The Kim Davis imbroglio does not bode well for 2016 election coverage.

There will be other polarizing figures like Kim Davis taking center stage in 2016. (CNS photo/Chris Tilley, Reuters)

The story of Pope Francis briefly breathing the same air as Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, started as another feeding frenzy—with the chum in the water provided only by Ms. Davis’s lawyers, a biased source for news if there ever was one. The Vatican clarified matters a couple of days later (see “The Pope and Kim Davis: Seven Points to Keep in Mind”), stating that the pope meant no endorsement of Ms. Davis’s actions, but few wanted to admit they had jumped to conclusions before the facts were known.

The Huffington Post’s Michelangelo Signorile had reacted immediately to Ms. Davis’s boast that she had met the pope; in a post headlined “How Pope Francis Undermined the Goodwill of His Trip and Proved To Be a Coward,” he fumed, “The pope played us for fools, trying to have it both ways.” He called Francis a “sinister kind of politician” and “the kind that secretly supports hate, ushering the bigots in the back door.”

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In a post dated two days later, he admitted, “It appears it was not a private meeting to endorse her. Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi even described it as not ‘a real audience’—quite an insult to Davis.” But Mr. Signorile refused to concede that he had written hastily. “To those who say that we should have given the pope the benefit of the doubt,” he wrote, “I again say that without the outrage there would be no response [from the Vatican].” He wagged his finger at Rome, writing “The Vatican perhaps thought it could get away with not insulting Davis and evangelicals even after the meeting was made public and that it could just sweep this under the rug. It was wrong.”

Imagine! The pope almost “got away” with not insulting evangelicals. Clearly, the outrage over the meeting with Ms. Davis had nothing to do with finding out the truth, but was an opportunity to flex political muscle. Pope Francis, who avoids insulting people and religious groups as part of his job, has been treated as if he were just another of the dozens of people running for president of the United States. He’s expected to know whom to insult and whom to praise in order to prove his bona fides to right-thinking people. As far as I know, he has not expressed any personal hatred of Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association. Does that mean his comments about the incompatibility of Christian principles with weapons manufacturing were insincere?

The Kim Davis imbroglio does not bode well for campaign coverage in 2016. By Mr. Signorile’s logic, if someone who runs a dogfighting ring shows up at a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio, shakes the candidate’s hand, then brags to the press that the candidate is 100 percent behind the cause of legalizing dogfighting, we should not give the “benefit of the doubt” to Ms. Clinton or Mr. Rubio. Until things are cleared up by the campaign, it’s fair to trash the candidate all over social media, and all is justified by the great moral satisfaction of taking any opportunity to condemn dogfighting.

There is a great incentive to tar public figures with the worst interpretation of their actions. In the scenario above, some people would forever insist that Hillary Clinton favored dogfighting, refusing to believe that she didn’t know whose hand she was shaking. In the case of Pope Francis and Kim Davis, we are now in the conspiracy-mongering phase of things. After the Vatican statement that the pope did not intend an endorsement of Ms. Davis, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of claims that the pope “had to know” who Ms. Davis was and how she had defied the courts—revealing the self-centeredness of the United States, a country famous for not knowing anything that happens beyond its borders. (It’s not a stretch to believe that Francis was more closely following the Syrian refugee crisis than the goings-on in Rowan County, Kentucky.)

New York magazine’s Lisa Miller makes an argument similar to that of Signorile—that now that we know the details of the pope’s meeting with Ms. Davis, we shouldn’t worry about the details. In a post headlined “Let’s Be Honest: The Pope Probably Agrees with Kim Davis on Same-Sex Marriage,” she writes, “the left entirely deludes itself on Francis’s openness, thinking only what it wants and ignoring all evidence to the contrary” (i.e., Francis has not unilaterally overturned centuries of Catholic doctrine on sexuality). She concludes, “on the substantive question of same-sex marriage, the pope and Kim Davis are—despite what the pope’s progressive fans might hope—likely very closely aligned.” 

Pope Francis and Kim Davis both oppose same-sex marriage, but does it follow that they are “probably” aligned on all particulars? I tweeted an objection to this reasoning: “Um, @lisaxmiller, Kim Davis is not famous for opposing gay marriage, but for destroying wall between church and state.” Ms. Miller tweeted back, “I think that was the initial reason but not the only—or most salient—one.”

But it is the only salient reason for Ms. Davis’s celebrity. When her lawyer revealed the meeting with the pope, he said that Francis gave her rosaries and told her to “stay strong.” The clear implication was that the pope was encouraging her to continue to defy the courts, refusing to grant same-sex marriage licenses and forbidding her subordinates from doing so. (The latter action is what led to her five-day stay in jail.) Many American Catholics were skeptical of this claim from the outset, not only because Francis has consistently refrained from taking an active role in this country’s “cultural wars,” but because it hasn’t been that long since John F. Kennedy had to fight the perception that Catholics couldn’t be trusted to hold public office because their loyalty was to the Vatican rather than the U.S. Constitution. It is unlikely that Francis would want to give new life to this smear by championing a public official who says she’s above the law.

The whole controversy is a reminder that subtleties are lost in coverage of hot-button political issues. The thinking is that because Francis opposes same-sex marriage, he must be held accountable for the tactics and the divisive rhetoric of all opponents of same-sex marriage. The “you’re with us or them” attitude simplifies but also stifles debate. So if you support any restrictions on the sale of firearms, you’re “anti-gun,” and if you oppose any restriction, you’re in league with the National Rifle Association. If you support access to abortion but think Roe v. Wade was a poorly reasoned Supreme Court decision, you’re not really “pro-choice,” and if you oppose abortion but think Planned Parenthood provides valuable women’s health services, you’re not really “pro-life.”

Get ready for much more of this in 2016.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Nicholas Clifford
2 years 7 months ago
I must say when this story broke (and I heard it first on NPR and then on PBS, my two favorite not-usually-alarmist news channels, my immediate reaction was that the story was probably already written in some form earlier, just waiting for the blanks (like "Kim" and "Davis" and "same sex marriage) to be filled in. After all, on the evening news on both of the above outlets, it was presented as the most important story of the day, bumping out refugees, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Xi Jinping, Carolina flooding, even Sepp Blatter and Donald Trump, etc. etc. Mr. Sullivan is quite right; polarization is at work and, as if it weren't already bad enough, is only going to get worse. I hope someone in Rome had the wit to tell Francis that in God's Own Country, presidential electoral campaigns last at least two years. American exceptionalism at its best; in our neighbor to the north, a prime ministerial campaign is under way. It's going to last 78 days, the longest (or second longest?) in Canadian history.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 7 months ago
Is the Davis attorney going to be held accountable, in any way, for his misleading (and blatantly false) media feeds?

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