I have some questions for both sides in the case of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk refusing to issue marriage licenses because licensing same-sex couples would violate her religious beliefs. For the record, I agree with the moral and religious stance Davis, a registered Democrat, is taking, but believe that as an officer of the state charged with upholding the law, she ought to resign her position if she cannot fulfill her duties.
But the case is more complicated than partisans on both sides seem to think. Here are a few questions it raises.
1. Let’s say it’s 2005. Davis is the county clerk in a liberal northern California enclave, and a devout Unitarian Universalist who believes it is unjust to deny marriage to same-sex couples. She says her office will refuse to issue marriage licenses for anybody until the state recognizes the right of gays to marriage, and she claims religious liberty protections. Is she right?
2. Let’s say the US Supreme Court rules in favor of the religious liberty rights of a conservative Christian plaintiff, and orders a local government office to cease its discrimination. The officer refuses, saying to obey the court would violate her religious freedom. Is she right?
3. Let’s stipulate that just because something is legal does not make it morally right, and let’s further stipulate that for religious believers, God’s law is more important than man’s law. (This is why I think Davis should resign rather than obey what she considers to be a seriously immoral law.) What would happen to law and order if all government officials — not private individuals, but government officials — reserved to themselves the right to obey the law in the discharge of their duties only insofar as the law was consonant with their religious beliefs? For example, many sincere Christians believe that immigration restriction is immoral. What if officials in the Southwest began refusing to enforce federal immigration law, citing religious liberty?
4. I understand the temptation to point to Davis’s four marriages and laugh at her apparent hypocrisy. “Look, the big Christian is a hypocrite!” etc. But how many people realize that her religious conversion was fairly recent, about four years ago? And how many people on the left see dragging her messy past into it as a form of “slut-shaming,” which they usually reject, and reject vehemently? Mollie Hemingway writes:
You might be confused right now why it became OK for the media to slut-shame someone. Usually they’re complaining about it, such as when some well-meaning woman tells college co-eds to watch their alcohol intake before heading over to an out-of-control frat party. It’s good to remember, however, that slut-shaming by the media is permissible — welcome, even — so long as the victim is a political opponent.
And opposing the redefinition of marriage is pretty much grounds for instant excommunication in our elite religion. As a result, Nelson has all the gory details about her supposed “hypocrisy” and “selective application of the Bible to her life.” So did each of these divorces take place in the last four years? It wouldn’t actually be a sufficient proof of hypocrisy if each of these divorces took place since 2010, but it would be a necessary requirement for them to take place within the time period she was Christian.
Which they did not. Davis says that her conversion changed her life completely. More Mollie:
Now, any personal failings on her part are actually irrelevant to her legal argument, however much fun the media has in slut-shaming her. But I am hard-pressed to understand how she can be a hypocrite for failing to perfectly adhere to teachings of a religion she wasn’t even part of!
5. Do Christians who think every advance of the secular, pro-gay state must be vigorously resisted not worry about how this approach could hurt us in the long term? I’m thinking about Doug Wilson, who writes, in part:
First, whenever we get to that elusive and ever-receding “hill to die on,” we will discover, upon our arrival there, that it only looked like a hill to die on from a distance. Up close, when the possible dying is also up close, it kind of looks like every other hill. All of a sudden it looks like a hill to stay alive on, covered over with topsoil that looks suspiciously like common ground.
So it turns out that surrendering hills is not the best way to train for defending the most important ones. Retreat is habit-forming.
He’s objecting to my statement that Christians are going to have to fight some tough battles ahead, and that Davis has chosen the wrong hill to die on. Here’s why he feels so strongly about supporting Davis:
The point here is not just private conscience. The right to liberty of conscience is at play with florists, bakers, and so on. But Kim Davis is not just keeping herself from sinning, she is preventing Rowan County from sinning. That is part of her job.
Every Christian elected official should be determining, within the scope of their duties, which lines they will not allow the state to cross. When they come to that line, they should refuse to cross it because “this is against the law of God.” They should do this as part of their official responsibilities. This is part of their job. It is one of the things they swear to do when they take office.
So Christians have to protect the democratic state against itself? Besides, if the Christian official is a strictly traditionalist Roman Catholic who believes in Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, which, if he followed Doug Wilson’s advice, would put Calvinists like Doug Wilson in a very bad position vis-à-vis the state. I suppose Wilson might deny that the traditionalist Catholic is actually a Christian, but that being the case, good luck trying to convince the rest of the country that it ought to be ruled only by the standards of Calvinists.
Wilson says that he wants massive disobedience of the law by Christian state officials regarding enforcing same-sex marriage laws, and in turn for the state to have to fire those officials:
Some might ask what the good in that would be. Wouldn’t it just result in no Christians in such positions? Perhaps, but it would be far better to have godless results enforced by the godless than to insist that the godly do it for them. It would be far better to have the “no Christians in power results” when it was actually the case that no Christians were in power. I would rather have non-Christian clerks acting like non-Christian clerks than to have Christian clerks do it for them. I mean, right?
Don’t tell believers to stay engaged so that they can make a difference, and then, when they start making a difference, tell them that this is not a hill to die on.
I might be wrong, but Wilson seems to be of the opinion that obstreperousness is next to godliness. He is advocating here that Christian officials, in the words Robert Bolt gave to Sir Thomas More, “cut a great road through the law to get to the devil”:
What would Christians do when the law protects their liberty, but Social Justice Warriors in local government refuse to obey the law, citing a higher law?
I’ll say it again: if Davis, a state official, believes that obeying man’s law is contrary to God’s law, she should resign. To live by the principle that Christians in government are not obliged to obey the law in the discharge of their official duties is a very dangerous one to take for Christians. Traditionalist, orthodox Christians are a minority in this country, and are going to become ever more despised. The day is coming when the only protection many of us can rely on is the law, and the willingness of government officers to obey the law, even though they hate us. And so, my final question:
6. Is the principle that the More of Bolt’s play powerfully elucidates really something we can afford to take lightly?
UPDATE: I ought to have said that yes, there are other considerations in play when a Christian is, say, an official of the Nazi state. I believe it would be heroic if the Christian used her position to undermine the state. Wilson brings up the Nazi example, and also cannibalism. I do not think it is helpful to clear, prudent thinking about the proper relationship of Christian government officials to the law to invoke the most extreme possible examples. We are not living under Nazi totalitarianism. Jews are not being shipped to ovens on the orders of the government. To behave as if the stakes were really that high in the case of gay marriage in the USA is to seriously distort things. I believe Obergefell was an unrighteous decision, one that is going to have serious and deleterious long-term consequences. It’s not the Nuremberg Laws.