To all appearances, when Kim Davis, claiming to act “Under God’s authority,” imposed a ban on marriage licenses to gay couples, she was effectively placing herself on a par with Louis XIV – inexcusable, considering her clerkship wasn’t even in Bourbon County. Consequently, even many conservative commentators are calling her a loose cannon.
For whatever it’s worth, the Liberty Counsel, which is representing Davis free of charge, is making the case that she wasn’t always so reckless as she seems. According to a press release issued today, Davis, together with more than 50 other clerks, had petitioned the state legislature to draft a conscience-protection bill. Later, she proposed that Kentucky marriage license forms be changed so that county clerks’ names not appear on them. Defying the law and suffering for her faith wasn’t her first choice.
But now that she’s defied three different courts and been sent to jail, I have to admire her. She’s proving that Christian resistance to gay marriage needn’t always go the way of the Bull Moose Party.
The majority decision in Obergefell revealed a nasty triumphalist streak among gay-marriage supporters. Game over, was the general idea. Religions that opposed gay marriage, including the Catholic Church, had ended up on the wrong side of history – a phrase whose “Marxist twang” late historian Robert Conquest remarked on. “Shifts in hearts and minds is possible,” President Obama reminded holdouts, calling on “those who have come so far on the journey” to “reach back and help others join them.”
And reach they did, in concern-trolling open letters and helpful lists of “post-homophobic churches.” This, we were meant to understand, was our last chance to get in line. At least in the Catholic Church, most leaders struck a note midway between disappointment and despair.
Kim Davis gives the impression of not having gotten the memo. That the arc of history is bending away from her is something she either doesn’t know or doesn’t mind. The latest Pew numbers showing the rise of the “nones” seem not to have cost her a minute’s sleep. Unlike Rod Dreher, who has thought her protest all the way through to several probable, mostly negative outcomes, Davis herself appears to have no grand strategy. To take her at her word, a strategy would be beside the point. She discerned God’s will, she did it.
Granted, just because Davis hasn’t declared her game, doesn’t mean she isn’t running one. According to Kentucky’s constitution, elected officials, including clerks, can only be removed from office following impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate. This means Davis will continue drawing her salary while in jail. She might figure that this is the best way to persuade the state to alter marriage-license forms in the manner that she, together with the Kentucky Clerks Association, had recommended earlier. Still, there are no guarantees, so Davis’ move could fairly be called a gutsy one.
Refreshingly, Davis, even while taking her lumps through the legal system, remains immune to the other side’s heavier-handed means of persuasion. The ugly write-ups in Salon probably don’t carry much weight among Davis’ Rowan County constituents. Nobody can run her out of business because she’s not really in business. Whoever goes for her jugular on social media is pissing in the wind because, hey, not much screen time in the hoosegow. It is rare to see someone so free to follow her conscience.
This insulation is helping Davis in more ways than one. Not only is it keeping her out of her critics’ effective reach, it prevents her from pulling, for lack of a better term, a Sarah Palin, by saying something stupid, crankish, or too obviously self-dramatizing. Speaking through her legal team, she comes off modest, charitable, and entirely on-message. “I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will,” the Democrat has said, regarding gays and lesbians. On the subject of her previous marriages, she has acknowledged, simply, that she was a sinner. It’s almost freakish, these days, to hear anyone sound so free of grievance or so uninterested in making excuses.
I happen to be more practical – or maybe I mean more cynical – than I prefer to think Davis is, so I have to ask what effect she’ll have, what meaning the nation will ascribe to her actions. Ideally, if she goes on behaving with such dignity, she might inspire Christian employees of other counties to press for systems, like North Carolina’s, that enable them to opt out of issuing gay marriage licenses. With maniacs representing the various races engaged in a tit-for-tat assassination campaign, it would be very nice indeed if her example helped bring back civil disobedience with an accent on the civil.
But even if these outcomes turn out to be moon shots, she could still end up reminding Christians determined to make a case in public that sides of history are ultimately irrelevant. As Mother Theresa said, God doesn’t expect us to be successful, only faithful.