Editor’s Note: Church & State is pleased to reprint an excerpt from Randall Balmer’s new book Solemn Reverence: The Separation of Church and State in American Life (T2P Books).
Balmer, who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University, is a prize-winning historian. He is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and is the author of more than a dozen books, including Evangelicalism in America (2016), Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (2014) and Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America (2007). His second book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (1989), was made into a PBS series. His op-eds have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers. Balmer was ordained an Episcopal priest in 2006.
Solemn Reverence is available at bookstores and online sellers. Copyright 2021 by Randall Balmer. Reprinted with permission from T2P Books.
At the first meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, John Adams recalled many years later, a motion to open the gathering with prayer “was opposed because we were so divided in religious sentiments – some were Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists – so that we could not join in the same act of worship.” Samuel Adams, John Adams’s cousin and a firebrand from Boston, finally rose and broke the deadlock. Pronouncing himself “no bigot,” he allowed that he “could hear a prayer from any gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.”
A local Church of England priest was summoned, and, dressed in the ecclesiastical vestments that had so scandalized the Puritans a century earlier, he “read the prayers in the established forms,” according to John Adams, and then the thirty-fifth Psalm. “Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me,” Jacob Duché, the priest, intoned, “fight against them that fight against me.” Having just received the news that the British had unleashed an attack in Boston the previous day, the delegates found those words especially comforting, “as if heaven had ordained that psalm to be read on that morning.” After reading the Psalm, Duché launched into an extemporaneous prayer, which, according to Adams, “filled the bosom of every man present.” The delegates took notice. “I must confess I never heard a better prayer,” Adams wrote, “or one so well pronounced.”
John Adams had considered entering the ministry before opting to study law. Educated at Harvard, he served in the Continental Congress, as ambassador to Britain, and as Washington’s vice president before his election as president in 1796. He served a single term, losing the 1800 election to Thomas Jefferson.
Though reared a Congregationalist, Adams became a Unitarian. He did not believe in the Trinity – the Christian doctrine, defined in the Nicene Creed, that God exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“My religion you know is not exactly conformable to that of the greatest part of the Christian World,” Adams acknowledged in a letter to his wife, Abigail, in 1799. “It excludes superstition. But with all the superstition that attends it, I think the Christian the best that is or has been.”
Adams understood the value of religion. “I have attended public worship in all countries and with all sects and believe them all much better than no religion,” he wrote to Benjamin Rush, “though I have not thought myself obliged to believe all I heard.” The second president’s most candid remarks about faith appeared in a letter to his son, John Quincy Adams, in 1816, long after the elder Adams had left office. “An incarnate God ! ! ! An eternal, self-existent, omnipresent omniscient Author of this stupendous Universe, suffering on a Cross! ! ! My Soul starts with horror, at the Idea, and it has stupified [sic] the Christian World. It has been the Source of almost all the Corruptions of Christianity.”
Perhaps Adams’s most enduring contribution to the conversation about church and state in the United States is the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated during the Washington administration but ratified during Adams’s presidency.
In the final decade of the eighteenth century, the United States, a fledgling nation, had no navy to protect its merchant ships; Britain had protected American maritime interests before the Revolutionary War, and France had done so during the Revolution. As a consequence, American merchant ships were vulnerable to privateering (state-sanctioned piracy); several vessels had been captured in the Mediterranean for ransom by the Barbary States: Algiers, Tunis, Morocco, and Tripoli. Their cargoes were confiscated, and crew members, especially Christians, were taken captive. Contemporary accounts suggest that Tunis alone harbored twelve thousand Christian slaves.
In 1796, the final full year of George Washington’s presidency, the United States, through the agency of David Humphreys, negotiated the Treaty of Tripoli in an attempt to shield American merchant ships. The treaty was signed in Tripoli on November 4, 1796, and again at Algiers on January 3, 1797. Article 11 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 laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims], – and as the said States 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 Treaty of Tripoli was read aloud in the US Senate, and copies were provided for every senator. President John Adams added his endorsement:
Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed, and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.
The Senate ratified the Treaty of Tripoli unanimously, without debate, on June 7, 1797.
The language of Article 11 is pretty clear – “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” – so anyone arguing that the United States is a Christian nation would need to explain away both Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli as well as the Senate’s unanimous ratification of the treaty. Clearly, those who constituted the government in the early years of the new nation – the executive and legislative branches – had no quarrel with the statement that the United States was not founded on Christianity.
The rebuttals of the Christian nation crowd are tortured, but they seem to rely on quoting the entirety of Article 11 (reproduced above in its entirety), not merely the opening phrase: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion . . .” Fair enough. Context is always important. It’s not clear to me, however, how the full article in any way changes the plain meaning of the phrase. The treaty makes the case that the United States has no “enmity” against Islam or Muslims. The treaty does not assert that the United States is a Christian nation; it states the opposite: “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
The second argument from the Christian nationalists centers on the renewal of tensions between the United States and the Barbary States – in part because Thomas Jefferson, as president, refused to continue payments to the Barbary States. The new American navy transported marines overseas to quell tensions – the event memorialized in the first line of the famous song “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” A new treaty was eventually negotiated in 1805. Though similar to the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, the new treaty did not replicate Article 11, likely because Jefferson believed that the First Amendment had already settled – in the negative – the matter of the nation’s supposed Christian origins.
The discrepancy between the two treaties, the Christian nationalists argue, is somehow significant. The 1805 treaty, they suggest, somehow mitigates, or even negates, the language of the Treaty of Tripoli that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
The principle of Occam’s razor might be invoked here. The fourteenth-century scholastic philosopher William of Occam (sometimes spelled Ockham) insisted on the precedence of simplicity, that “plurality should not be posited without necessity”; that is, of two competing theories, the simpler explanation should be preferred. In this case: “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
If the Christian nationalists reject Occam’s razor, they still must confront Common Sense Realism, a philosophy that evangelicals of the nineteenth century adopted to help them interpret the Bible. Imported from Scotland, Common Sense Realism posits that the most obvious, “common sense” reading of a text is the correct one. Once again: “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”