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Atheist Monument Counts on Low Information Historians

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The atheist monument that’s going to be dedicated by a group of American Atheists in Florida on June 29th has a number of citations engraved on it. In addition to Thomas Jefferson Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair, there is a excerpted line from the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli.

For a number of years I have debated atheists who claim that America was established as a secular nation and that religion was regulated to the private world of thought and church attendance. If you believe their story, every founding member of America going make to 1607 was a budding Richard Dawkins wannabe, an atheist born out of time.

The facts of history do not support the atheists’ claim as I’ve pointed out in several books and dozens of articles. As far as I’ve been able to find, there were no atheists among the founders. This isn’t to say that all the founders were Christians. They weren’t. America’s later constitutional foundation was laid by a “mixed multitude” of ideologies like what was brought out of Egypt during the Exodus (Ex. 12:38).

Atheists have a hard historical case to make since they don’t believe in God at any level. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were not atheists. If the American Atheists could have found atheist founders to cite they would have done it.

The 1797 “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli of Barbary” was signed by President John Adams and two-thirds of the members of the Senate. Article 11 of the treaty reads as follows:

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 law, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims],—and as the said States [of America] 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.”

The atheist monument only quotes a portion of Article 11: “the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

As noted in the full citation above, there is a line that follows and qualifies the segment that the atheist monument cites: “as it has in itself no character of enmity against the law, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims].” Notice the comma and dash that follows “the Christian religion.”

Atheists never ask why, given the context of the article and historical situation of the time, why many Christians at that time agreed to sign a treaty that denied to everything they believed to be true. Why is this treaty, made with a Muslim nation at war with America, the only one that includes the phrase?

Like today, there was a poorly conceived diplomatic reason for the inclusion of the “Christian religion” line that did not work, as the 1805 treaty shows (see below).

The Treaty with Tripoli is nothing more than a pronouncement “that ‘the Christian religion’ as a formal institution was not a part of the American government in the same way that the religious structures of Islam are a part of Islamic governments.” [1]

According to Frank Lambert, Professor of History at Purdue University, the assurances found in Article 11 were “intended to allay the fears of the Muslim state by insisting that religion would not govern how the treaty was interpreted and enforced. John Adams and the Senate made clear that the pact was between two sovereign states, not between two religious powers.” [2] This is an important point missed by atheists (on purpose?). Islam merged mosque and State. In the United States, there is a jurisdictional separation between church and State.

Even the late anti-theist Christopher Hitchens got it right: “secularists like myself who like to cite this treaty must concede that its conciliatory language was part of America’s attempt to come to terms with Barbary demands.” [3]

In drafting the treaty, the United States had to assure the Dey (ruler) of Tripoli that in its struggle with the pirates “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. These are the qualifying statements in the treaty that explain why the phrase “founded on the Christian religion” was used.

A survey of the state constitutions, charters, national pronouncements, and official declarations of the thirteen state governments would have convinced any representative from Muslim Tripoli that America was a Christian nation by law. In a number of states it was.

For example, Article XXXII of North Carolina’s Constitution at the time read:

“No person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.”

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.

Our government has attempted a similar compromise with the same result. It didn’t make any difference in 1797, and it’s not making any difference today. Crosses have been taken off tents and Bibles have been restricted from being distributed by troops among Muslims so as not to “offend.”

“[In 2009] the U.S. military is confirming that it has destroyed some Bibles belonging to an American soldier serving in Afghanistan.

“Reuters News says the Bibles were confiscated and destroyed after Qatar-based Al Jazeer television showed soldiers at a Bible class on a base with a stack of Bibles translated into the local Pashto and Dari languages. The U.S. military forbids its members on active duty — including those based in places like Afghanistan — from trying to convert people to another religion.

“Reuters quotes Maj. Jennifer Willis at the Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, who said ‘I can now confirm that the Bibles shown on Al Jazeera’s clip were, in fact, collected by the chaplains and later destroyed. They were never distributed.’

“According to the military officials, the Bibles were sent through private mail to an evangelical Christian soldier by his church back home. Reuters says the soldier brought them to the Bible study class where they were filmed.

“The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told a Pentagon briefing Monday that the military’s position is that it will never ‘push any specific religion.’” [4]

Notice that last line “it will never ‘push any specific religion.’” It’s the same intent of the 1797 treaty that did not work and required another treaty.

It is important to note that the 1805 treaty with Tripoli, drafted during Thomas Jefferson’s administration, differs from the 1797 Treaty in that the phrase “as the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” is conspicuously absent. Article 14 of the new treaty corresponds to Article 11 of the first treaty. It reads in part: “[T]he government of the United States of America has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen.” [5]

Atheists rarely if ever mention the 1805 treaty. I wonder why?

  1. Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1989), 9.[]
  2. Sam Magnussen, “History Was Quoted Out of Context,” The Reflector,” (March 13, 2013).[]
  3. Christopher Hitchens, “Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates,” City Journal (April 20, 2007).[]
  4. Fred Jackson, “U.S. military destroys soldier’s Bibles,” OneNewsNow (May 5, 2009).[]
  5. 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, 1968), 2:1791.[]
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