If most Americans were given this question most would get it wrong. Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that the nation’s founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation and 55% believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation, according to the “State of the First Amendment 2007” national survey released Sept. 11, 2007 by the First Amendment Center.
I’ve written about this subject before, but recent comments by the McCain spiritual advisor- Reverend Rod Parsley- has made the subject important to raise once again.
Mr. McCain himself has said “I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, personally, I prefer someone who has a grounding in my faith,” and has also said I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”
It seems that Mr. McCain- must have missed his classes on the United States Consitution when he was at the Naval Academy- an institution where he graduated 3rd to the bottom of his class. You can read more in depth about the United States being a Christian nation in my article of October 2007- John McCain has gone off the deep end- One too many visits to Liberty University!
But it is Reverend Parsley’s words that I mean to address in this piece. Rod Parsley is John McCain’s self-described spiritual guide and the leader of World Harvest Church, a 12,000 member megachurch in Columbus, Ohio. In 2005, Rod Parsley sketched his views about America’s intention in the world and Islam in a book called “Silent No More.”
“I cannot tell you how important it is that we understand the true nature of Islam, that we see it for what it really is. In fact, I will tell you this: I do not believe our country can truly fulfill its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam.
I know that this statement sounds extreme, but I do not shrink from its implications.
The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed, and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore.”
Mr. Parsley needs a history lesson. I’ll bring us back to the Constitution shortly, but first I would like to address an early treaty that was authored by Joel Barlow adopted by the United States Senate and approved by President John Adams in 1797.
The pirates of the Barbary coast in general and of Tripoli (in what is now called Libya) in particular were destroying U.S. shipping and holding as prisoners U.S. seamen in the 1790s. It was a serious problem and a series of negotiators were sent to try to put together an agreement to improve it.
On 4 November 1796, near the end of George Washington’s second term, a treaty with the “Bey and People of Tripoli” was signed, promising cash and other considerations to Tripoli in exchange for peace. Leading the negotiations for the U.S. at that point was Joel Barlow, a diplomat and poet (he wanted very much to be remembered as America’s epic poet). Barlow was a friend of Thomas Jefferson and of Thomas Paine (Paine hurriedly entrusted the manuscript of the first part of the Age of Reason to Barlow when Paine was suddenly arrested by the radicals of the French revolution).
“The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of the Barbary Coast” directly refutes Reverend Parsley’s assertion.
Article 11 of the Treaty states: “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 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.
Barlow who authored the treaty was very likely by 1796 a deist, though he had served earlier as a military chaplain. There is considerable dispute about whether the Arabic version of the treaty read and signed by the representatives of Tripoli even had the famous words included (they are not present, as was discovered in about 1930, in the surviving Arabic version). No one knows why.
The treaty remained in effect for only four years, replaced, after more war with Tripoli, with another treaty that does not have the famous words included.
“If” the major claim of separationists regarding the treaty were a legal one, these facts might be fatal. But no one claims that the treaty was the basis for our government being non-Christian–it is the godless Constitution, which calls on no higher power than “We the People,” that is the necessary and sufficient legal basis. What the treaty does is to powerfully reaffirm what the Constitution and First Amendment intended.
Was there controversy in the Senate when the treaty was ratified, or did the language even appear in the version ratified? Or was it buried deep within a long, complicated treaty where perhaps it wasn’t even noticed? Did the public even know the treaty was passed or what it contained, and what was the reaction? Was it possible for the public to know who voted for it, and what price did those supporting it pay?
There are some answers in the official Journal of the Senate. The President (by then John Adams) sent the treaty to the Senate in late May 1797. It was, according to the official record, read aloud (the whole treaty was only a page or two long), including the famous words, on the floor of the senate and copies were printed for every Senator. (It should be noted that the controversy about the Arabic version is irrelevant here: all official treaty collections from 1797 on contain the English version, and all include the famous words of Article XI.) A committee considered the treaty and recommended ratification. Twenty-three Senators voted to ratify: Bingham, Bloodworth, Blount, Bradford, Brown, Cocke, Foster, Goodhue, Hillhouse, Howard, Langdon, Latimer, Laurance, Livermore, Martin, Paine (no, not Thomas Paine), Read, Rutherford, Sedgwick, Stockton, Tattnall, Tichenor, and Tracy. We should ask ourselves whether we should not consider these 23 (and President Adams) great free thought heroes.
In a very public way, they voted to say that “As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion, . . .” the Muslims of Tripoli therefore need not fear a religious war from the U.S. The vote was recorded only because at least a fifth of the Senators present voted to require a recorded vote. This was the 339th time that a recorded vote was required. It was only the third time that a vote was recorded when the vote was unanimous! The next time was to honor George Washington. There is no record of any debate or dissension on the treaty.
President Adams signed the treaty and proclaimed it to the nation on 10 June 1797. His statement on it was a bit unusual: “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. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.”
What happened then? Did our heroes pay a heavy price? The treaty and Adams’ statement reprinted in full in three newspapers, two in Philadelphia and one in New York City and, in one case, held the actual newspaper (the Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser for Saturday, 17 June 1797) in my hands. There is no record of any public outcry or complaint in subsequent editions of the papers.
And what of our heroes? Well, none suffered any known negative consequences, and I’ve read biographies of each. One Senator, Theodore Sedgewick of Massachusetts, went on to become the Speaker of the House (imagine Newt Gingrich endorsing such a treaty! Henry Clay is the only other American in history to be first a Senator, then Speaker). Another, Isaac Tichenor, became Governor of Vermont, and then returned to the Senate for many years. Georgia’s Senator, Josiah Tattnall (Georgia’s other Senator was absent), did not return to the Senate, but he did serve thereafter as one of the youngest Governors in Georgia’s history, and has a county in Georgia and a number of streets, squares, etc., named after him. (His father was a Tory; his son by the same name was a famous officer in the Confederate Navy).
From our perspective these men may be heroes, but in truth the vote they cast was ordinary, routine, normal. It was, in other words, quite well accepted, only a few years after first the Constitution and then the First Amendment were ratified, that “the Government of the United States of America was not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” After a bloody and costly civil war and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment determined that citizens of the United States cannot have their rights abridged by state or local governments either, religious liberty for all was established. Governmental neutrality in matters of religion remains the enduring basis for that liberty.