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Kim Davis: Shipwreck of Religious Liberty

If the cause is associated with cynical GOP politicians and ersatz culture-war pageantry, we're doomed

Finally, someone — in this case, Rasmussen — has done a poll to find out what the American people think about the Kim Davis case. The results:

But just 26% of Likely U.S. Voters think an elected official should be able to a ignore a federal court ruling that he or she disagrees with for religious reasons. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 66% think the official should carry out the law as the federal court has interpreted it.

You have to be a Rasmussen Reports subscriber to get more detail than that, but consider that three out of four Americans believe Kim Davis was wrong to refuse obey the Supreme Court. It’s not even close. As I’ve been saying, Kim Davis may well be a brave woman, but it is dangerous to the cause of religious liberty to embrace her as a symbol.

I’ve gone from being anxious about this to angry, because of what Mike Huckabee did yesterday. Here’s a clip from the conclusion of his Free Kim Davis rally, and her stage-managed release from jail:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpGYvDtDr8s?rel=0&w=540&h=325]

She comes out of jail with that cheesy 1980s song “Eye of the Tiger” playing, and mounts the stage, holding hands with Huck, and giving God the glory. Now, religious liberty — our most precious freedom — is associated in the mind of the public with ersatz culture-war pageantry orchestrated by a cynical Republican presidential candidate.

I thought Ted Cruz’s turning up at the Middle Eastern bishops meeting and bashing them was the most cynical move I had ever seen by a Christian Right politician, but Huckabee may have bested that. The Family Research Council and other Christian, Inc. lobbyists are already writing the fundraising appeals, you can bet. And you can also bet that they’re bending the ear of clueless House Republicans to get them to propose provocative religious liberty legislation that stands no chance of passing, but every chance of discrediting the cause in the public’s eye. (In fact, I was told last night by someone deeply involved in this issue at the Congressional level that this is exactly what is happening.)

So I’m angry about this. Huckabee and Cruz, but especially Huckabee, are doing wonders to inject juice into their own presidential campaigns, but the political cost to the long-term good of orthodox Christians will be severe. But hey, we’ve Made A Statement, and demonstrating our emotions (and, while we’re at it, raising some money for GOP candidates and Christian advocacy groups) is the most important thing.

For conservative Christians who don’t understand why we should care about the political effect of the Kim Davis debacle, and the optics of yesterday’s release rally, I want you to consider how it would appear to you if Hillary Clinton staged a rally against police brutality around the release from jail of a West Baltimore thug who had been roughed up by the cops as they were arresting him for shooting up a neighborhood. The gangster takes the stage to the sound of gangsta rap, wearing pants hanging off his butt, with cornrowed hair and covered in tattoos.

It could well be that Hillary’s principles were in order, and an important principle was at stake. But think of how the imagery of celebrating this guy like that would make you feel. How sympathetic would you be to the worthy cause of fighting police brutality after that display? If fighting police brutality means having to stand with a victim like that, would most people be more inclined to join the cause?

Look, I’m not comparing Kim Davis to a gangbanger. What I’m telling you is how this situation, especially yesterday’s celebration, looks to a whole lot of people outside our bubble. And it matters. It matters to all of us. Our side has no leadership, only opportunists leading the mob.

UPDATE: I could hardly ask for a more perfect vindication of my point about political symbolism than the Twitter storm by liberals who are ALL OFFENDED by my use of the stereotypical inner-city black man as a negative symbol in my example for right-wing readers. The point of bringing that up was to make Christian conservatives see that Kim Davis, who looks like an ordinary rural Christian woman who violated a law to them, is a hugely loaded negative symbol for people outside their cultural bubble. Similarly, the black man I described in that context — a man who looks like an ordinary inner-city black man, though a lawbreaker — appears to a lot of people on the Right as a hugely loaded negative symbol. Whether it is fair or not doesn’t matter. Young inner-city black men are widely perceived on the Right as menacing. Rural religious white people are widely perceived on the Left as threatening, though in a different way. Symbolism matters.

If you’re one of the progressives freaking out over my illustration, chances are you don’t spend any time thinking about how what looks normal to you looks to people outside your bubble. The people outside your bubble might well be prejudiced against inner-city black men, or rural white Christians, but their prejudice does not obviate the political reality of the symbolism.

As Reagan’s imagemaker Michael Deaver understood, people in this culture pay attention to the image, not the verbal content. Put Reagan in front of a wall of flags, that’s what people will remember, not what they said. In Kim Davis’s case, many people not inside the conservative/conservative Christian bubble see that rally, and see nothing more than leading Republican politicians expressing solidarity with a bunch of countrified religious bigots who would break the law to stand in the way of gay rights. In the hypothetical gangbanger example I brought up, many people outside the progressive bubble would see that rally, and see nothing more than a leading Democratic politician expressing solidarity with a street thug who exemplified their fears.

Fairness has nothing to do with it.