(UPDATED BELOW.) The Kim Davis gay marriage license case is a completely manufactured scandal, designed precisely to produce the current result: a “martyr” jailed for her beliefs, exciting media frenzy and fueling profitable fundraising and grassroots recruitment for ideological agitators. The actual issue is quite simple, and doesn’t involve “religious freedom” at all. But there is something more sinister going on behind these Kentucky conniptions.
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis swore an oath — before God — to “faithfully execute the duties of my office” when she took the post. These duties now include issuing same-sex marriage licenses, in line with the laws of Kentucky and the United States. If she now feels, upon her conscience, that she cannot do that, then she should simply resign her office. If she stays in the job but still refuses to execute the duties of her office, then she is literally breaking her oath to God. Obviously, she prefers to be an oathbreaker before the Lord than to give up the manufactured status of “martyr” she and her well-off backers are now promoting.
There is no issue of “religious freedom” here. If she believes that same-sex marriage violates the divine order — as, in my lifetime, millions of people believed (and some still believe) about interracial marriage — then she is free to express that belief and proclaim it throughout the land. No one will stop her. She does not, however, have the right to serve as a public official and, in violation of her sacred oath, refuse to carry out the required duties. “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out,” said Jesus. If thy job requirements offend thee, Kim Davis, pluck them out — quit the job which you admit you can no longer perform, and move on. But there is more to this manufactured martyrdom than meets the (offended eye).
Jesus also once picked up a coin that was stamped with the emperor’s image, and said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” This was his answer to those trying to provoke him into advocating a refusal to pay Roman taxes: a criminal offense. If you use Roman coinage, then pay Roman taxes; this is part of the murky compromises of every day life, in any political system — it was not, in his view, part of “the things that are God’s.” Kim Davis made the decision not only to make the murky compromises we all must make in order to eat and live (including using the coinage of a system we may oppose or despise); she went even further, and became part of the government system itself.
The “things that are Caesar’s” in such a secular system include the law. If you voluntarily put yourself into a position of executing the law — of becoming, in that sense, a “thing that is Caesar’s” —then you must either do it, or walk away from it. Again, this is not a situation where she is being forced to carry out this law, forced to hold this office; she has every right to say, “I cannot in good conscience do this thing; I cannot render this unto Caesar. Thus, I must walk away, and attend more to the things that are God’s.”
Isn’t that what someone who genuinely sought to follow the Jesus depicted in the Gospels would do? But this is not what Davis has done. Following the dictates of what has become a politicized perversion of Christianity into a militant, militarized cultural nationalism, Davis has instead provoked a “crisis,” to make herself a whited sepulchre of hypocritical righteousness — and rightwing media fame. Who knows, maybe she’ll end up with her own reality show out of this; the nation surely needs another good Christian TV family after the sad martyrdom of the Duggars. At the very least, she should get a guest shot on Duck Dynasty, some gab-time with Sarah Palin, and years of riding the rubber-chicken circuit, telling the story of her persecution.
Then there is the problem of precedent — which is precisely what Davis and her ideological backers are trying to create. She is, in fact, asserting the primacy of a Christian sharia: there is a “higher law” above secular law — and secular institutions must conform to it. Building on the “Hobby Lobby” decision —which extended the already pernicious doctrine of “corporate personhood” to a metaphysical level, declaring that corporations can actually have religious beliefs — Davis and her Christianist defenders are seeking to advance and entrench the “principle” that religious beliefs trump (pardon the pun) all other considerations, in all situations.
But wait a minute: what’s good for the fundamentalist Christian goose is good for the fundamentalist Muslim gander, right? What would stop a Muslim office from evoking sharia and refuse to carry out a secular law? Or how about this? imagine the outcry among these same political Christianists if, say, a fervent Catholic refused to issue a marriage license to Davis because of her multiple marriages and divorces? Davis’ serial traducing of the sacred rite of marriage in the Catholic understanding would be highly offensive to many. Should she then be denied a marriage license the next time she decides to get married — and would the Catholic official who denies it be considered a martyr by Fox News?
But course, Davis and her Christianist backers don’t worry about that. They are not concerned with the logical conclusion of their stance, because logic doesn’t enter into it. It’s a matter of militant faith.They are not asserting the primacy of religious belief in general over secular institutions — only the primacy of their own horribly constricted, culture-bound, hollowed-out, hysterical understanding of one sliver of Christian sectarianism. It’s “their” Christianity that should reign supreme, not any other religion, or any other understanding of Christianity.
So make no mistake: when Davis and her backers speak of “religious freedom,” they mean the freedom to impose their own religious beliefs on everyone else. Their ultimate goal is to merge the things that are Caesar’s with the things that are God’s — and they alone will determine what the will of God should be for every person, every institution.
(UPDATE): A couple of further thoughts. In writing the above, I don’t mean to make a fetish of the “law,” or to deny that there are moral considerations “above” or outside the law. Law is a human construct, not a Platonic form or divine order. It can be and is used, often, to countenance and perpetuate evil. Many if not most of the worst atrocities in history were “legal.” For example, slavery was once “legal” in the US; although the practice was restricted to the Southern states, it was upheld on the federal level in the Dred Scott decision: slaves were the “legal” property of their masters, and were to be “lawfully” returned to their owners if they “illegally” escaped from their captivity.
A “law,” then, can certainly be morally wrong. (Indeed, as laws are written — and enforced — by the powerful, largely to protect their own interests, injustice and immorality are inevitable in the framework of “law,” to varying degrees.)
But that is not at issue in this case. Davis has willingly made herself a servant of the law; she has actually sworn before God to uphold the law as a public officeholder. Her malefaction here is not that she is somehow insulting a sacrosanct ideal of “law” by her action (or rather, her inaction), but simply that she is deliberately refusing to carry out a task which she has freely taken on. No one is compelling her to act against her conscience; she is simply refusing to give up her perks and powers while denying same-sex couples the rights to which they are entitled in the society in which they live. Her “crime” is not holding a certain religious belief; her offence is abuse of office.