Jefferson and the nuns
posted at 12:02 pm on January 9, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
I have a couple of concluding thoughts about the ignorant, bigoted screed from Jamie Stiehm and published by US News a couple of days ago, both of them about Thomas Jefferson. In attempting to defend the big-government project of ObamaCare, Stiehm oddly (and ignorantly) invoked the storied libertarian to boost her claims that the government should dictate the expression of faith:
Catholics in high places of power have the most trouble, I’ve noticed, practicing the separation of church and state. The pugnacious Catholic Justice, Antonin Scalia, is the most aggressive offender on the Court, but not the only one. Of course, we can’t know for sure what Sotomayor was thinking, but it seems she has joined the ranks of the five Republican Catholic men on the John Roberts Court in showing a clear religious bias when it comes to women’s rights and liberties. We can no longer be silent about this. Thomas Jefferson, the principal champion of the separation between state and church, was thinking particularly of pernicious Rome in his writings. He deeply distrusted the narrowness of Vatican hegemony.
First off, as I noted in an update based on a comment from Radjah Shelduck, Jefferson wasn’t referring to the Catholic Church with “pernicious Rome,” but to the Roman Empire. That’s not to say that Jefferson was particularly friendly to the Catholic Church, but its influence in the colonies and US was minimal in Jefferson’s time, and for decades afterward.
Even with that aside, using Jefferson as an argument for federal intervention in just about anything reveals a much deeper ignorance of Jefferson, the political winds of the era, and which side of the political divide Jefferson ended up representing. The effort to replace the Articles of Confederation produced two competing camps, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, the latter of which strongly opposed a strong national government that could impose dictates on the states and on individuals. While Jefferson may not have been explicitly a member of that movement, he certainly sympathized with them, which is why we have a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. When the Anti-Federalists lost the argument, they ended up migrating into Jefferson’s political party, the Democratic Republican Party, which was the forerunner of today’s Democratic Party.
Arguing that Jefferson would cheer federal dictates on the choices of health insurance for nuns is therefore either high ignorance or deliberate obtuseness. In fact, we have a historical record for Jefferson’s thoughts on the freedom of religious expression specifically for Catholic nuns, in his own hand. Joanne McPortland reminded us of this yesterday at Patheos:
In 1804, the Ursuline Sisters, who had fled the anti-Catholicism of the French Revolution to found schools, orphanages, and hospitals in the Louisiana Territory, wrote to President Thomas Jefferson of their concerns that the United States government, now in control of New Orleans, would interfere with their freedom to operate their institutions and set their own regulations. They were aware of Jefferson’s support of the French Revolution and of his writings concerning the “wall of separation” he saw in the First Amendment’s guarantees.
Jefferson’s letter in response–often omitted from collections of his works–is respectful, clear, and reassuring. Read the text and substitute Little Sisters of the Poor for the Ursulines, and it’s immediately apparent that Stiehm is conjuring the wrong guy.
I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana.
The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you, sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.
Whatever the diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under.
Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.
I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.
The letter, in Jefferson’s hand, is on display in the museum of the Ursulines in New Orleans, where I’ve seen it. It is recognized, rightly, as one of the founding documents in our American understanding of freedom of religion.
It’s difficult to see how Stiehm could have possibly been more ignorant on freedom, religion, tolerance, and the law than in her self-exposure at US News.