I can think of few people I disagree with more when it comes to public policy than Kim Davis. I have trouble imagining myself as someone who thinks same-sex marriage should be illegal, much less someone who believes it poses such a grave threat to the republic that said republic must grind to a halt. If I met with Kim Davis, I'm sure our discussion would be polite, but we wouldn't have much to talk about. We'd keep avoiding the elephant in the room.
But here's the thing: I'm me, a journalist and writer and TV critic. Particularly since I never cover Davis, I'm under no special obligation to view her with anything approaching equanimity. I can have my opinion about her beliefs, she can have her opinion about mine, and the world keeps spinning.
But I'm not the pope. And when Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, he was just emulating the guy who founded his religion.
Actively practiced Christianity is surprisingly radical
Let me start with some caveats: It seems likely that Francis's views on marriage equality are much closer to Davis's than to my own. If you're someone who believes that the struggle for LGBTQ equality is the Western world's defining civil rights issue of this generation — as I generally am — that's a huge grain of salt with which to take everything the pope says. Since I'm not Catholic, that should provide even less impetus to view his meeting with Davis with any measure of grace.
But, look, isn't the pope someone who should be meeting with literally everyone, from as many different viewpoints as possible? And doesn't "Stay strong," which he reportedly said to Davis, sound like a sound bite deliberately picked out to serve Davis's own political agenda? Is just the act of talking to someone who differs from us on one particular issue such a big deal that we'll write off the pope in his entirety?
I get that this is the collision of one particular human being (who will always have wildly varied political reactions to different things) with the internet (which likes to sort things by label and category). And I, too, find Francis's views on marriage equality disappointing, particularly when his advocacy for the poor is often very moving. That all makes sense to me.
But Christianity, at its core, is about the idea of Jesus being willing to meet with anybody in his society and about the idea of anybody being worthy of love, both from us and from God. Jesus broke bread with anybody who would have him. He took disciples from all walks of life. He was pals with a former prostitute.
He wasn't about setting up rigidly dogmatic social hierarchies that allow people to classify others as "good" or "bad." He was about establishing relationships with everybody he could, no matter how low down they were on society's ladder. (And yes, I'm aware that many of Christ's self-proclaimed followers could stand to learn all of this as well.)
That's a radical notion of how to approach your life, too! It's so radical that nobody can really come close to it, not even Jesus, who alternated hanging out with as many people as he could with talking about how he had come to divide families and "bring a sword." But at its core, this is a beautiful idea, and it's a key component of why Christianity has been such a powerful religion. No matter how it's twisted or perverted, its central idea is that everybody has worth. Everybody can find forgiveness and salvation.
What I'm saying is that you and I should feel free to roll our eyes at Kim Davis's ostentatious displays, or find them heartening examples of standing up to the government, or whatever we want. But as someone purported to be Christ's literal representative on Earth, Pope Francis sort of can't.
Relationships exist outside of politics and religion
Of course, there's the very good argument to be made that by simply meeting with Davis, Francis has somehow validated her viewpoint, made her someone to take seriously. I find that notion semi-convincing, but it's not as if the pope suddenly put Davis on the radar of everybody on Earth. She and the media had already done that, and by requesting a private audience, at the very least, Francis was offering less exposure than Davis had gotten used to. (Her camp immediately, of course, publicized the meeting, which everybody in the Vatican should have expected.)
And, for what it's worth, the Pope has met with LGBT advocates, including Paraguayan Simón Cazal, a married gay man, just this summer. Cazal came away from his meeting with Francis believing that the pope wants "dignity for all." And if dignity for all extends to Cazal, doesn't it also extend to Davis?
I understand why that idea makes those of all political persuasions, and especially marriage equality advocates, uncomfortable. Davis, after all, is the beneficiary of huge amounts of heterosexual privilege she seems barely aware of, while someone like Cazal has had to struggle and fight simply to be recognized by his society and his church. There's an enormous power imbalance between the two in terms of how their societies regard them, and the activists who will rail against the pope for meeting with Davis are a necessary part of correcting that power imbalance.
But one of the hardest things to do in an era of political polarization is to accept that those whose viewpoints are diametrically opposed to yours are still human beings, who have fears and hopes and desires as surely as you do, and who are capable of both great and horrible things. It's often tempting to slot our political opponents into boxes that define them as narrowly as we suspect they define us.
But the central idea of Christianity aims to be an end-around of all of that. It's not about defining people within religious or political or even societal contexts. It's about approaching them as fellow human beings, travelers on this planet who might spit in your face but still deserve grace and forgiveness. That's an impossible idea to adhere to, which is what makes it such a powerful one. Regardless of where he falls on the marriage equality opinion spectrum, by meeting with both Cazal and Davis, Pope Francis is at least trying to live up to the standards he ostensibly represents.