A single line in the first Treaty of Tripoli (ratified June 10, 1797) is often cited as incontrovertible evidence that our founders self-consciously denied any attachment to the Christian religion, and that there is a radical separation between religion and civil government. This conclusion is based upon Article 11 of the treaty that states, in part, that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”[1]

In order to understand this statement, it must be read in its historical context, including what we know of Islam in the late eighteenth century. The 1797 treaty is the only treaty that includes the phrase “the Christian religion.” There must be a reason for this when there are other treaties that assume Christianity as the foundation of the nation. It is obvious by reading the original treaty that Tripoli considered America to be a Christian nation.

The treaty constantly contrasts “Christian nations” and “Tripoli,” a Muslim stronghold that served as a base of operations for Barbary pirates. The Barbary pirates habitually preyed on ships from “Christian nations,” enslaving “Christian” seamen. “Barbary was Christendom’s Gulag Archipelago.”

In Joseph Wheelan’s well researched and highly readable book on America’s first war on terror with radical Muslims, we learn that Thomas “Jefferson’s war pitted a modern republic with a free-trade, entrepreneurial creed against a medieval autocracy whose credo was piracy and terror. It matched an ostensibly Christian nation against an avowed Islamic one that professed to despise Christians.”[2] Wheelan’s historical assessment of the time is on target. “Except for its Native American population and a small percentage of Jews, the United States was solidly Christian, while the North African regencies were just as solidly Muslim—openly hostile toward Christians.”[3]

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In drafting the 1797 treaty, the United States had to assure the Dey (ruler) of Tripoli that in its struggle with the pirates, to use the language of the treaty, “it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,” that “the said states never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan [Muslim] nation” due to religious considerations.

A survey of our nation’s state constitutions, charters, national pronouncements, and official declarations of the thirteen state governments would convince any representative from Tripoli that America was a Christian nation. The American consul in Algiers, Joel Barlow, had to construct a treaty that would assure the Dey of Tripoli that troops would not be used to impose Christianity on a Muslim people.

Little has changed in more than 200 years of our nation’s dealings with radical Islam. We are fighting similar battles today. The fight for Fallujah is an extension of what our infant nation had to contend with soon after the United States organized itself as a nation. For more information on the Treaty of Tripoli, see America’s Christian History: The Untold Story.


[1] William M. Malloy, Treaties, Conventions, International Acts, Protocols and Agreements between the United States of America and Other Powers, 1776-1909, 4 vols. (New York: Greenwood Press, [1910] 1968), 2:1786. [2] Joseph Wheelan, Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801-1805 (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003), xxiii.
[3] Wheelan, Jefferson’s War, 7.