In his Address in Cairo President Obama said: "In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote: "The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims."
As a close student of the founding era, I was surprised to find that I did not recall Adams saying that. That Adams was not President until 1797 tipped me off that something was askew. Some research turned up this phrase from Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli which President Washington negotiated and which was ratified by the Senate and signed by President Adams in 1797:
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.
I suppose saying that Adams "wrote" that (with some silent elipses) is close enough to the truth for a politician.
But there’s more to the story. That passage, apparently was absent from the Arabic original (and therefore presumably official version) of the treaty, translated by Joel Barlow:
The Barlow translation is at best a poor attempt at a paraphrase or summary of the sense of the Arabic; and even as such its defects throughout are obvious and glaring. Most extraordinary (and wholly unexplained) is the fact that Article 11 of the Barlow translation . . . does not exist at all. There is no Article 11. . . . How that script came to be written and to be regarded, as in the Barlow translation, as Article 11 of the treaty as there written, is a mystery and seemingly must remain so. Nothing in the diplomatic correspondence of the time throws any light whatever on the point.
A further and perhaps equal mystery is the fact that since 1797 the Barlow translation has been trustfully and universally accepted as the just equivalent of the Arabic.
A few thoughts. Did Barlow insert that article intentionally? How did it a mistaken translation come to be taken as official? Is that what the Senate ratified and Adams signed? Whatever the answers to those questions, it was taken to be official. Hence, we should ask, what implications does it have that the US government seems to have ratified a treaty with such language?
For those who believe in a living constitution, of course, it can’t have any obvious implication. Perhaps that was an idea suited to the 1790s, but not today.
On the other hand, it is interesting that the passage says "the government of the United States." That leaves open the possibility that the American nation (if nation’s are cultural more than political units) is, at least in part, Christian. The growth of government in the 20th century has increased the degree to which the US government has intruded upon the sphere in which the culture used to be free from entanglement with the US government. To put it in the language of the time, we now have a republic that is large but with a government that tries to to all the things that, traditionally, only could be done in small republics. Large republics lack the cultural unity that extensive laws require. That might say something about whether the US government can stay clear of religion nowadays in the same way it could in the 1790s. The question we need to ask today, after all, is not whether we have no establishment of religion, but, rather, what it means to say that.
Finally, the text says "Christian religion." That leaves open the possibility that the government is founded upon the belief that we are "endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights." After all, Jefferson’s famous Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom begins: "Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free." Jefferson did not think that God talk was incompatible with disestablishment, or, for that matter, with separation of Church and State. I suspect that much of the heat in today’s church-state argument has to do with an argument over this turf. That’s why one website that quotes the Treaty is called, "nobeliefs."
Update. One of the commentors below links to a long and intersting discussion of this subject from a couple of years ago. It seems that the President was quoting the 1805 US Treaty with the Barbery states directly. (See Article 14). Whether they knew that, or whether Obama/ his writers simply took the incorrect quote off the web is another matter.