As a proud Christian man hailing from Bardstown, Kentucky, I felt compelled to come to the defense of the Christian Right in light of the Kim Davis situation. Although the circumstance of the Rowan County clerk is the first of its kind in the post-Obergefell v. Hodges world, wherein gay marriage is now the law of the land, I fear that her debacle will become the new norm unless Washington, and indeed the United States, recognizes the serious predicament the Christian Right has now entered.
For the first time in the history of this country, the institution of marriage, described by the Supreme Court as “fundamental to our very existence and survival,” has been altered for the inclusion of gay men and women. Regardless of one’s position on gay marriage, all of us must recognize that this is a monumental step away from traditional American society. Consequently, it is essential that people view this transformation through the lens of an increasingly chastised section of the population, the Christian Right. In doing so, the Kim Davis saga becomes both contextually clear and predictably fixable.
Admittedly, it is impossible to describe the Christian Right without generalizing to some extent. Because the group encompasses such a wide variety of individuals that tend to have conflicting opinions on political issues, and due to an increased partisanship among some of its leaders, the term “Christian Right” isn’t always helpful. But in order to fully understand Kim Davis and other Christian objectors to same-sex marriage, a limited definition of Christian Right is beneficial.
When I refer to this group, I do not include the bigots and racists who falsely claim to espouse Christian values. Nor do I refer to those who hide behind the mask of Christianity to advance segregationist or sectarian-like policies—see racial discrimination at Bob Jones University. Explicitly, I use the term Christian Right to denote all biblically informed, conservative-minded Americans who profess to practice some form of Christianity—usually Evangelical Protestantism or Roman Catholicism—and have a faith-driven interest in the political process.
When I think of the Christian Right, I never think of the fringe groups portrayed in much of the media. I think about my papaw, incidentally the best man I know. I think about my pastor, a decent, honest man attempting to lead his congregation in an admirable way. I think about all those rural Kentuckians so far away from the political correctness of Washington and Harvard. I consider these men and women my own, and I sincerely look up to them.
Indeed, I believe the Christian Right to be composed of honest, hard-working, God-fearing people who have long held sincere beliefs that are now being overruled in the courts of law and public opinion. Though the group maintains strong unity on most social issues, it remains diverse on other issues like education, economics, and the environment. Geographically, the majority of the Christian Right lies beneath the Mason-Dixon line, but its strands are present in every state.
Nevertheless—and herein lies the challenge for the Christian Right—America is becoming increasingly socially liberal. Over the last decade support for both same-sex marriages and out-of-wedlock babies has increased sharply, and more and more people identify as a “social liberal.” While opposition to abortion and support of the death penalty remains fairly high among Americans, the simple truth is that America itself is changing. Our politics, our culture, our society, and even our values seem to be evolving dramatically.
In response to these changes, the Christian Right has failed to articulate a culturally relevant, biblically based position. Instead of unequivocal condemnation of gay marriage, for example, the Christian Right’s response should have carefully delineated why the opposition to gay marriage is fundamentally rooted in the biblical definition of marriage as covenant. As the country evolved, however, the Christian Right neglected to formulate a sound reply.
Historically, change in America has brought much-needed reform and prosperity to a society that had long neglected Lincoln’s vision of equality and Jefferson’s dream of liberty and justice for all. Contemporarily, much work remains to honor those visions.
But when the Supreme Court overturned a precedent of two millennia, this change abruptly forced the Christian Right into a position it had never before occupied. To a group that values limited self-government and the right of democratically elected officials to enact legislation that is usually favorable to their cause, this fundamental change of a sacred institution––not by the passage of a federal law but by unelected judges—appeared to be an illegitimate form of change.
In his meticulously-written dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts states,
“The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a State change its definition of marriage. And a State’s decision to maintain the meaning of marriage that has persisted in every culture throughout human history can hardly be called irrational.”
