Tuesday, April 7, 2009

America's Religious Neutrality



The United States has fought wars against many enemies. But it has never fought a religious war or declared itself the adversary to any creed.


So Barack Obama returned from Turkey yesterday, declaring that the U.S. “is not and never will be at war with Islam.” He was careful to separate the practice of Islam from terrorism, which he called “a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject.”


Obama’s words are reminiscent of an earlier president’s, when our nation was engaged in another “war on terror.” In the eighteenth century, the newly founded country was in conflict with the Barbary pirates---maritime kidnappers and privateers operating out of Tunis, Algeria and Morocco who seized ships, took hostages, and held them for ransom or sold them into slavery.


They were an earlier equivalent of Al Qaeda. Two American ships were captured in 1785 and their crewmen held for $60,000. Rumors that Benjamin Franklin, who was en route to France about that time, had also been captured, were especially alarming. Something had to be done.


To neutralize the threat, the United States negotiated the Treaty of Tripoli, more formally called the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary. The pact was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by John Adams in 1797.


And just as Obama has been keen to make it clear that we have no quarrel with Islam (reminding Turkish listeners that his own father was Muslim and that he lived in Muslim-majority Indonesia as a child), the Treat of Tripoli was careful to stipulate that—officially speaking--Americans observed strict neutrality in matters of religion.

Article Eleven of the Treaty of Tripoli states that, “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 tranquillity, 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.”


The text of the ratified treaty was printed in New York papers and the Philadelphia Gazette, without any evidence of public opposition or dissent.


Though it has been said many times over our history---from an almost forgotten Treaty whose origins lie in George Washington’s administration to the words of our 47th President, Barack Obama—it bears repeating: our is not a Christian nation. And to a spiritually pluralistic world, we say, let us be friends, not foes.

12 comments:

Pinky said...

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I wonder if any of the ideologues will respond.
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I was happy to read an opinion on this matter.
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bpabbott said...

I'd like to see more posts try to merge the events of the present and the founding into a common context.

Nice job!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, some folks try to use the Treaty of Tripoli as a conversation-ender. But one must view it in historical context, that "Christian nations" were called to make war against Islam and start crusades. This was the Muslim understanding of the "clash of civilizations."

In the actual story of the Barbary Pirates, Adams and Jefferson [as it turned out] met with the ambassador from Tripoli, who declared that Islam [the "Musselmen"] had the right to do whatever they wanted by natural right, as Islam was the only true religion.

The language of the treaty had this understanding expressly in mind. So there's a lot more to it than the Treaty of Tripoli or what President Obama asserted. For instance, in Brad Hart's previous essay about the latest Pew survey on religion, 62% of Americans view us as a Christian nation. President Obama doesn't speak for all of us, or even a majority, apparently.

And of course, as we all know, William Howard Taft---a Unitarian! and later president---called America a "Christian nation" in the early 20th century.

Y'know, Phil, you have bad radar as to is an "ideologue." An ideologue is apparently someone who doesn't agree with you. I expect the above facts to have their usual affect on you, none, and your snark to continue.

However, those interested in the actual truth might discuss it. No, the Treaty of Tripoli isn't a trump card, and conversation is not ended, at least for 62% of Americans.

And William Howard Taft.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And Ben, it's been my experience in the blogosphere that once contemporary issues are introduced, all intelligent discussion goes out the window. I've even seen it on blogs devoted to ancient Greek philosophy.

The problem is that once contemporary issues stick their nose under the tent, the same old partisan crap and grenade-throwing starts. Facts and argument become unimportant because---and this is according to Plato some 2500 years ago---politics is the realm of opinion, and Lord knows everybody's got an opinion. And feels entitled to state it, the louder the better.

JOE TODD said...

What is a spiritually pluralistic world and do we really have that??

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think he meant "diverse." Pluralism is more an American innovation, not to be confused with secularism or the French laïcité.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La%C3%AFcit%C3%A9

Kristo Miettinen said...

But Tom,

Current events are the reason we debate history to begin with, right? He who controls the past controls the future, and all that.

The treaty of Tripoli is the kind of obscure detail, like Jefferson's "Lord Christ" signature, that doesn't fit into any pattern and therefore cannot really be given weight. The ideas and perspectives that define our nation are the threads woven through our fabric, not the ones that pass through in one place only.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hey Phil,

Do I count as an ideologue?

Just asking. No offense will be taken to an affirmative answer, but I'll then ask for you to dilate on the criteria....

-Kristo.

Pinky said...

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I'm not positive about who is an ideologue.
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As for you, it appears to me you have an axe to grind; but, that you do a pretty good job of grinding it. Does that make you an ideologue?
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It seems like Tom is more the ideologue. He always seems to be barking up certain trees that conflict with his apparent ideology.
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I could be wrong.
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Maybe we all are in one respect or another.
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Not having any personal ideas about reality can make a person quite dull.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Phil, my objective is to present good, clean and clear evidence that is not in "common knowledge." I don't tell anyone what they should think.

Kristo, we do our theoretical discussions and studies of the Founding for the same reason. We hope that our readers will make their own intelligent conclusions. I admit this may be a false hope, but it's the principled way to proceed.

All I know is that to mention George W. Bush in any intelligent discussion was to end it, as the swords and shields came out and all sense went out the window. I assume the same would be true of President Obama. I'd prefer not to test my theory, as this blog has been an refuge from the savageries of the internet and I'd prefer that the barbarians stay far away from our gates.

I prefer dullness to bloodshed, but mebbe that's just me.

Pinky said...

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Tom says, "... my objective is to present good, clean and clear evidence that is not in "common knowledge." I don't tell anyone what they should think.
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"All I know is that to mention George W. Bush in any intelligent discussion was to end it, as the swords and shields came out and all sense went out the window.
"
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I call that social pressure.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

I call it shouting down the other side. Regardless, I'd prefer we give President Obama and partisan politics a wide berth, just to be on the safe side.