Church-State Cage Match: Chuck Norris v. The Treaty of Tripoli
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Fri Sep 21, 2007 at 01:24:36 AM EST
Which is more maddening and makes you pull more hair out: the dialogue in an episode of Chuck Norris's TV show, or the arguments in one of his newspaper columns decrying the separation of church and state? Today, I'm voting for the column. In his latest, Chuck tries to place Article XI of 1797's Treaty of Tripoli in some context, to make the case that it means something entirely different from what it quite plainly says:
[T]he government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion...
That Treaty was ratified by the Senate and signed by President John Adams in 1797, and the particular phrase is often quoted to counter the common mis-perception that America is "a Christian nation".

Read about Chuck's troubling argument - and see why I'm left wondering how he competes in ultimate fighting with such huge blinders on - in the extended entry below.

First, credit where it's due: he may be correct that this clause was not intended as the sweeping, blanket statement it is often used to represent. As Forrest Church says in his new book (review forthcoming) "So Help Me God":
Too much can be made of this document as a proof text that Adams believed, as the treaty says, that "the United States is by no means founded on the Christian Religion." Washington, Jefferson and Madison certainly could have endorsed this clause, but Adams at this point in his political career, anyway, could not. In signing the treaty, he either glossed over the eleventh article as being of no moment or read its meaning narrowly. At the time Adams expressly believed that the U.S. government could not prosper apart from a sound Christian foundation.
For his part, Norris has 2 tactics for trying to wish away the phrase. For one, he says, under duress we probably didn't really mean it. We were negotiating with kidnappers and would have said whatever we had to. So much for principle I guess.
[H]ow would and should a Christian nation's delegates answer the question, "Are you a Christian nation?" If you answer "yes," you are quickly categorized into a Crusade-form of Christianity and an enemy. If you answer "no," then you appear to be denying the basis upon which you were founded. Add to the mix that you are negotiating in a time of war, have very limited naval resources, are in recovery from another (Revolutionary) war, and that "yes, with an explanation" is not exactly the answer that is going to bail your seamen, cargo and ships out of Muslim extremist captivity.
We were just trying to free captives, you see...from captors who don't understand nuance.

The other argument he uses is much more instructive and is similar to Church's explanation of a "narrow" reading. It's all about the context here, he says. The U.S. government was not trying to deny its Christian heritage under this view, it was trying to assure Tripoli that we mean no harm, that the violent, warring experience they had with the Christian nations of Europe is not what they will find with us.

The way they understood Christianity was through the lens of the Crusades, and so perceived any Christian country as a militant threat to their existence.
One wonders why - if that was the important specific message that needed to be sent - we didn't just say it that way. And clearly the answer is that, in fact, America was not founded as a Christian nation. It was, perhaps, founded as a nation of (mostly) Christians. But isn't that distinction important? In fact, isn't that a more precise way to express the distinction that Norris claims we were trying to make to the Kingdom of Tripoli 210 years ago? That we may be Christians, but we are not governed - in any sense - by the church. We may look like your European enemies but we left Europe in search of religious liberty, and revolted in the face of their oppression.

At this point, I always wonder of those arguing America as a Christian nation: what are they hoping to gain? What entanglement are they attempting to justify? America is a Christian nation, therefore.... what? Government should give preference to the Christian faith? or should actively inhibit the growth of other religions? I don't think even Walker, Texas Ranger would endorse such a clearly unconstitutional view. What, then?

With that uncertain skepticism, and at the risk of appearing to compare Chuck Norris and today's religious right with the rather dangerous Kingdom of Tripoli, circa 1790, I would ask Chuck's earlier question right back at him, with some modifications:

How would and should a free nation's delegates answer the question, "Are you a Christian nation?" If you answer "yes," you are encouraging those who would argue for implicit religious preference by government, undermining the religious freedom principles on which the country was founded, and If you answer "no," then you appear to be denying - or at least lamenting - the reality that America is overwhelmingly made up of religious, indeed Christian, citizens. Add to the mix that you are engaged in a culture war with those who would deny the importance of our religious diversity and the principle of keeping church and state institutionally separate, and that "yes, with an explanation" is not exactly the answer that is going to keep our First Amendment freedoms intact.

Norris - and those who think like him - would demand the right to add context and caveat to any official expression of distance between the church and institutions of government. He demands the right to say "yes, with an explanation...". But he would deny the same right on the other side, those of us who in the spirit of religious liberty would say of our nation's prominent religious culture "yes, but..."

So, even if it may be true that we are a nation of mostly Christians, and that many of our national principles have the same shape as some Christian principles - peace, equality, justice, freedom of conscience -  the answer to the question is as clear and as simple and right as it was 210 years ago, and must be said this way for many of the same reasons, to avoid many of the same potential  misunderstandings: The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. [Cross-posted from the Baptist Joint Committee blog.]

Maybe ol' Chuckie has taken a few too many blows to the head.  I hear that tends to leave a person a little addled and somewhat cerebrally challenged.

I've never heard him heralded as anything resembling an intellectual giant.  After all, we've seen his so called "acting".  (Didn't I hear that he studied at the Joey Tribbiani school of acting?)

by PatrickH on Fri Sep 21, 2007 at 11:29:42 AM EST

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