I continue to be grateful to Dean Obeidallah for his persistence in the matter of America’s Christian heritage. His latest objection is common and has to do with the 1797 Treaty between the new American federation and the Muslim nations of North Africa which were pirating U.S. merchant ships.
Here is the text which Dean thinks is problematic, from Article XI of said treaty:
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 tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan 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.
So a plain reading of this text might be understood to buttress Dean’s case but a closer look would seem otherwise. To wit,
- The text of the article is correct – the “government of the United States of America” – that is the “Federal” government – was not founded on the Christian religion, as per the First Amendment to the Constitution. But the Federal government is only a container for the participating states which were decidedly Christian and this phrase does not mean that the social or political framework was not founded on Christian principles.
- The treaty was negotiated from weakness by the United States. Without a large navy from which to despatch sufficient power to police the Straits of Gibraltar and western Mediterranean the Americans had little choice but to capitulate – in the short term.
- Article XI is absent any of the Arabic copies of the treaty. So the copies of the treaties that were in the hands of the non-Christian parties to it did not have this section. (It is fair to point out, as Dean’s side of the debate will, that the article was in the version ratified by the Senate. True enough but that only serves to amplify the mystery.
- Article XI was negotiated out of the treaty after only 8 years. The Americans decision fight the Muslims resulted in a stronger position vis-à-vis the original. So the problem for Dean’s position here is that if America was indeed not a Christian nation in 1797 it must have become one by 1805 when this article was removed. Not likely the country changed its core – and changed it back again – so whimsically.
- During this same time period, the Congress of the United States approved the printing of a “recommended Bible” (1781-82); in 1783, John Hancock declared a “religiously observed…Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer” for Massachusetts; and emigres to Maryland had to swear his “belief in the Christian religion” as required by statute.
In sum, the 1797 Treaty with the Barbary pirates seemingly contains language problematic to the assertion of America’s Christian underpinning. But a closer reading of it in context and an understanding of the continuing Christian operations of the country as a whole requires a reading different than that a total dismissal of America’s Christian foundation. And the continuing public expression of Christian devotion after the enactment of this treaty shows that America was then and remains a Christian nation.
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