Author note: While I find much to agree with in Mr. Church’s sentiment here, I can’t fully embrace ignoring the law without consequences. I guess traditionalists are right about Kant and his epistemological head games focused on non-contradiction: they rot the brain. Perhaps mine is rotten too. I’ll let the readers decide.
Much ink has been spilled on the ongoing plight of Kim Davies, the Kentucky county clerk who is currently incarcerated for refusing to issue marriage licenses.
First Things editor R.R. Reno praises her resoluteness to “quietly following the dictates of her conscience.” Author Luma Simms also celebrates Davis “acting in accordance with God’s moral law which is now written on her heart as a convert” to Christianity. National Review’s Charlie Cooke is adamant that Davis breaking the law and intones that “[she]does not have a leg to stand on.” Rod Dreher blogs, “even though my heart is with Kim Davis, my head says principle matters” and that “if we grant individuals the right to defy any law they like without consequence, as long as they claim religious liberty, the rule of law ceases to exist. “
The liberal media is having a field day over impugning Davis’ intransigence against complying with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. Back when California outlawed same-sex marriage, the Grey Lady herself endorsed government officials defying the law. But let’s forget about the hypocrisy of the liberal media for a moment. The question at hand for Christians is this: What’s the proper role of civil disobedience in the face of a hostile government?
I love a good poke in the eye of authority as much as the next guy. But, like Dreher and Cooke, I see that the law must have consequences. I’ve praised the defiance of some Southern counties refusing to issue marriage licenses altogether. That movement, small as it is, represents a dropping out of public requirement. But like Kim Davis, the perpetrators have to face the consequences of their choice. And for the Kentucky county of Rowan, the chickens are coming home to roost.
Davis is now sitting behind bars, a punishment that far exceeds the severity of her crime. She wasn’t hurting anyone. She also wasn’t preventing marriage seekers from getting their government certification elsewhere in the state. Instead, as a public official she defied the law the land. Rightly or wrongly, her actions necessitate punishment. What that is, I can’t say, but jailing is too far out of line.
I endorse Davis facing repercussions not because I find government law unassailable but for a different reason: the need for predictability in civil order. Without equal treatment before the law, authority becomes capricious and arbitrary. If every government official found it necessary to pick and choose what to enforce and not enforce, our law system would be meaningless. Now, it’s not an exaggeration to accuse our current legislative and judicial system of being byzantine to the point of absurdity. But even so, there is a logic based on precedent and public opinion behind how we proscribe what is not permitable in American society. Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses gets in the craw of our shared code of law.
So how is Christianity involved in the larger subject of orderly government law? Christianity doesn’t just define and prescribe a moral law. It necessitates fairness in the human struggle to govern and run society. Many historians link the American founders’ vision of equality before the law with Enlightenment thinking. This is only half true. While thinkers like John Locke strived for impartiality in law enforcement, it was Christian ethics that affirmed all men are equal. That equality is the root behind treating men justly when it comes to the law.
Indeed, many of Davis’ critics on the left are unaware of the Christian linkage to their own secular, universal humanism that demands equal treatment be given to all. This focus on equality is based on helping the helpless and giving the proper due to everyone regardless of class, creed, race, or income. “And ironically,” Michael Brendon Dougherty writes, “this instinct to protect the powerless is a leftover instinct of Christian civilization, which put sayings like ‘the last shall be first, and the first shall be last’ at the heart of its worship and moral imagination.”
Dougherty was referencing the right of free expression, but his reasoning applies to the concept of equality before the law just the same. Christianity doesn’t circumvent equal treatment but gives it a moral backing. For the Word of Christ holds that all are equal before the eyes of God. Thus, government, not being our Father, should still strive to hold everyone to the same standard.
There is also the issue of social stability to consider. Paul says in Romans 13 that we should “be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” This passage have been taken to mean complete subservience to the state and all its total machinations. But as Sarah Ruden points out in her classic Paul Among the People, the apostle wasn’t giving credence to the state but appealing to rulers to bring order to chaos. The time Paul evangelized was tumultuous, to say the least. Hundreds of years of Roman civil war were not stifled by republican government. So Paul appealed to dutiful embrace of military control, which finally brought peace. To live a faithful life, the heart must be stable. Paul preached that the same kind of stability should extend toward the larger government of man. Obeisance taken too far turns to idolatry, so it’s important to distinguish when resistance to government is necessary and when it’s wise to obey and continue to live and worship freely.
It would be one thing if Kim Davis’ stand was lighting a spark to combat the Obergefell decision through legislative channels. Unfortunately, that ain’t happening. A majority of Americans find nothing wrong with same-sex marriage. In a democracy, we sometimes have to live in the aftermath of poor decision-making.
Kim Davis’ act of defiance may uphold the sanctity of union between husband and wife, but it undermines the vow she took to uphold the law. She is correct that God’s Law trumps government-established decrees but then her duty should be to resign her post as a county clerk. Nobody is forcing her to hold her position. To stand against immorality, Davis should do the opposite: walk away from public-sanctioned sin. If we’re going to live in a democracy where nobody is above the law, then we must do our best to live to the standard, Davis included.
For her stint in jail, Kim Davies is not Martin Luther King, Jr. She may be taking a moral stand (and one conferred by the biblical definition of marriage), but she is doing it in the wrong capacity. Her martyrdom is needless. Her cause isn’t going to stir a moral majority into seeing what marriage truly is and why same-sex marriage is a perversion of the sacred bond. We live in an increasingly liberal, and thus libertarian age, where tradition and limits are abhorred. At this epoch, Davis will rot away in a cell before leading a moral revolution. I laud her individual conscience. But I fall short in seeing her sacrifice as worthwhile. For if any future law is to pass upholding the right of conscience and religious liberty in this country, we should expect deference to it by leftist opponents of traditional marriage. The jailing of Kim Davis shows that now, more than ever, Christians should stand by the Golden Rule.