Looking to the Founders: But When Religion Becomes The Issue…

I made it clear that America is not – and will never be – at war with Islam  — Barack Obama, 2009

In the last article, I discussed the religious landscape of the early republic, and that the Founders wanted to leave us a framework that we could use to avoid making religion an issue for contention.

It didn’t take long before the Founders had to face the first big test of this principle, and it would not come from within the United States, but from the Islamic leaders of the Barbary Coast.

From the time of colonization, American goods have been transported all over the world. And if you are going to engage in international trade, you better be willing and able to protect your shipments and merchantmen.

While British colonies, American shipping was protected in the Mediterranean through treaties arranged by the foreign service. Once separate, American ships were fair game (and probably encouraged by the British to be captured).

The objectives of the pirates was two-fold: capturing goods and the occasional ship, but most importantly capturing Christian slaves for the slave markets in the Islamic Ottoman Empire.

Throughout the history of the Barbary Pirates, it is estimated that over 1.25 million Christians were captured and sold as chattel.

The pirates weren’t without a sense of entrepreneurial fairness, though — families of the captured could pay a ransom for their safe release and return. Whole ships were also occasionally ransomed, often for enormous sums as high as $50,000.

Islam forbids trafficking in slaves who are Muslim (or at least their particular brand of Islam) and Muhammad had set up the system of slavery as a replacement to official state-sanctioned prisons. Prisoners captured in battle were automatically considered to be slaves, rather than any form of incarceration or internment.

So while this wasn’t exactly a jihad or holy war, it was economically-driven warfare with a very strong religious undertone.

The British weren’t exactly known for shying away from battle, yet they found it (like most other European powers) easier to just buy-off the pirates — pay a formal tribute to the pasha of the region.

During the Revolution, American vessels were given protection from the Kingdom of France, but France’s own political turmoil after the Revolution left the fledgling America to defend itself.

President John Adams was left with two options: fight it out or continue the practice of paying protection money to the pirates.

Adams chose the later, and with the unanimous consent of the Senate, the pasha was paid in two shipments:

…forty thousand Spanish dollars, thirteen watches of gold, silver & pinsbach, five rings, of which three of diamonds, one of saphire and one with a watch in it, one hundred & forty piques of cloth, and four caftans of brocade

And then 8 months later:

…twelve thousand Spanish dollars, five hawsers-8 Inch, three cables-10 Inch, twenty-five barrels tar, twenty-five barrels pitch, ten barrels rosin, five hundred pine boards, five hundred oak barrels, ten masts, twelve yards, fifty bolts canvas, and four anchors

All of which representing a considerable fortune paid in the generation of the Founding Fathers as protection money to avoid a fight.

While Jefferson would be president when war broke out with the Barbary Coast, he continued the previous policies, including paying a $60,000 (almost $1 million in today’s currency) ransom for the release of American prisoners.

But Adams went even further. While religion was definitely at least part of the issue, the wording of the treaty tried to make it a non-issue, which only highlighted the fact that it really was an issue:

Article 11. 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 Mussulmen; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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.

Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli would become one of the primary arguments used by proponents of an absolute hedge between church and state.

Almost certainly, such a statement would be lambasted by religious conservatives in modern politics, and if ratified at all in the Senate it would be by the narrowest of margins.

But the critical things to notice from all of this is the sequence of historical events:

  1. American businesses were being affected;
  2. Americans were being kidnapped and sold into slavery;
  3. Americans bought off the adversary — including ransoms and prisoner exchanges;
  4. An attempt was made to make religion a non-issue; and
  5. In the end, all of this would fail and we would bomb with naval artillery and then invade.

Sound familiar?

President Obama has taken an enormous amount of political criticism for his comment quoted in the epigraph to this article (see above), yet over 30 of our Founding Fathers signed a document stating almost exactly the same sentiment.

The British, like the Spanish, Portuguese, and French, used their colonial expansionism to “Christianize the heathen.” The Founders really didn’t envision America as being a Christian Empire and expressly forbade proselytizing in federally-controlled lands (such as Indian reservations) until after the Civil War.

The uncomfortable historical reality that can be learned from the Christian colonialism is that when you start making religion the issue in war, you almost always have to put acts of genocide on the table as legitimate options.

Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all done their best to keep religion from being the target — all of whom called Islam a “peaceful and peace loving religion” on numerous occasions. Both Bush and Obama have bucked public opinion polls by doing this.

Since 2001, a slight majority of Americans have viewed our fight as one against the religion of Islam, not as one against enemies who happen to be Islamic.

Doing a Google search on “glassing the Middle East” gives a disturbing number of serious people advocating outright genocide for us to win in the Middle East.

I’m well aware that many blow smoke when it comes to talking politics, but these are people who are deadly serious in their belief that our only option to win is through the complete annihilation of our enemies.

This, coupled with commentary of the likes of Sarah Palin — who wants to baptize terrorists through waterboarding — only serves to portray a United States that embodies a far worse brand of terror and intolerance than our enemies.

For our own sake, we need to take religion out of this equation — protect our economic interests and citizens, but avoid our own “holy war” against Islam.

The lesson to be learned from the Founders: Even when religion becomes the issue, keep from making it the issue.

Image: John Adams