When I was a child, after World War II, I was fascinated by the yearly admiration polls—the ten people Americans most admired. The current president was always at the top of the list: Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and usually their wives. The religious evangelist, Billy Graham, was also near the top—something I could never understand. Besides the presidents’ wives, the only other woman who made the list was Eleanor Roosevelt. Then there was the odd inclusion of others: whoever was the current pope, Douglass MacArthur (but only for a time), and Sir Winston Churchill. Later, well into the seventies and eighties, Ronald Reagan was number one, even before Republicans tried to turn him into a saint. My confusion, even when I was young, was what Mamie Eisenhower—let alone others—had done to merit such respect.
In later decades when I continued to observe in dismay the names of people who topped the list (Richard Nixon and his plastic wife, for example), and tried to draw up my own list, it was usually impossible to name more than one or two candidates. Malcolm X was one of my choices for a time, but not Martin Luther King. William Faulkner was another. Certainly my list included none of the figures whose names usually made me gag. No pope would ever have made it, possibly because of vivid images I retained of Pope Pius XII, during the war, looking like an evil magician in his cape and gown. Later, we discovered just how complicit he had been in the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. So the last person I could ever admire was the pope.
My heart warmed up a bit for Pope John II but chilled again for Benedict XVI, who reminded me of the singular reason the position is important: moral authority. Thus, when Pope Francis arrived, I held my guard, though I was excited by the fact that his origins were in South America. Everything changed for me the day he said—with regard to gays—“Who am I to judge?” That’s a statement few leaders are comfortable enough to utter. “Who am I to judge?” ought to be Francis’s mantra. I can’t imagine anyone on the religious right making such a remark, which is what is wrong with their religion.
I waited anxiously for the Pope’s encyclical on climate because virtually no one else wants to take responsibility for the problem. Climate change is like gun control: politicians and journalists are afraid to mention the term. The only way I can regard these people is as cowards. That’s the kind of world we live in. Certain topics, which involve the major issues we need to confront, have become taboo. It didn’t take long for Republicans to pounce on the encyclical, using the knee-jerk response that the pope is not a scientist (neither are the politicians who shout most loudly, but the double standard never bothers them).
Global warming—the term that most bothers conservatives—troubles them because of its implication of responsibility. Something has happened to the earth. Something terrible and, worse, it continues to happen. And therefore something needs to change—in this case a major shift in our use of carbon fuels before the entire earth is destroyed. But Republicans are not known for their sense of responsibility or humanity about anything. All that matters is making a quick buck. Is that a generalization? Of course, but the history of their response to the nation’s major problems is always one of irresponsibility. They carry a big stick, bludgeoning anyone or anything that they disagree with. Again, you ask, am I not making generalities? My answer is no, as their response to the killings in Charleston this past week demonstrated ONCE AGAIN. Most Republican presidential candidates turned themselves into pretzels so they could avoid the obvious: guns and racism.
The Pope’s message is crystal clear: we have trashed the earth so badly that our relationship with it is totally out of harmony. Years ago, when I researched and wrote a book on Native American fiction, the writers of these works wrote me painful letters, expressing their concern with our treatment of Mother Earth. But who would pay any attention to Native Americans or peoples of other cultures who have often voiced the same lament? This country can’t accept the opinions of those who are not white. In its coverage of the Pope’s encyclical, The New York Times printed a photo of a gigantic garbage dump in Gauhati, India, reminding me of the way Western countries have often sent their toxic trash to Third World countries. We don’t want to touch this stuff! We’ll let you do it. Another prime example of irresponsibility.
Or, this past week, consider the cries of the super rich in California. Why should water restrictions apply to them? The response to global warming, climate change, the reality of drought in places like California, has brought out the worst in people. And that worst means no action. There may be climate change, but what must happen to bring people to change is a much bigger problem. People change doesn’t look very promising.
The second major issue of the Pope’s encyclical (after the destruction of the earth) is his concern about poverty, another word that drives conservatives crazy. They can’t understand why people working a job with the minimum wage, food stamps and other government assistance can still be poor. Ergo, these people are lazy—they want to be poor. They have chosen poverty. Sure, they enjoy eating the cheapest and least nutritional food available. They love their hot, stifling apartments in the worst of the summer heat. They love their obesity, their diabetes, and their children’s lousy schools. These are all things they have chosen because of their love of poverty. My response? Such simplicity, such racism and bigotry.
The Pope is my man. I say this as an avowed atheist, as someone who has no regard for religion. Pope Francis dares to speak, while too many of us live in silence.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com. Twitter @LarsonChuck.