This topic came up today in my Early American Republic course. We are reading Frank Lambert’s Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World, a very accessible treatment of United States diplomacy with Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli. Lambert wrote this book because he was bothered by the way post-9/11 commentators were referencing the Barbary Wars as an example of a time U.S. history when we were engaged in a religious war against Muslim terrorists. In his opinion, the Barbary Wars were not holy wars. In fact, he argues, religion played very little role in the U.S. negotiations with these Muslim states.
American officials steered clear of any language that would suggest that their country’s quarrel with Barbary had anything to do with religion. In fact, wishing to avoid any cultural conflicts that might jeopardize the commercial agreements they so eagerly sought, they went to some lengths to convince the Barbary States that this was not a religious war…While Barbary draftsmen included in the treaties such boilerplate phrases as “in the name of Allah,” U.S. negotiators made no reference to God or religion. Indeed, in its Tripoli Treaty of 1797, the United States explicitly declared that it was not a Christian state. (pp. 117-118).
In a 1797 treaty with Tripoli, in fact, the United States specifically pronounced that it was not a Christian nation, so that religion would not present a barrier in American-North African relations. On a popular level, however, many Americans seemed to have viewed the contest with the North Africans as a spiritual battle.
In the end, I think historians should be careful about placing too much emphasis on the Treaty of Tripoli when arguing against the Christian America crowd. Indeed, the treaty does affirm that America is not a Christian nation, but this is merely a reference to the fact that unlike England or France the U.S. Constitution forbids an establishment of religion. (Notice that Joel Barlow, the author of the Treaty, wrote “the Government of the United States” is not founded on the Christian religion). This distinction, it seems, was enough to convince the Barbary States that the U.S. was not turning this into a religious war. Some Christian America advocates, such as David Barton, would agree with me here, but would go further to say, in classic federalist fashion, that it was the states and their religious establishments and religious tests for office, and not the “godless” new national government established under the Constitution, where one must look for the Christian nation the founders supposedly created.
Lambert’s book raises some interesting questions for us to ponder. Perhaps another post is in order. Stay tuned.