Recent attempts made by the left and the right to make Pope Francis one of “their” own has sparked considerable debate among the political class and their voices in the mainstream media. Pope Francis’s speech before Congress was nothing more than a continuation of themes he has publically endorsed throughout his time as pontiff, namely support for the environment and opposition to the excesses of capitalism, among others. He has been labeled a Marxist, and because the Latin American Catholic Church has flirted with political socialism for years, there is fear among both conservative Catholics and Protestants in the United States that the Pope’s brand of Christianity is a thinly veiled design to bring Marxist political changes to America.
Do they have a point? To an extent. Pope Francis made a mistake in addressing Congress. By standing before a secular body and urging political action from a group ill equipped to govern 30 people let alone 300 million, the Pope opened his call for reform to misguided attack. The changes he seeks are cultural, not political, and need to be made in the heart, not through legislation or regulation. That said, contrary to what political pundits on both sides have said, Pope Francis is neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” He is a traditionalist, an advocate for traditional Christian charity and living, what Erasmus called “the philosophy of Christ.”
The South was, and still is, the one region of the United States that has zealously clung to this tradition. Pope Francis could be classified as a Jeffersonian, and traditional Southern conservatives, now purged from acceptable public debate, echoed his sentiments long before the Pope rattled nerves in Washington D.C.
Take for example his position on the environment. Pope Francis has called for good stewardship of natural resources and a willingness to live with, not against, nature. Southerners have advanced this position since the first Englishmen planted their feet on American soil in the sixteenth century. This has held true into the modern age. The great Southern conservative philosopher Richard Weaver once wrote that:
“The Southerner tends to look upon nature as something that is given and something that is finally inscrutable. This is equivalent to saying that he looks upon it as the creation of a creator. To some extent nature has to be used, but what man should seek in regard to nature is not a complete dominion but a modus vivindi, that is a manner of living together or a coming to terms with something that was here before our time and something that will be here after it.”
John Taylor of Caroline, the Fugitive Agrarians, and Wendell Berry of Kentucky all have sought the same arrangement. Self-sustaining small farms and rural living were hallmarks of Southern society. It was not long ago that Weaver was championed by the mainstream conservative movement, but his views are now arcane and unfashionable to the self-anointed conservative “philosophers” in America.
Even today Callaway Gardens, the beautiful private nature reserve in Pine Mountain, Georgia, is a testament to managed conservation. Founded by the Callaway family in an effort to provide a natural sanctuary on once worn out farmland, the Gardens balance nature and development in a way no government park or agency has been able to accomplish. The Pope’s call for more government involvement in environmental projects is imprudent, but this does not minimize the tradition it supports, one that has shaped by the South in America for nearly four hundred years.
Pope Francis’s attacks on capitalism also harken to those leveled by Southerners both before and after the War. The Jeffersonians favored free markets, but they shuddered at the evils of industrialization, namely the horrid working conditions of the “wage-slaves” of the North, which included a poor diet, poor living conditions, and a repressive often inhumane working environment. These critiques were, of course, often stimulated by attacks on the South’s own labor system, but this does not diminish the validity of the barbs thrown at their Northern neighbors. The populists of the Tom Watson stripe attacked industrialization for the same reason. It was the independence of the worker and the value of the man in an agrarian life that called the Fugitives to push for the maintenance of an agricultural society.
Some Southern industrialists sought to mitigate those conditions when possible in the post bellum period. By the early twentieth century, Southern industrialist Fuller Callaway was revolutionizing the way people worked in Southern cotton mills. His motto: “If you are working with cows, you have to think like cow. If you are working with men, you have to think like them. And you must never expect them to do anything that isn’t human.”
Even into the late twentieth century, Southerners were setting the standard for a comfortable work environment. Bill Turner of the W.C. Bradley, Co. in Columbus, GA pioneered the field of “servant leadership.” The Bradley Company at one time owned Coca-Cola, and still owns Charbroil and Zebco, but it was its passion for a strong family based working environment that set it apart. One of its companies, TSYS, has been ranked as one of the best companies to work for in America. The same is true for Columbus based AFLAC. These companies have never lost sight of the Southern paternalistic tradition in labor. That tradition has at its core a Christian concern for the individual worker, his family, and his soul. In that type of working environment, money and profit are not the only measures of success. Southerners knew that community and people mattered as much as the bottom line. This is all Pope Francis has said about the “evils” of modern capitalism.
Finally, Pope Francis’s request for Christian charity and compassion for the weak, sick, and poor has always found favor in the South. To this day, Southerners donate more time and money to charity than any other people in the United States. The conservative columnist Dan Smoot once wrote that during the Great Depression, Southerners would literally give a poor man—of any color—the shirt of his back. In fact, he said Southerners were more willing to do so for black Americans than white. This help was always accompanied by a smile and a hand up.
If America wants to reinvigorate a more civil, Christian society based on community and faith, it needs to look no farther than the South, a region that despite its reputation among Northern “elites” has continued to be the traditional light in American life. Or maybe Southerners will just keep that to themselves. It might be more fun to watch delusional, self-righteous Yankees squirm during a Christian lecture. After all, modern American culture is their creation.