The Kim Davis Discussion Must Include JFK

The Kim Davis Discussion Must Include JFK September 8, 2015

Kim Davis is the county clerk in Kentucky who prohibited her office from issuing any marriage licenses because, “To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage [that is, straight marriage], with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience.”

That seems odd, because as a candidate she never admitted that she’d pick and choose the laws she’d follow. In fact, she promised to “follow the statutes of this office to the letter.”

Davis justified her reversal by arguing that the “So help me, God” tacked on to her oath of office meant that acting on her Christian beliefs was obligatory and trumped the laws she was promising to uphold. There are two small problems with this: that phrase is not part of the official oath (nor is the Bible you might put your hand on), and if she swore to God to uphold the law, she’s now breaking that oath. (A thoughtful analysis of this is by Noah Feldman.)

An easy solution leaps to mind: if you can no longer perform your job, quit. You could even make a bold statement by saying that a government job that pays $80,000 per year isn’t worth compromising one’s principles. But no, she wants it both ways. She imagines that she gets to apply her personal interpretation of Christianity to her job. So presumably every other government official gets to apply their individual religious interpretations to their jobs?

At least Sharia law isn’t quite so chaotic.

I wonder how deeply Davis has thought this through. The Bible says all sorts of crazy stuff in favor of slavery, genocide, and polygamy. Since she picks and chooses which secular laws to follow, I suppose she feels comfortable doing the same with God’s laws. Jesus himself said, “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32). Before her current grandstanding, did she enforce that rule, too?

Davis began her job in January, 2015, when she knew that same-sex marriage might become legal within months, but she swore her oath of office anyway. She’s like the pacifist who willingly joins the infantry, knowing that killing the enemy was a possibility. And now that her unit has been deployed to a war zone, this pacifist decides that she won’t do her job.

(Davis had been in jail for contempt, but she was released 9/8/15 with the constraint that she can’t interfere in her deputy clerks’ jobs of issuing marriage licenses.)

We’ve seen this before with JFK

John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960. Some Americans were concerned that JFK, as a Catholic, would answer to the pope if elected president rather than the Constitution or the American people. One radio evangelist of the time said, “Each person has the right to their own religious belief [but] the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical system demands the first allegiance of every true member and says in a conflict between church and state, the church must prevail.”

In other words, how do we know that JFK won’t do a Kim Davis?

JFK famous responded:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; [and] where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials. …

I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.

JFK explicitly rejected what Kim Davis has embraced.

The U.S. Constitution calls the tune

Here’s the bottom line. God isn’t the chief executive—the president of the United States is. The Bible isn’t the supreme law of the land—the Constitution is.

Be not confused: the United States doesn’t exist and run because God said so; instead, Christians can preach and worship because the Constitution says so. If the law offends you, you can argue that it’s unjust, you can work to have it changed, or you can leave. We have a 100% secular constitution that defines a 100% secular means for making, changing, and upholding laws.

I hear Pakistan puts God first in their law—maybe you’d like that better.

“The sky is falling!”

Conservatives are quick to tell us that this incident is the beginning of overt Christian persecution. A Christian Post columnist said, “For years now I and others have been warning that committed Christians could soon face jail time in America for holding to our convictions.”

Not really. Christian county clerks can object to same-sex marriages, Christian pharmacists can object to emergency contraceptives, Muslim flight attendants can object to serving alcohol, Christian bakers and photographers can object to same-sex weddings, but do your job. Don’t sign up and then imagine oppression. If you discover a moral dilemma down the road, quit.

To anticipate some jobs that a devout Christian might belatedly realize conflict with biblical principles, HuffPo has a list of jobs to avoid. You wouldn’t want to be a clerk selling mixed fabrics (prohibited), fishing for shellfish (prohibited), or teaching as a woman (prohibited). Are these examples ridiculous? Then ditto a clerk who objects to same-sex marriage (not explicitly prohibited) but has no problem with marrying divorced people (prohibited).

Another Christian Post columnist said, “Every serious biblical Christian will have to consider what to do now—whether a baker being asked to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage against her conscience, a county clerk faced with issuing a marriage license to a homosexual couple, or a pastor being requested to perform a wedding between two women or two men.” Let me answer that for you: the baker is obliged to follow public accommodation laws that prohibit discrimination, county clerks must do their jobs, and the U.S. has laws protecting pastors.

