For the past two days, my newsfeed on Facebook has been filled with posts and comments about the arrest of Kim Davis, the court clerk from Kentucky who was imprisoned on Thursday for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in her county, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling for equality and direct orders from a judge to resume issuing licenses. As soon as Davis’s arrest was announced, the conservative media blew up with cries of persecution, calling Davis a martyr and even likening her to a modern Rosa Parks. As I saw all of this unfolding, I grew increasingly infuriated to see people bearing the name of Christ resorting to such dishonest and deceptive tactics, obscuring the truth and hijacking the language and heroes of the civil rights movement to fuel the fears of their base.
The new Religious Right seems to be relentlessly looking for ways to scare conservative Christians into believing that we are living in the last days and that their future will be filled with severe persecution at the hands of the liberal government who is seeking to eradicate Christianity from America. The new agenda includes rallying around abortion, fighting against the “normalization” of the “gay lifestyle” in American culture, and, of course, religious liberties. The narrative that is being spun by conservative religious and political leaders is that events like Houston’s Mayor subpoenaing pastors sermons and Kim Davis’s imprisonment for standing for “traditional marriage” are going to become more and more common, eventually resulting in pastors being jailed for refusing to perform same-sex weddings or for preaching against homosexuality. This fear-based narrative is convincing to many conservative laypeople and conservative leaders know that fear is possibly the best way to get people to rally around your cause.
The problem is that the whole narrative of the religious right is patently false. It’s deceptive and dishonest and yet it is being spread by some of the most prominent “Christian leaders” of our time. I have spent the past year as an activist for LGBTQ rights among evangelicals and have interacted with a number of conservative leaders who know and admit that persecution is not in our future, who actually believe that civil marriage equality is a constitutional right, and yet either turn around and spew the most outlandish lies from pulpits and on news outlets or sit silently as their colleagues spin fantastical narratives to cause conservatives to fear. As an evangelical myself, the more and more I see this blatant dishonesty, the more I have felt compelled to speak out and call this what it is: Deception.
Last night, I watched Gov. Mike Huckabee on FOX News say that Kim Davis’s arrest marked the official “criminalization of Christianity” in our nation. He continued, “Who’s next? Are pastors next? Florists? Caterers? Who else goes to jail before this is over?” I believe that Gov. Huckabee is an educated and intelligent man. He knows that Kim Davis’s arrest has absolutely nothing to do with the “criminalization of Christianity.” It has nothing to do with pastors or florists or caterers. Kim Davis worked for the government. She ran for office to be the clerk of her counties court. When you work for the government, let alone a court, you are going to be expected to uphold the law. If you fail to do your job, there will be consequences. This doesn’t apply to private citizens like pastors, florists, or caterers, and Gov. Huckabee knows it. But instead of being honest, he is spinning a narrative of fear in order to rally conservatives so that he can gain political power.But that’s to be expected, right? Huckabee is a politician after all. But what happens when evangelical theologians join the game? Dr. Robert Gagnon, professor of New Testament, took to Facebook spreading the same dishonest lies: “I am tired of hearing people claiming falsely that Kim Davis is abandoning the rule of law (a claim made even by some conservatives and Christians who should know better).” Gagnon continued, in a different post, saying “The Obergefell decision has no more validity than the Dred Scott case (or the Fugitive Slave Act) had in Lincoln’s day. Civil disobedience is commendable.” Again, Gagnon is a highly educated scholar and must know exactly what he’s doing when he spreads such patently false information.
To be clear, this is not a matter of debate: Kim Davis, by refusing to do her job as the court clerk and issue marriage licenses despite numerous orders from her superiors, abandoned the rule of law. Her role as the court clerk elevated her above the position of an average citizen. This was not a case of civil disobedience. This was a case of a woman failing to uphold her oath of office. If she felt that she couldn’t, in good conscience, carry out her duties, the noble move would have been to resign. By failing to do so, Davis subjected herself to the natural consequences of breaking the law. Furthermore, for Gagnon to compare the Supreme Court’s decision to the Fugitive Slave Act is absolutely absurd and highly offensive. Again, the tactics of the religious right seem to be to hijack the language of racial inequality and civil rights to defend their case against LGBTQ equality. They are representing themselves as the “persecuted minority”, the ones facing the real injustice in our nation. And that is absolutely unacceptable.
I wish that Gov. Huckabee and Dr. Gagnon were outliers in the conservative world. But that sad reality is that more and more voices are adopting this deceptive narrative and offensive rhetoric. And as this narrative spreads, it will undermine the very value they claim to be defending: Religious liberty. Because what Gov. Huckabee, Dr. Gagnon, and Kim Davis are fighting for is not religious liberty. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of that. They are fighting to keep Christianity in a position of privilege and power in our nation. They are seeking to have their religious beliefs valued above everyone else’s. They are seeking to establish so-called “Christian morality” over our nation, which fundamentally threatens the religious liberty of the millions of people in our nation that do not identify as conservative Christians.
The fact that Kim Davis is being celebrated as a martyr makes this clear. She forced her beliefs on the people of Rowan County. She refused to acknowledge the rights of the dozens of same-sex couples that came into her office seeking to be married in accordance with their beliefs and the law. Kim Davis is not a hero or a martyr. She is not a champion of religious liberty. Instead, she represents perhaps the biggest threat to religious liberty in our nation right now: Conservative Christians who are seeking to impose their beliefs and values on a nation where they are increasingly becoming the minority opinion. If we allow our conservative brothers and sisters to continue spreading this unchristian and un-American agenda, we could very well see the degradation of the religious liberties of everyone who doesn’t agree with them. And that’s not a fear tactic, it’s reality.