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.

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