Dear Jamie Stiehm & US News: Leave Jefferson Out of Your Know-Nothing Screed

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In a US News op-ed this morning, columnist Jamie Stiehm has put forth some of the most brazenly bigoted anti-Catholic crapola in this country’s example-studded history of the stuff. Reactions have been immediate and pointed, with Elizabeth Scalia’s “Fisking Stiehm’s Bigotry at US News” the most cogent and damning.

The nouveau Know Nothings have been stirring for a couple of years, but this marks a new low. It’s not really surprising; the media’s love affair with Pope Francis, which I would argue is a blessing for them and for us, was bound to irritate that strain of American anti-Catholicism that still bubbles on below the very thin veneer of “tolerance.” And when you combine it, as Stiehm does, with the intolerance of a certain brand of feminism, it’s a toxic little volcano that starts spewing.

I don’t have much to add to The Anchoress’s pointed critique, but I have to register a special protest against Stiehm’s invoking the spirit of Thomas Jefferson to bless her damnation of “pernicious Rome” and her characterization of the Little Sisters of the Poor as unAmerican conspirators against the wellbeing of women.

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

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.

As for U.S. News & World Report’s offering its online podium to Stiehm’s bad Feminist Studies 101 paper (buzzword bingo: war on women! public discourse! the narrowness of Vatican hegemony! reproductive rights!), it’s a disappointing move from the publication that once offered accurate, politically neutral content to debaters everywhere. Of course, that was in another era. U.S. News survives today almost entirely on the profits from its annual college guides. It’s probably too much to ask that Catholic institutions of higher learning refuse to cooperate in this PR venture—since education is, by nature, supposed to cure Know Nothingism, not promote it—but one could hope.

Finally, please don’t dismiss this as Catholics crying persecution. We’re not stupid. We know the difference between persecution and ignorant, rabble-rousing bigotry. We will pray for those around the world experiencing the former, but by damn we will not stand for the latter.