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The Pope came to South Carolina; unfortunately, so did the Yankee press.

The Pope Came to South Carolina

Granted, Columbia, South Carolina is no gleaming icon of the New South, but with a half-million people, a state capitol, a fine arts center, and a symphony, it's getting to be a pretty cosmopolitan place.

Pope John Paul II seemed to like it pretty well, too, when he visited a few months ago as part of his nationwide tour. He gave us a blessing and said "your famous southern hospitality has made me feel right at home.'

Imagine our surprise then, when we saw the stories replayed for us the next day in the pages of the northern press.

"This is no place for a pope,' thundered the Philadelphia Daily News. "This is the land of the born-again, Bible-thumping Southern Baptist who finds his religion every Sunday in a whitewashed cinderblock church amid the scrub pines next to the trailer park.'

The Los Angeles Times continued in a similar vein:

"There were souls to be saved on the sweltering sidewalks of this southern city Friday, of that sad fact of the human condition there was little debate . . .. On virtually every street corner where the Pope and his entourage were to pass in procession, Bible students, street preachers, an occasional Roman Catholic, and clergy of various cloths could be found in contentious coexistence, fervently attempting to proselytize one another and anyone else they could find, be it a police officer, shopkeeper, or papal souvenir vendor.'

Since I grew up outside the South, I understand where these ideas come from. When I came to Columbia from Washington, D.C., I had those same Neil Young lyrics ringing in my head--you know, "banjos playing through the broken glass' and all that stuff. I was ready to see white hoods, fat sheriffs, black sharecroppers in overalls, grits dripping off the locals' chins. And being Catholic didn't ease my worries about racial intolerance.

But I've been here seven years now and haven't seen a good lynching yet. Ironically, the Pope's trip to the South did conjure up Old Confederate ghosts--but mostly in the minds of out-of-town reporters.

The No-Place-For-A-Pope Daily News continued:

"Pope John Paul II went there anyway yesterday, promoting ecumenism, unity among Christians, hoping to find a place for Catholics in the Bible Belt. His job would have been easier if more people believed Catholics are really Christians.

"Dave Tucker sure doesn't.

"He came all the way from Greenville, halfway across the state, to hand out pamphlets calling the Pope the Antichrist.'

The ecumenical meetings that got so much coverage here didn't seem to sell too well elsewhere. Consider Newsweek's in-depth paragraph about the trip: "White fundamentalists boycotted an ecumenical service in Columbia, incensed that the pope of Rome had invaded their Bible Belt turf, they denounced him as the Antichrist.'

Before CBS got around to mentioning the ecumenical meetings, it gave plenty of airtime to the Reverend Bob Jones, whose frothings carry about as much weight here as they do in Cincinnati. The Chicago Tribune story led with Jones, letting folks in the Windy City know that Jones greeted the pope "with the same enthusiasm once reserved for the Boll Weevil.'

If you're an out-of-town-reporter and you want to convince your editors that you really know your stuff, nothing works like a boll weevil in your lead. Try "problems as common as kudzu' if your cross-South tour takes you to North Carolina or "politics as spicy as their gumbo' in New Orleans. And be sure to find the looniest guy in town, the one with all the right props.

Like the born-again who sat in his pickup truck outside the University of South Carolina stadium, thundering about damnation. Television cameras bumped into one another, jockeying for position. My friend Doug Nye, media critic for The Columbia Record, couldn't believe it. "He's around the newspaper every other day,' he said. "Everyone know's he's just an old coot, and yet they led the broadcast with this dodo.'
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Title Annotation:Pope John Paul II
Author:Moniz, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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