This last one is always on the list, even though pastors are protected, both by the First Amendment and by Supreme Court precedent. Remember Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that made mixed-race marriage legal? That is binding only on governments, not pastors. Pastors can and do refuse to perform mixed-race marriages. The same is true for same-sex marriages. Even the Family Research Council (a Christian organization) agrees. Hysteria about constraints on the clergy is popular because it rallies the troops, not because it’s realistic.

This reminds me of Glenn Beck’s hysteria on the eve of the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage. He declared that there were upwards of 10,000 pastors “that I think will walk through a wall of fire, you know, and possible death.”

Who did he imagine on the other side with the flaming torches?

Kim Davis: another Rosa Parks?

Rosa Parks was the African-American woman who refused to sit in the back of the bus in 1955. One of Kim Davis’s supporters finds much similarity between the two women. If Rosa Parks shouldn’t have to get off the bus, why should Kim Davis? He asks, “Will Kim Davis be the Rosa Parks of the movement?”

The difference, of course, is that Rosa Parks had her civil rights infringed upon, while Kim Davis is trying to infringe on the civil rights of others. If Kim Davis feels that the Bible has something to say about Obergefell, she can express that view, and every atheist I can think of will support her right to free speech. What she can’t do is impose that outside the law.

Will Kim Davis be the Rosa Parks of the conservative anti-same-sex marriage movement? A three-times-divorced person setting herself up as the arbiter of marriage might indeed be an appropriate saint for this ridiculous up-is-down and Ignorance-is-Strength movement.

Related post: Being on the Wrong Side of History on Same-Sex Marriage? Worse than You Think.

If you have to explain,
“I’m doing this out of love,”
it ain’t love.
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  • eldermusician

    And what really irritates me is that the “moderate” Christians, the more sane ones, the ones who understand the problem that religious fundamentalism creates in a “free” society – these moderate Christians aren’t taking to task the Kim Davises of the world and of our country. They should be the ones who shut down the idiocy she spews and that her fundamentalist church spews. Because, whether they like it or not, her brand of stupidity turns people against even their more moderate brand of faith. IMHO g

    • adam

      “these moderate Christians aren’t taking to task the Kim Davises of the world and of our country. ”

      They can’t because they have the same wacky beliefs as the fundies, they still believe in the childish superstitions and magic.

      They still ‘believe’ in the monsterous ‘god’ of the OT.

      • tsig

        “Extremism in the defense of (religious) liberty is no vice.”

    • My opinion is that things look clearer when imagined through a political lens. Rowan county is the momentary Mecca, and presidential candidates are flocking to absorb some of Davis’s 15 minutes of fame. Her antics are politically advantageous. The conservatives love a martyr to rally the troops.

    • MNb

      Me too. Also on this blog so called Progressive Christians have their mouths full of “I totally support same gender marriage” and stuff. Now where are they to tell Kim Davis that her interpretation of the Bible is wrong?
      At least one of them admitted recently his lack of commitment – “why not let them think the sky is green?”

    • R Vogel

      Honestly, if you can’t find Christian voices pushing back against her kind if Fundamentalism you aren’t looking that’s one:

      and another:

      a couple more:

      there’s this lady:

      and this one:

      And that’s just off the top of my head. It takes literally no effort to find progressive voices in Christianity if are looking for them…

  • Jack Baynes

    You just made Santorum throw up in his mouth again.
    Good job!

  • Alfred Kamal Etheredge

    “Sharia law isn’t quite so chaotic,”
    Come on, give us a break. We’ve gotten out of practice with the theocracy thing over the last 400 years, what with that enlightenment and all. We’ll prove ourselves- what we need are some martyrs…….

  • L.Long

    What is even worse is that there are so many in her area that agree with her on many levels that she will probably be reelected to the job as a hero!!!
    Which is OK as it clearly indicates a place I don’t want to be in!
    Just like the confederate flag…fly it, it indicates the presences of raving bigots, stay away!

  • I would bet dollars to donuts were Kim Davis a Muslim woman who refused to marry a same-sex couple, she would be vilified by the same Conservative Christians who are instead celebrating Davis.

    • Rudy R

      Or if Kim refused to issue hunting licenses based on a deeply held religious conviction that killing is wrong, she would be condemned as well.