Accordingly, when my state’s democratically enacted ban on gay marriage was declared unconstitutional as a consequence of Obergefell, in which Kentucky was directly involved, a bit of rationality was lost. Suddenly, for many in rural Kentucky who had neglected keeping up with the debate over gay marriage, history was turned upside down. Our constitutional amendment affirming traditional marriage, which was approved by 75 percent of voters, was ironically judged undemocratic. In a state where states’ rights matter, the courts became a symbol of unbalanced federalism and encroachment.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage was never going to be just a legal decision on the constitutionality of marriage. It represented that “fundamental change” in America that has been decades in the making. While public opinion converted Joe Biden, President Obama, and most recently Hillary Clinton, the Christian Right refused to capitulate.
And so, when Kim Davis declined to issue same-sex marriage licenses and subsequently defied numerous court orders, she did more than defiantly break the law. She symbolized the fight of those within the Christian Right who are tired of losing. She embodied the feeling among many Americans that there exists a blatant double standard in this country.
However, Kim Davis herself is not the concern here. I have questions myself about the particulars of her case. But she has become a case study on how the Christian Right will be treated in the months and years ahead. Numerous other county clerks have since followed suit. These cases were bound to happen, with or without Kim Davis. Chief Justice Roberts’ prescient dissent foretold this:
“There will be consequences to shutting down the political process on an issue of such profound public significance … People denied a voice are less likely to accept the ruling of a court on an issue that does not seem to be the sort of thing courts usually decide.”
The arrest and detention of Kim Davis has thereby established a worrisome new precedent.
Going forward, the Kim Davis saga will not be the last of its kind unless the Christian Right and the rest of the country reach an understanding.
First, it should be clear that public officials have a duty to follow the written law, and it should be clear that gay marriage is now the law of the land. Kentucky Federal Judge David Bunning is correct in stating that his court “cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order.” Were he not to feel this way, then our government loses its legitimacy, and we reverse hard-fought gains in areas that have historically plagued our society (see the Jim Crow era). Kim Davis broke the law, and I think it’s fair to say that she understood what she was doing.
The crucial point, though, is that the situation did not have to result this way. Davis did not have to be forced into the dichotomous decision to either do her job or go to jail. Our government has historically made accommodations for conscientious objectors, and due to the historic nature of the Supreme Court’s ruling, it seems improbable that she could not have been accommodated in this instance.
It is therefore inexcusable that Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear refused to call an immediate special legislative session to address same-sex marriage issues. While Beshear lectures Kentuckians on the responsibility Davis and other elected officials have to uniformly fulfill their constitutional duties, his own attorney general––the state’s chief law enforcement officer––refused to defend Kentucky’s ban on gay marriage in 2014. In response to that abdication, however, the governor’s castigation was conspicuously missing.
In the case of Kim Davis, Beshear should have assembled a special legislative meeting to pass a simple law that accommodates conscientious objectors. For example, a law could be passed that strips the clerk’s affiliation from marriage licenses entirely. Such a law is advantageous to everyone, and so it is no wonder that governor-elect Matt Bevin has promised to implement this reform early on. While this dilemma certainly won’t end with county clerks, state legislatures can set a precedent that demonstrates how to compromise with Christian objectors. If a model is needed, we should look to North Carolina, where the state legislature overrode the governor’s veto to pass a law allowing clerks to forgo performing marriages for both homo- and heterosexual couples if they have a religious objection to gay marriage.
Last, Americans must understand that the Christian Right will not forsake core beliefs because of pressure to conform. We were taught that persecution for fidelity to our beliefs is inevitable (2 Timothy 3:12). Davis is certainly not the first Christian willing to go to jail on behalf of her beliefs, nor will she be the last. But it should be noted that Kim Davis wasn’t trying to stop same-sex couples from obtaining a marriage license; she just didn’t want her name on their paperwork.
This should be an easy fix. We merely need leaders with courage and common sense to find the solutions. I refuse to accept that we cannot find such leaders, and thus I refuse to accept that our society cannot find solutions that satisfy Christian objectors while conforming to the law. But if we remain inactive, then there will needlessly be more Kim Davises, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.