Green Room

Jefferson and the nuns

posted at 12:02 pm on January 9, 2014 by

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.

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Well done.

John the Libertarian on January 9, 2014 at 12:13 PM

But but but, King Barry said…

Nutstuyu on January 9, 2014 at 12:19 PM

I’m offended as a Catholic. If I were to name black members of Congress and say they were governing based on their skin color would I not be called a racist? This is purely an attack on Catholicism and nothing more.

eski502 on January 9, 2014 at 12:24 PM

But but nothing. The truth has long since failed to matter one iota to either King Barry or his administration or his Democratic congressional enablers or his MSM Praetorian Guard. The only thing that matters to them is whether what tumbles out of their respective mouths the second uttered helps an objective of Obama and his hard-left partisans. Full stop, end of story, literally.

Zumkopf on January 9, 2014 at 12:25 PM

I wasn’t on twitter last night Ed. I sure hope you hammered the bigoted Stiehm on this!

JusDreamin on January 9, 2014 at 12:27 PM

Oh, nice letter from Pres. Jefferson. Any chance Ms. Stiehm has ever heard of it? Would love to hear her response.

Cindy Munford on January 9, 2014 at 12:31 PM

For those tweeps that would like to point out Jefferson’s pre-response to her bigotry, the link to the actual letter is:

Stiehm’s (brave) twitter handle is @gypsyinme

JusDreamin on January 9, 2014 at 12:37 PM

Jeff’s letter to the Danbury Baptists has become the law of the land. It ought to be repealed and this put in its place…

Akzed on January 9, 2014 at 1:02 PM

I’m offended as a Catholic. If I were to name black members of Congress and say they were governing based on their skin color would I not be called a racist? This is purely an attack on Catholicism and nothing more.

eski502 on January 9, 2014 at 12:24 PM

…very good point

KOOLAID2 on January 9, 2014 at 1:19 PM

Ed, thank you very much for reading my comment and elaborating on it.

radjah shelduck on January 9, 2014 at 2:14 PM

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.

She couldn’t; she’s already a lib. It’s like absolute zero or something.

Axeman on January 9, 2014 at 3:10 PM

I vote for high ignorance. Lefties just make things up as they go along.

INC on January 9, 2014 at 5:18 PM

the ignorant, bigoted screed

I wonder about the use of “screed” today, as if, onamonapialy, it’s thought of as a “screaming read”. But an internet definition shows:

a : a lengthy discourse
b : an informal piece of writing (as a personal letter)
c : a ranting piece of writing

But these days it tends to mean an angry rant. Maybe I should just go with that. It’s like the term “propaganda”. Just because something is designed to persuade, doesn’t mean it’s false.

/nitpicking off

Paul-Cincy on January 9, 2014 at 5:27 PM

Jefferson, while president, signed legislation authorizing funding to send missionaries to Indians in PA.
While president, he worshiped with a church that met in the Capitol Building.
So he was not as opposed to religion in govt as some make him out to be.
He was a complicated fellow, to be sure.

itsnotaboutme on January 9, 2014 at 5:46 PM

@Paul-Cincy: I don’t see the issue here. The dictionary defines “screed” as, among other things, “a ranting piece of writing”, and people do use the word to mean an angry rant. The word may have other definitions that don’t carry the same stigma, but what Jamie Stiehm was indeed “a ranting piece of writing,” so it definitely qualifies as a screed.

J.S.K. on January 10, 2014 at 12:05 AM

Refresh my memory. Was this Jefferson character a politician?

You know…someone who will say or write anything expedient?

thejackal on January 10, 2014 at 8:18 AM

thejackal on January 10, 2014 at 8:18 AM

No, he was a statesman.

In those days there were no liberals, you see, so he didn’t have to worry about there being any outcry if he reassured nuns that their rights were not threatened by the govt.

Akzed on January 10, 2014 at 10:25 AM