      • Shouldn’t be hard to find verses in the Bible that prohibit killing. I dunno–say the Fifth Commandment?

        I wonder if Davis herself has thought this through. She wants to pick and choose, using her interpretation of the Bible as the guide. So she’s OK with other government officials using their different interpretations? And the non-Christian government officials also following their religious instincts? She wants this chaotic environment that would come from everyone using their own religious feelings is the final arbiters?

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          We might then actually have a society based on consensus and accommodation rather than on coercive uniformity in the name of “rights.”

        • I have no idea what that means. You want a formal democracy where every citizen votes on every single law?

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          No, of course not. I am interested in the mechanisms of “formal democracy” (or any other governmental mechanisms) being used gently and sensitively in the interests of consensus and peaceful co-existence instead of in the interests of imposing one group’s views on another.

        • Dys

          Of course, if a person decides they no longer wish to perform the job duties they were hired/elected to perform, they can (and should) gently and sensitively resign from their post or be dismissed.

        • As an elected official, she’s difficult to get rid of. Perhaps that’s part of her ill-thought-out plan.

        • MNb

          That’s exactly the problem with Davis. She wants to impose her views on others – specifically gays.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          No. If her purpose were to ensure that no same-sex couples received marriage licenses, then indeed there would be an irreconcilable conflict. But in fact her purpose is to ensure that she does not have to issue such documents under her name.

        • She wants an America where SSM is illegal, and probably an America where the fags know their place–in the closet.

          Ain’t gonna happen. She will lose.

        • adam

          ” But in fact her purpose is to ensure that she does not have to issue such documents under her name.”

          But ONLY to homosexuals
          Not divorcees like herself
          Not adulterers like herself
          But ONLY to homosexuals does she want to not have such documents under her name.

          And she certainly does not have the morals of the bible to defend:

        • I’m certain that’s not her goal. If it were, she would’ve simply quit.

        • Kodie

          She’s not the only clerk who feels this way. What you’re saying is you condone her protest leads to millions of other clerks thinking they don’t have to do their job and obey the law, and make it difficult for gay couples to find a place to get their legal marriage license. If it’s ok for her to not issue licenses, that is her using the government as her own religious tool. What few of you gay-haters seem to understand is that people can’t just use the government to wield their religious beliefs for them. “They can always go to another clerk” only there would be too many clerks who won’t give out licenses. Is this the “peer pressure” you were against in the other thread? Using “peer pressure” to make gay people unwelcome in a country where they work and live and pay taxes and have the right to marry?

        • MNb

          So you think Davis is OK with same gender marriage as long as she doesn’t have to sign those documents?
          Now that’s naive.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Of course she’s not OK with it. But I think she recognizes that she can’t stop it.

        • MNb

          That’s irrelevant. She stands for her religious principle, which is “same gender marriage should be prohibited”. Hence she wants to impose her views on others.

        • Kodie

          I think she recognizes that she could provide a precedent for other Christians not to do their jobs or obey the law. You people act like there’s just one or two of these people who don’t want to fulfill their obligations, and everyone still has plenty of places they can go to get their marriage license. That’s not what Christians are thinking at all. They are thinking if they don’t (have to) provide the services required, gay people will be shut out and shunned by social pressures to at least go back in the closet if not “turn straight.”

        • Some issues are zero-sum games, with winners and losers once they’re decided. A gentle application of the law sounds nice, but I don’t see how that helps us in the Davis case. Is there relevance?

    • Heck, Bob linked to a story up there which vilified a Muslim woman that didn’t want to serve alcohol (surely a far more minor issue) so we know this already does happen (though again-do your job).

      • Edwin Woodruff Tait

        I support her. In fact I’m a lot more enthusiastic about supporting her than I am about Davis. (And I would be more enthusiastic yet if we were talking about, say, a military officer who refused to authorize a drone strike because it would kill civilians.)

        • How do these two women differ? They both signed up for a job with their eyes open and then decided they wanted to pick and choose the rules they followed.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Well, actually on those grounds Davis has a much better case. She did not sign up for a job that involved giving out marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

          I am more enthusiastic about supporting Stanlee than Davis because she is not a government official, because any inconvenience her conscience imposes on others is extremely minor, because she has not engaged in the kind of harsh rhetoric against others or triumphalist claims about the relationship of her religion to U.S. law that Davis has, and because she is a member of a minority religious group and her suspension seems to have resulted primarily from the prejudices of her co-worker.

