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To the Shores of Tripoli

Friday, August 19th, 2011

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (I Peter 5:1-6) transports me to the shores of Tripoli, in the closing years of the 18th century, during an era when piracy was plaguing the American ships sailing the seas of North Africa. President George Washington named Joel Barlow, former chaplain to the Revolutionary Army, to be the chief diplomat to the Barbary States of Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli. Washington chose the route of diplomacy over outright war in an effort to secure the waters for safe passage. Work on a peace treaty lasted a couple of years, and by the time Barlow had concluded negotiations, he brought back a treaty for ratification to the administration of President John Adams. The President presented the treaty to the Senate, where it was read into the record, brought up for debate, and ratified unanimously. None of this would have had lasting impact were it not for the inclusion of Article 11 in the treaty, which reads, 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 [Muslims]; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] 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. It’s an astounding and clear declaration of religious liberty and the strict separation of church and state, and it received the consent of President Adams and all members of the Senate, including some signatories to the Constitution as well as future President Andrew Jackson.

Could it be that after centuries of religious wars in Europe, the newly formed nation in the new world was ready to try a new experiment in religious liberty? Could it be that Joel Barlow and John Adams and Andrew Jackson had been reading the first epistle of St. Peter, and took to heart his advice on humility among rulers? Could it be they were ready to apply his model of a more pastoral approach to leadership, instead of lording power over others? Many of the early advocates for a state-sanctioned church, with privileged power rising from its connections to government, believed that the church and state needed to combine forces and  lord their power over the people in order to generate virtue and establish order. They didn’t trust the Spirit to work its way among a free people; they believed God was at work creating yet another theocratic Christian nation, only this time the rulers would get it right. But the founding fathers apparently believed otherwise. America was not in any sense a Christian nation, the treaty stated. In humility, the founders called for liberty and an absence of hostilty toward all Islamic nations. That the Islamic nations did not share this belief in religious liberty did not hinder our founders from sticking to their experiment of true democracy in a pluralistic society, with room for all beliefs. As Joel Barlow once noted, this experiment did not diminish participation in the Christian faith; in fact it had the opposite effect, with churches flourishing under this experiment like nowhere else.

We are unfortunately living in yet another day and age where people are keen to lord it over others, and want to foster the notion of America as a Christian nation, fearful of and hostile toward the “Musselmen” and “Mahometan” nations. Today’s zealots would surely have accused that Senate of 1797 of fostering “Chrislam” and would have ridden John Adams out on a rail. Today’s evangelical voting block is targeted with all sorts of ploys to prove who is the most solidly “Christian” and who will lead the country “back” to its Christian foundations in an effort to lord it over the rest of the world. Where is St. Peter’s call for humility when you most need it? Where is Joel Barlow when you need him? It didn’t hurt that he was a poet by profession; we could use more poets and less lawyers among our political hopefuls. Barlow is most famous for his epic poem celebrating the humble fare of The Hasty Pudding. He wrote in his preface to the poem that he wished to rank simplicity of diet among the virtues. An advocate for religious liberty and a good pudding. Now there’s a diplomat after my own heart.

How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.

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Comments

  • August 21, 2011 at 5:45 am

    Thank you for finding that wonderful nugget from that treaty. What a clear statement of the Enlightenment principle as well as the historical Baptist principle of national identity and religious liberty.

    Comment by Kathy Meacham


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