The news surely horrified some liberals who had openly embraced Pope Francis during his recent trip to the United States: The head of the Catholic Church made time during his visit to huddle with Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk who made national headlines when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because she said that doing so would violate her religious faith.
How could the pope, a man who carefully danced around same-sex marriage and abortion during his speech to Congress while highlighting the need to be accepting of immigrants, suddenly be embracing Davis, who had become a symbol of everything the left dislikes about conservatives? Heck, even Republicans were surprised by the move.
The answer is surprisingly simple: Francis is the pope, not a politician. His fealty is to the teachings of the Catholic Church, not to Republicans or Democrats. Claiming him for one party or the other fundamentally misunderstands not only the pontiff but the reason for his considerable popularity. He holds a mirror up to us and shows us why viewing everything through a political or partisan lens is a flawed proposition.
"It would not be surprising that any party or politician would want to associate themselves with Pope Francis; his popularity and appeal transcends the traditional lines, including religious and political," Democratic pollster Fred Yang said. "Ironically, what makes the pope so popular and so credible as a moral leader is precisely why he transcends everyday politics and why he is not the perfect 'validator' for any party (nor should he be)."
There's little question about Francis's popularity. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in early September showed that 70 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of him, while just 13 percent regarded him in an unfavorable light. Francis was most popular among Democrats (75 percent favorable) but also rated quite well among Republicans (72 percent) and independents (67 percent). It's hard to think of a public figure — certainly no politician qualifies — who could enjoy that sort of across-the-board support from both parties.
There's also significant interest in Francis wading into the political fray; that same poll showed that six in 10 people thought it would be "appropriate for the pope to urge government action on social, economic and environmental issues" during his visit.
The problem with that question, of course, is that what people are really saying is that it is totally appropriate for the pope to urge Congress and the White House to take action on things on which they agree with him. So, when the pope avoided a detailed discussion of abortion or same-sex marriage and instead pushed for action on climate change, liberals cheered. When he decided to meet with Davis, not so much.
It's hard for people stuck in this time of remarkable and unprecedented partisanship to understand people who exist, purposefully, outside of that dynamic. It's why there is so much skepticism among partisans toward the news media; how could anyone not have views on all of these issues in the country, they ask in wonderment? (To be clear, I am not comparing reporters to the pope. I am not that dumb.)
Francis, of course, sees the world not in terms of Democrats and Republicans but rather, to put it at its most stark, in terms of good and evil. His opposition to the death penalty (a cause he shares with many liberal activists) is born of the same conviction — that every life is precious — that leads him to oppose abortion (a cause he shares with many conservative activists).
It speaks to how entrenched our two-party political system is in our broader American culture that we — or at least many of us — are stunned to learn that Francis made time to meet with the current face of the religious liberty movement in the country. Our partisanship has made us predictable; what we watch on TV, where we live, what we read, who we are friends with all tend to be determined, in large part, by the political lens through which we view the world.
Francis's unpredictability shows us that there is a limit to where polarization can take us. Politics might be a calling, but it is not an end in and of itself. Francis's words and actions — from being the first pope to address Congress to his meeting with Davis — aim to show that we are all more than the "D" or the "R" that we align behind.
The right question to ask then is not "Why did Francis meet with Kim Davis?" but rather "Why were we so surprised that Francis met with Kim Davis?"