Religion in society: A Christian nation, or nation of Christians?

Religion in society: A Christian nation, or nation of Christians? June 8, 2005

There are many in our country today who believe America to be a “Christian nation,” one based upon Judeo-Christian values. Personally, I have no problem with this. Judeo-Christian values are my values, as they are based on the worship of the One God of Abraham and the teaching of His Prophets throughout history. Yet, are we really a Christian nation, one founded upon the principles of Christianity?

It is true that the overwhelming majority of people in our country are Christians. Yet, does that make us a “Christian nation” or simply a nation of Christians? The question, I believe, is an important one, with many implications. Still, how can we, in the 21st Century, know for sure that our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) intended for this to be a “Christian nation”? They are, after all, very dead and have been so for a very long time. There is no way we can ask them directly and settle this dispute once and for all, unfortunately.

Or, is there? A little known treaty signed in 1797 between the nascent United States and the Barbary States of Tripoli may shed some light on this issue. Article 11 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 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.” (emphasis added)

That’s very interesting. According to this treaty, which was approved by the Senate on June 7, 1797 and officially ratified three days later, the government of the United States “is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” To me, this contradicts the notion made by some of our fellow Americans that this country was intended to be a “Christian nation.” I believe this argument is further bolstered by the fact that the language of the treaty was endorsed by President John Adams, one of our Founding Fathers. Moreover, the preliminary treaty was signed on November 4, 1796, at the end of George Washington’s last term as President. Furthermore, the entire treaty was read in the Senate, and there is no record of any Senator raising even a single objection to the wording of Article 11. Also, the treaty was published in the Philadelphia Gazette on June 17, 1797, and there is no record of any member of the public raising an objection to Article 11.

Indeed, the Treaty of Tripoli has generated a spirited debate between “Christian nation” advocates and opponents. Some who believe our Founding Fathers established America as a “Christian nation” claim that Article 11 never existed, citing the research of Dutch scholar Dr. Snouk Hurgronje, who located the only surviving Arabic translation of the Treaty which did not have the famous Article 11 found in the English translation. Yet, the English version of the Treaty is what was accepted by the U.S. as the law of the land, and it clearly contains the “no Christian nation” clause found in Article 11.

So, what does all this mean? Am I objecting to the notion of America being a “Christian nation,” especially because I am Muslim? No, not at all. Like I said before, I have absolutely no problem with this being a nation based upon Judeo-Christian values, because those values are my values. Yet – as I said before – if we are truly a Christian nation, as many contend, then this comes with a number of obligations and implications.

A Christian nation always stands on the side of justice, no matter what the political ramifications. A Christian nation must always act in accordance with the principle that right makes might, as opposed to the other way around. A Christian nation must always oppose those who commit injustice, even if it be its own friends and allies. A Christian nation must always have compassion for the poor and less fortunate, especially those living within its own borders. A Christian nation can never say one thing and do another. Now, I believe a Muslim nation is bound by the same obligations, but I am not a citizen of a Muslim nation, but rather a majority-Christian one.

Too many times, however, our country has hardly acted like a Christian nation. The most recent example of such failure is the invasion of Iraq, a war which the late Pope John Paul II himself said failed to meet the criteria of a Christian just war. Talk is cheap. If this country is truly a “Christian nation” – as many are wont to claim – if we are to talk the talk, then we have to simultaneously walk the walk. Otherwise, all America will ever be is just a nation of Christians. We can do much better than that.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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