        • Dys

          She did not sign up for a job that involved giving out marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

          She signed up for a job that involved issuing marriage licenses to eligible couples. Legal definitions change – she can either deal with it or resign.

        • MNb

          That’s what happened in The Netherlands. And because Dutch governments often don’t like to force issues they got a year or so to find another job.

        • I do see that difference, but Davis swore her oath to uphold the laws when everyone knew that Obergefell was in the works. Again, Davis is like the soldier who signs up for the infantry and then (surprise!) gets sent to a war zone.

          “But there was no war on when I signed up!” doesn’t work.

        • MNb

          Good for you. But why should we care? Unless you do some explanation, of course.

          Ah, you did underneath.

        • Why do you support her? The examples don’t really seem comparable here.

    • Good point. And the Muslims would be getting their prohibitions from the same religious tradition.

  • Of course she has no problem marrying divorced people, as she’s been divorced multiple times herself. Ironically, this is the only specifics that the Bible claims Jesus got into regarding marriage, and was completely against it, saying marrying any divorced woman caused her to commit adultery. Also that divorce was only permissible by the man, for the “unchastity” of his wife. There were also some very pointed words on hypocrisy at several points. I believe that “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” is pretty relevant here (Matthew 7:3).

    • Great point. That mote/beam bit on hypocrisy would fit nicely (though the post was already far too long).

      • Robert Templeton

        And Kim’s response would be ‘Jesus said what?’

        Hypocrite is as hypocrite does.

  • Jennifer L.

    I read the headline as “MLK” instead of JFK, because someone had posted that comparison on my FB feed (and which I thought of as a ridiculous parallel). I think now, no matter the rationale, Mrs. Davis will resist anything besides her current course of action because she’s made a public proclamation that has garnered many followers.

    • They made a favorable comparison of Davis with MLK?? I thought it couldn’t get any worse with the comparison with Rosa Parks.

      • Jennifer L.

        Yes, it was a meme with both their pictures and the quote “One has the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Apparently her lawyer started this comparison in an interview.

        • (Audience participation requested below.)

          I’ve lately heard from the conservative side lots of examples of civil disobedience by liberals on this issue–the mayor of San Francisco issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples before it was legal, Obama not defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and so on.

          Here’s my response, but I’d like to get others’. First, what I hear this conservative saying is, “Mr. President, I disagree with your position, but I heartily support your civil disobedience. A man standing up for his principles against the law–good for you, sir!” So far, I haven’t heard this, but they’re obliged to since they’re saying that Davis’s conservative civil disobedience is identical to liberals’ civil disobedience.

          Second, those who wanted to issue SSM licenses while that was illegal weren’t hurting anyone. Kim Davis is. (This is also the obvious [but ignored] difference between Kim Davis and Rosa Parks–Parks was defending civil rights while Davis is pissing on them.)

          How would others respond to this conservative challenge?

        • Jennifer L.

          I don’t see the conservatives in this case saying they support anything the President has done, ever. And any time I have seen it pointed out that people in office practiced civil disobedience, such as the examples you have mentioned, it has been more along the lines of, “They broke the law and didn’t get punished. So, why is KD in jail? She’s doing the same thing.” I find it highly ironic/hypocritical/disingenuous that the people backing Ms. Davis are using heroes of the Civil Rights Movement as comparisons to what she’s doing, since these are the same people denying that there is any reason for the Black Lives Matter campaign.

      • MNb

        Yes. I think it was the Friendly Atheist who showed it. Or perhaps Jerry Coyne. Disgusting.

  • RichardSRussell

    “Boss, I know you hired me to work the high steel, but I may have neglected to mention my acrophobia. You’ll still pay me the same if I just work down here on the ground, right?”

  • R Vogel

    I’m flabbergasted that Rosa Parks keep getting mentioned with regard to this lady when George Wallace is such a more apt comparison…

  • Mick

    I wonder how deeply Davis has thought this through.

    She probably started off playing it by ear and thinking that each step along the way would be the last step. Then the theocrats surrounded her and she’s been dancing to their tune ever since.