On February 1 2022, an Imgur account shared the following quote about the separation of church and state, attributed to Founding Father and second President of the United States, John Adams:
On Imgur, the submission was titled “When they tell you ‘America was founded as a Christian nation.'” The primary text of the image read:
“The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” — John Adams
It was unclear from where the text was originally captured. Underneath that, smaller text with a non-clickable Wikipedia link read:
Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli. [Link.] Ratified by the Congress, signed into law by the 2nd POTUS (to whom the quote is attributed).
That originally appended link to the Wikipedia entry for the Treaty of Tripoli summarized the accord, noting that its Article 11 was frequently referenced in discussions about separation of church and state:
The Treaty of Tripoli (Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary) was signed in 1796. It was the first treaty between the United States of America and Tripoli (now Libya) to secure commercial shipping rights and protect American ships in the Mediterranean Sea from local Barbary pirates.
It was authored by Joel Barlow, an ardent Jeffersonian republican, and signed in Tripoli on November 4, 1796, and at Algiers (for a third-party witness) on January 3, 1797. It was ratified by the United States Senate unanimously without debate on June 7, 1797, taking effect June 10, 1797, with the signature of President John Adams. The treaty was broken by Tripoli, leading to the First Barbary War. A superseding treaty, the Treaty of Peace and Amity, was signed on June 4, 1805.
The Treaty is often cited in discussions regarding the role of religion in United States government for a clause in Article 11 of the English language American version which states that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Full text for the Treaty of Tripoli was available to read on Yale Law School’s Avalon Project, “The Barbary Treaties 1786-1816 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Signed at Tripoli November 4, 1796.” Article 11 contained archaic language; it read, in its entirety:
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,-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.
Contextually, the treaty clause appeared t0 he (in lay terms) a promise from the United States government not to infringe upon the religious activities of Islamic nations — as evidenced by the portion concluding that “no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” Nevertheless, the statement in question did hold that the “government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
A June 2020 article published in the academic journal American Quarterly examined how the statement, whole or partial, had been used to argue opposing positions pertaining to matters of separating church and state. An abstract explained:
Reading American Secularism in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli
Article 11 of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which declares that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” has long been a fixture of debates over the separation of church and state. However, as I demonstrate, the common interpretation of Article 11 as a definitive statement on the country’s secular non-Christian identity, far from obvious at the time of its first publication in the 1790s, developed through a long history of re-readings of the treaty as it was applied to a wide range of political questions, from the public funding of Christian clergy to regulations prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Through this largely unstudied history, I examine how deployments of the article repeatedly invoked representations of Muslims and Islam to define central aspects of American social and political identity in a global context. I argue that the lasting influence of the text lies in how Christian nationalists and emergent secularists alike used the figure of Tripoli to articulate a national character in opposition to the perceived otherness of the Muslim world.
However, in this case the larger question was not whether John Adams’ assertion that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” had larger implications. Rather, it was whether the (partial) quote was correctly attributed. For additional context, Article 11 concluded with a pledge that “no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries” — but it was preceded by a statement denying that the United States was founded “on the Christian religion.”