they think? To me anyone who treats anyone else with any respect must have some personal belief even if just towards other human beings.Sad to say some only think of other people as just another animal to be used without any identification with some higher intelligence.

      The term "secular" simply means "civil" government seperate from religious or church doctrine

      If, those religious doctrines happen to coinside with civil law and it is the decision of the majority of civilians who practice different religion's in their private life and yet can agree with each other on certain practices in their pubic lives in common seperate from any other religious rules imposed by their formal religions then I don't see that action as against the constitutional provision to prevent the promotion of religion by the government.In the end though if all of them agreed on everything,which is not likely at least we would have some common beliefs that would make them respect each other more.

      Despite what the minority say,any laws passed by the overwhelming majority must stand if peace it to be maintained.

      So I agree with you."Religion" and "civil" government as setup in the unitedstates are seperate

      "Religion" is a personal belief system ,and "secular" civil government is a public system where more than one belief system can co-exist with each other as well as with those who have no belief system .It is my hope that the best of all belief systems can come together peacefully as in the example I gave above concerning our food.But I'm not holding my breath,for something like that to happen.Can you imagine the overwhelming majority voting for a law that says we can't eat meat one day of the week or that we must eat fish at least one day of the week as well as only eating kosher foods.The problem with eating only kosher foods is that is food that is only approved by a religious sect,and that would be against the constitutions admonition of not promoting any religion which I'm in agreement with."No law shall be made by congress promoting any religion" So ,is the passing of a law promoting the health of everyone a regligious law.? Can a law that promotes the health of every individual a religious law even if 100 percent of the people were from only one religion ,it could only be considered a secular constitutional law if at least 75 percent of the people voted for it. (through their elected representitives at least)As far as I know religions don't allow the people as a whole to vote for their religious representitives.I guess that is at least one big difference between secular and religious governments.Then again our elected representitives don't always vote for what the majority who put them there want either.That's why we have procedures allowing the people to recall their choice of representitive from congress.Although that doesn't happen much these days.Call it indifference if you want,but that's the way things are at this time in our history as a government.A personal or religious belief can collide with a law passed by the majority for the good of the public.But,many times our elected representitives are "persuaded " to vote against what the majority of the people who voted to put them in office for and the only remedy is to recall them from office.


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