Why Pope Francis’ Meeting With Kim Davis Is Such a Disaster

Kim Davis with Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and attorney Mat Staver in front of the Carter County Detention Center in Grayson, Kentucky, on Sept. 8, 2015.

Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images

I woke up this morning to reports that during his recent U.S. visit, Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk best known for refusing to issue lawful marriage licenses, interfering with the ability of her deputies to issue lawful marriage licenses, and making unauthorized changes to the lawful marriage license forms for her county. When I saw this news, my heart sank. In one 15-minute meeting, the pope undermined the unifying, healing message that many queer people and our supporters were so eager to have him bring.

This blow hit me particularly hard because I had written so hopefully about the pope’s address to Congress. Although I’ve directly benefitted from the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage even more than most other Americans in the queer community, LGBTQ issues have never been my first priority. I believe that America’s ability to grapple with and seek solutions for our toughest problems has been weakened by the constant activity of culture war activists, people on both sides who draw attention to flavor-of-the-month scandals, outrages, and personalities. These minor matters have been capturing national attention month after month, year after year, for as long as I’ve been politically sentient. In that time I’ve seen the climate degrade, inequality increase, prison populations bloat, the labor market change permanently for the worse, and unwinnable wars be embarked upon (and lost). If the pope was against same-sex civil marriage but was also willing to address those other issues, I was 100-percent on board.

But Kim Davis is the living embodiment of the sort of minor, distracting, noxious culture-war figure who continually saps America’s ability to focus on anything but the distractions of culture warriors. By meeting with her, the pope has ensured that the takeaway from his visit won’t be that we must come together to focus on more important matters—because he failed to resist the lure of the latest divisive headline-grabber’s antics himself. The pope ate with the homeless, visited a prison, and spoke about the plight of immigrants, but all that is threatened by one single meeting. However assiduously he avoided pressing America’s hot buttons over the rest of the visit, he’s pressed one now, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

This is unfortunate, because the other message, the one about coming together and addressing the poor, the vulnerable, and the dispossessed was a message we desperately need to heed. There are more urgent topics in this world than how a single county in Kentucky resolves its legal obligations to issue lawful marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But if even the pope got himself stuck to this tar baby, how are the rest of us supposed to resist the temptation it presents?

See more of Slate’s coverage of Pope Francis’ U.S. visit.