Editor’s Note: Building on an unintended theme of non-believing clergy expressing unexpected, controversial points of view on religious issues, here is Clergy Project member Jim Mulholland discussing his take on Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis – BEFORE her latest drama with Pope Francis. Note how Mulholland, like Bob Ripley before him, points out areas of agreement and disagreement with the subject of his criticism in the process of making his case. Reprinted with permission from the Leaving Your Religion Blog.
By Jim Mulholland
There are few people in America as notorious as Kim Davis, the county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky. Just in case you’ve been in a coma or hiking the Appalachian Trail, Ms. Davis has become famous for defying the federal courts and denying marriage licenses to same sex couples.
Conservative Christians call her actions heroic, comparing her civil disobedience to that of Rosa Parks. Nearly everyone else finds that comparison offensive, declaring her defiance a miscarriage of justice and a failure to fulfill her official responsibilities.
Most non-religious people seem unable to understand her actions and are suspicious of her motives. Many see her as a bigot, intent on requiring others to submit to her opinions on marriage. Others have questioned her integrity, pointing out her history of failed marriages. Still others have accused her of greed, of grandstanding in order to garner book deals and speaking engagements. Most scoff at her claim to be a person of conscience, unwilling to do what she finds morally repugnant. Yet – perhaps because I was once a conservative Christian – I find myself strangely sympathetic toward Kim Davis. Most of the criticism of her forgets an essential ingredient to all acts of conscience – if society agreed with your position, it wouldn’t be an act of conscience.
Before I defend Kim Davis, I should clarify that I think her unwillingness to provide marriage licenses to same sex couples is bigoted. I think it based on an antiquated Western religious understanding of marriage. I believe the Supreme Court was correct to end the government sanctioning of this Christian understanding of marriage. It was unconstitutional and violated the separation of church and state. I’m glad that a majority of Americans believe same sex couples should be given the same legal status as heterosexual couples. I expect our understanding of marriage will continue to expand and adapt, as it should.
That being said, I think Kim Davis’ behavior is similar to that of Rosa Parks and countless other expressions of conscience. Indeed, her actions are not substantially different than the behaviors of countless supporters of same sex marriage over the past twenty years. She joins them in making a public statement of her beliefs in the face of societal censure, legal consequence and even incarceration. While I disagree with her beliefs, I can still admire her audacity. I have never gone to jail for anything I believed.
While I wish Kim Davis had resigned as county clerk once she realized what the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage would require of her, I understand why she didn’t. In fairness to her, our nation changed the rules for her midterm. I believe her when she says she thought God would never allow such a thing to happen. While I see moral progress where she sees decay, I too am amazed at how quickly the national opinion on same sex marriage shifted. When she was elected to her position, she had good reason to believe her convictions would not be challenged. I believe her when she says she sought God’s guidance when she heard the Supreme Court’s ruling.
I think Kim Davis sincerely believes God told her to take a stand, to defy the law of the land and to use her unique position as a witness to her convictions. Since I don’t believe in God, I think she is simply projecting her own prejudices and opinions into this debate, but that doesn’t change the essential dynamic. Those who strongly believe something is immoral should stand against that behavior, opinion or attitude.
Imagine a Quaker official denying others gun permits as an act of conscience. How would you feel? Imagine – if a year ago – a Kentucky county clerk had been jailed for illegally granting marriage licenses to same sex couples. What would you have thought? What would you recommend to judges in Alabama where the State Supreme Court implied they could ignore the federal ruling? Is it an act of conscience to defy the state court or the federal court? Is it only an act of conscience when someone does what I admire?
Saying Kim Davis should have resigned is a little like saying Rosa Parks should have taken a taxi. In so doing, both of them would have certainly avoided confrontation and the resulting notoriety. That they refused back down was an act of conscience. That many scorned them, questioned their motives and applauded their incarceration confirms their commonalities. Indeed, a willingness to go to jail is perhaps one of the surest signs of a deeply held conviction.
The difference between Kim Davis and Rosa Park is not in their motives or behavior, but in society’s ultimate judgment of them. Today, most people would agree that Rosa Parks – acting out of conscience – is a heroine worthy of adoration and emulation.
In 1955, that final assessment of Rosa Parks was far less certain. Though I think history will not be nearly as kind to Kim Davis, only time will tell.
This is one of the ironies of any act of conscience. Defying the majority opinion sometimes leads to accolades and other times to denigration. Over time, even that assessment can shift. In 1529, Thomas More was celebrated as a man of conscience for refusing to grant King Henry VIII a divorce. He paid for this act with jail and beheading. For centuries, society found his actions noble. Yet today I doubt many of us would applaud a government official denying someone the right to divorce.
It will be interesting to see how Kim Davis acts now that she has been released from jail. If she told the judge she would abide by his ruling and doesn’t, her claim to the martyr’s mantle is far less credible. Dishonesty is not an act of conscience. Indeed, one of the qualities of civil disobedience is its civility. The person of conscience believes a government policy is immoral, but respects the responsibility of that government to enforce the law. While I strongly disagree with Kim Davis’ opinion on same sex marriage, as long as she obeys the law or sits in jail, I will not disparage her character.
Bio: Jim Mulholland spent twenty-five years as a pastor. He wrote several best selling Christian books and spoke nationally. In 2008, he resigned when his faith faltered. After several years of transition, Jim published the book “Leaving Your Religion” and began writing a blog on becoming post-religious. You can read more of Jim’s story and reflections atLeavingYourReligion.com.
>>>>>>Photo credits: “Major Alan G. Roger at Same-Sex Wedding Ceremony” by Stagedoorjohnny – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Major_Alan_G._Roger_at_Same-Sex_Wedding_Ceremony.jpg#/media/File:Major_Alan_G._Roger_at_Same-Sex_Wedding_Ceremony.jpg
“Rosaparks bus” by http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/083_afr.html#ParksR. Via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rosaparks_bus.jpg#/media/File:Rosaparks_bus.jpg