- Religion and Social Transformation in Nineteenth-Century America
In the wake of his historic encyclical, Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, published in June 2015, Pope Francis has been traveling the world reinforcing his message of climate care and sustainable development. Speaking in Bolivia, he anticipated the response of his audience:
What can I do? . . . What can be done by those students, those young people, those activists, those missionaries who come to a neighborhood with their hearts full of hopes and dreams, but without any real solutions for their problems? They can do a lot. . . . You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and the under-privileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands.
The pontiff’s words would seem to resonate with religiously inflected sentimental prose of the nineteenth century. Harriet Beecher Stowe ended Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by asking, “But, what can any individual do?” before insisting that “the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race” (515). Tellingly, the Pope and Stowe both speak of full hearts, questioning minds, and the extremely high stakes of the moment—the future of the human race.
Pope Francis has been exhorting crowds to action, while Stowe (at least as some critics see it) limited her call to “feeling” and “praying.” Yet, they share potent similarities, especially in their wider message—the insistence on the natural rights of the [End Page 393] dispossessed (Francis speaks not of “mere philanthropy” but of giving the people “what is theirs by right” [Apostolic Journey 3.1]); the logic of interdependence that makes ameliorative action the obligation of all (for Francis this includes the notion of “an integral ecology” in which care for the poor and care for the planet are linked [Laudato si’ 10–11]); the use of familial and especially maternal rhetoric to reinforce claims of social responsibility (Francis begins his encyclical, “our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” ); and the outrage toward those who would use the Bible to sanction selfish action (Francis has earned the disfavor of some conservative Christians by insisting that the “dominion” granted to man in Genesis does not amount to domination over the earth and its creatures ).
Nowhere do they appear more similar than in their fiery denunciation of monetary greed—the very thing they charge as fueling the evils of slavery and environmental degradation, respectively. As Stowe’s Augustine St. Clare states, “It comes from the devil, that’s the short of it; . . . because I know how, and can do it,—therefore, I may steal all [another] has, keep it, and give him only such and so much as suits my fancy” (261). Pope Francis has famously called corporate greed the “dung of the devil.” He explained its evils further in Bolivia: “Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another” (Apostolic Journey 1). Liberation of the “enslaved” is at the heart of each leader’s moral vision.
Stowe claimed a kinship with those who were oppressed. As the turn-of-the-century African-American activist Mary Church Terrell put it, her “heart sympathized with the poor and lowly . . . [she] made their sorrows her woes” (16). The Pope took the name of St. Francis of Assisi—the patron saint of animals and the environment and, as he says in his encyclical, “the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable” (Laudato si’ 10). Sympathy (in the nineteenth-century...