Saturday, June 05, 2010

Is the United States a Christian Nation?

Conservatives who hold to the original intent school of constitutional interpretation often also share a belief that the U.S. was founded on Christian principles. The Washington Post today has a story on a traveling seminar organized by Earl Taylor, who teaches that "the Founding Fathers have answers to nearly every problem we have in America today."
Taylor is a grandfatherly figure with glasses and a plume of gray hair. His session here had the feel of a church Bible study. He spoke of the Founders as divinely guided secular saints and said a return to the principles they wrote in 1787 is the only change the nation needs. "The Founders were on a divine mission or manifest destiny," Taylor told his class. "The Founders had answers."
While doing some research for yesterday's post on the separation of church and state, I came across the Wikipedia article on the Treaty of Tripoli, which was signed in 1796 and ratified by the Senate in 1797. Article 11 of the treaty includes this assertion that will prove problematic to those who question the principle of separation of church and state:
Art. 11. 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.
The Treaty of Tripoli was negotiated while George Washington was president. It was signed by President John Adams. As Vice President, Thomas Jefferson presided over the Senate at the time it was unanimously ratified.

Here we see a problem for those who hold to the original intent school of constitutional interpretation while also pronouncing the belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation. Washington, Adams and Jefferson were of course intimately familiar with the founding of the United States, and could have objected to Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli. But they didn't, and as a result we have an explicit statement ratified ten years after the adoption of the Constitution that "the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..."

All this is not to say that our Founders were not devout. I have no trouble imagining Washington praying at Valley Forge. If I had been there, I would have prayed too. But the Treaty of Tripoli clearly shows that they did not translate their personal piety into government policy.

On the question of whether the U.S. was founded on Christian principles, the Founders have the answer. It's just not the answer many conservatives were looking for.

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