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Feb 25, 2005 12:27 am

One Nation Under Our Godless Constitution ...

I had not expected to like Brooke Allen's essay,"Our Godless Constitution," in The Nation. After all, I've written in defense of retaining"under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, which he dismisses as a relic of the McCathy era. Undoubtedly, it was adopted to mark a contrast with the Soviet Union's"godless Communism," but it's a contrast for which I think there is no shame."Under God" reminds us that the state is not its own highest majesty. So, generally, I'm opposed to efforts to sanitize the public sphere from religious language. I think it is a terrible illusion to speak of any nation as a"Christian nation" -- a distortion of all sense of what Christianity is. But I want our prophets to be free to deploy the language of faith in service to a higher loyalty and hope of a better America.

I disagree with Allen at many points. The Founding Fathers were not quite so secular in their orientation as he argues and adoption of the"wall of separation between church and state" depended on an alliance of their deism with a fervent body of evangelical dissenters from Episcopalian establishments in the South and Congregational establishments in New England.

Yet, it seems to me that Allen does strike real pay dirt with this passage:

In 1797 our government concluded a"Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, or Barbary," now known simply as the Treaty of Tripoli. Article 11 of the treaty contains these words:
As the Government of the United 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 Musselmen--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.
This document was endorsed by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams. It was then sent to the Senate for ratification; the vote was unanimous. It is worth pointing out that although this was the 339th time a recorded vote had been required by the Senate, it was only the third unanimous vote in the Senate's history. There is no record of debate or dissent. The text of the treaty was printed in full in the Philadelphia Gazette and in two New York papers, but there were no screams of outrage, as one might expect today.
The passage in the Treaty of Tripoli is a remarkable one and its adoption without dissent in the Senate even more so. It's unthinkable that such a passage would be written into a treaty the United States entered into today and inconceivable that it would be adopted by the Senate without objection. But, given the crusade-like rhetoric with which we have been summoned to war, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, you'd have thought that the Treaty of Tripoli had somehow been revoked.

While I pray for the success of a more democratic political and social order in Afghanistant and Iraq, I shudder every time the national scope turns on another Muslim country: Iran, Syria, Sudan. Actually, our national scope doesn't much fall on Sudan. It is too marginal to our national interests. And that really is the point. If our national interests are our highest majesty, then we are, indeed, a Godless people.

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Greg James Robinson - 2/28/2005

I have been citing the treaty with the Bey ever sionce I found it discussed in George Seldes book of quotations, which also includes a great many quotations from Adams and Jefferson on the dangers of Christian bigotry and clerical interference in politics. Though I do not think that the Pledge should include "under God", I think there are many better thnings to worry about. But then I remember that Robert Jackson once facetiously proposed that the Jehovah's Witnesses be given a human rights award for their role in standing up for their constitutional rights to be nuisances. I confess that the controversy over the pledge also reminds me of the English statesman Arthur James Balfour, who in being told by a man that the two greatest curses of modern civilization were Christianity and journalism, answered (one assumes equally facetiously) "Christianity, naturally, but why journalism?"

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/25/2005

. . . and not simply because you note how problematic it is to claim that we are Christian by acting otherwise.

The relationship between the inspiration of faith that is so important to so many and the necessity of our government to maintain a sort of religious neutrality will always be problematic. If it ever ceases to be problematic, we should all be very afraid.

The Pledge is difficult. I think it probably is a violation of church and State, especially when used in public schools. Yet there is no doubt that the current wording speaks powerfully to many in our population, including you.

Thinking of schools, I have long supported the moment of silence. To me that is the perfect lesson. The students are taught that it is important to yield space to religion, but that the space is for the individual, and not the state, to fill.