Religious Freedom

IMG_1146A few weeks ago I was in New Orleans for a wedding, which took place at the Old Ursuline Convent, built in 1745. The convent displayed a letter (see above) written to them by Thomas Jefferson just a year after the Louisiana Purchase.

The nuns at the convent were fearful that the barbarian Americans (mostly Protestants) who had taken power from the French would confiscate their property and put an end to their work. Jefferson answered as follows:

Washington, May 15, 1804

To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier Farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans

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 it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever 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 it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s 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.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was an Enlightenment deist, and no particular friend to Roman Catholic religious life. It says something for his character that he answered the letter so civilly, reassuring the nuns on two grounds. One was the constitution, which guaranteed religious liberty. Jefferson says that the convent has the right to its physical property, and to organize its community life according to its own rules, without interference. He goes further in stating that its charitable work will ensure its support from the government, since all citizens whatever their religious point of view will appreciate it.

The sisters can rest easy because the law protects them; but they can also rest easy because their good works will be seen and appreciated by people of all persuasions. It’s a subtle response. There is perhaps some interplay between the two points: for when religious institutions are known for doing good to society, that strengthens the legal protections they enjoy. Jefferson does not say, but one can certainly think, that if the convent became so ingrown and narrow that it did no good for anybody outside the convent, the legal protections might prove to be much less robust in practice.

Today many believers (not just Christians, but Muslims too, and others) feel threatened, rather like those Ursuline sisters. Having lost the culture wars, they fear being compelled to surrender their consciences and participate fully in the reigning liberal regime. It’s no idle threat: bakers may be compelled to use their art to celebrate ceremonies they consider immoral; doctors may be compelled to oversee abortion or suicide; religious organizations may be compelled to hire staff who don’t share their beliefs. Religious people offer a strong defense, based on the American Constitution, for their right to continue their unique way of life. Some may feel that is all that needs to be said: The Constitution says it, that settles it. They would like to pursue a purely legal strategy.

But the Constitution won’t help most religious people in the world. It won’t do you a bit of good in China. And even in America, the Constitution’s protections will be far more vigorous if believers are known for contributing to the common good. I believe that we do. However, I suspect that a very strong and growing minority of Americans don’t. They don’t believe that religious institutions and religious people contribute to the common good. Therein, I suspect, lies the greatest threat to religious liberty. We should do everything in our powers to change it.

 

 

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One Response to “Religious Freedom”

  1. Dennis Kuhns Says:

    Thank you for your insight. You mentioned liberal bias and influence that could force people to go contrary to conscience. But conservative bias and influence can seek to force people to go against conscience as well. This has always been part of life even in a democracy. As a Mennonite and conscientious objector to war, we had to struggle to get alternative service opportunities in place and before that was a option, many went to prison. Living by conscience has always been difficult.

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