Martyrs, heroes, and the government

You know why we have a division between Church and State? Wackadoos like Kentucky’s County Clerk Kim Davis who refuses to issue same-sex marriage licenses.(littlegreenfootballs.com photo) 

Social conservatives opposed to gay marriage have to decide what to do with Kim Davis, now sitting in a jail cell because she refused to issue marriage licenses–to anyone.  She also refused to authorize anyone else in her office to issue those licenses as well.

For Kim Davis, this is an easy decision–although choosing to go to jail never seems easy.  Whatever the Supreme Court says the Constitution says, Ms. Davis, elected as Rowan County Clerk (Kentucky), knows that God doesn’t want men to marry anyone but women.  She’s said as much to couples eager to tie the law: God’s law trumps (pardon the expression) all else.

Although mixed gender marriage doesn’t bother her (cheap shot: she’s done it four times!), she stopped issuing all marriage licenses because she didn’t want to be charged with discrimination.

Some have been ready to rally around her and the cause, describing her as an American hero.  See, for example, Caleb Parke’s entry on FoxNation.  For Parke, Davis is honoring America, God, the Constitution, and democracy:

Mrs. Davis is one of the most heroic and brave Americans right now. She’s honoring the God of the Bible like our Founding Fathers, like Martin Luther King, Jr., like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the book of Daniel, and like many saints who have gone before her. She will not bow to the Supreme Court. She bows to the Supreme Being.

Desperate for attention and the fealty of social conservative voters, some Republican presidential hopefuls have heaped on their support, most notably Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz.  Many other conservatives, however, say that the rule of law requires her to do her job–or to let others do it.

Heroic comparisons are difficult.  Leaving aside the Biblical references (how about: “render unto Caesar…”), Martin Luther King also went to jail for violating local laws, but he wasn’t working for the government when doing so, and he explicitly claimed not only God’s support, but also that of the Constitution and the Supreme Court.  (Read that wonderful “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and see.)  The first amendment protects religious expression of individuals, not the government, nor someone acting as an agent for the government.  The Bill of Rights is written as a set of constraints on government to protect the people.

The Court has been wrong in interpreting the Constitution in the past–certainly by the lights of contemporary wisdom–but the Court gets to interpret it.  The four justices who disagreed with the majority on the Constitutionality of same sex marriage haven’t expressed any concern with the Court’s role in interpreting the Constitution or offered even a glimmer of support or sympathy for Davis’s resistance.

But the law and the Constitution are likely less important to activists and politicians in deciding their stances on the matter.  Senator Cruz, who went to law school, surely knows better, but he’s announced that he’s standing with Davis (albeit, not in jail):

Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny…Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith.

What about Dorothy Day?  Or Sister Megan Rice?  They are surely devout religious women who spent serious time in jail for living the Gospel in opposition to war and nuclear weapons.

But let’s leave Cruz, and get back to the point.

Opponents of gay marriage have hardly been unified behind Kim Davis.  Why?

On one hand, she’s an imperfect icon for social conservatives (Democrat, multiple marriages).

On another, stepping back even treatment from the state is laden with risk.  What happens when a pacifist Quaker clerk stops issuing gun licenses?

Movements always have to figure out how to handle their most enthusiastic supporters.  You see, sometimes they’re crazy.

Federal District Judge David L. Bunning (a Republican opponent of same sex marriage), may have done the cause a favor by putting her in jail while she’s in contempt of court.  In jail, she’s suffering for her beliefs, much more visibly than paying fines (with the aid of better funded allies).  Out of jail, she’s only imposing suffering on others–for her beliefs.

For now, it’s a small rally.

I’ll be surprised if it continues long in this way or gets very large.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to Martyrs, heroes, and the government

  1. Pingback: God and democracy | Politics Outdoors

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