Religious right still doesn’t know what ‘civil disobedience’ means

Religious right still doesn’t know what ‘civil disobedience’ means November 13, 2012

Once again, the religious right is threatening “civil disobedience” in opposition to same-sex marriage.

And so once again we see that the religious right does not know what “civil disobedience” means.

The Family Research Council is the latest group to mouth this threat:

The senior vice president of the Family Research Council said on Wednesday that civil disobedience may be necessary to prevent same sex marriages after voters in several states approved marriage equality.

John Lewis (left) and Jim Zwerg in 1961 in Montgomery, Ala.

In a special broadcast titled “Election 2012: Aftermath & Aftershocks,” FRC president Tony Perkins told Senior Vice President Tom McClusky that LGBT marriage rights were still “morally wrong” even though pro marriage equality measures passed in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Voters in Minnesota also defeated a proposed amendment to codify marriage discrimination in the state’s constitution.

“The people can vote on it — it’s the first time we’ve seen that [pass] — courts can rule on it, but I don’t think you can violate natural law and force Americans to recognize it as morally right,” Perkins explained.

“I think the term for a lot of things over the next four years, civil disobedience is going to come into play,” McClusky agreed.

This has been a standard refrain from the religious right for years, and it gained momentum after it was popularized in Chuck Colson’s “Manhattan Declaration” in 2009. Most of those repeating this call for “civil disobedience” seem to mean little more than what Colson meant — that it is pleasant to indulge in imagining oneself as heroic, good and courageous, and as the moral heir somehow of Gandhi and King. (See recently, for example, Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch, or the group ActsFive29.)

But beyond such fantasy role-playing, what could the Family Research Council’s McClusky possibly mean when he says “civil disobedience is going to come into play” to protest same-sex marriage?

I can’t imagine. I would guess that what FRC is thinking of, if they’re thinking of anything at all, is organizing protests that end with some demonstrators getting arrested for trespassing. That used to be an effective tool for grabbing media attention, and it does display a level of commitment on behalf of those willingly facing arrest, but as we’ve discussed before (Civil Disobedience in Hazzard County), that’s not civil disobedience. Getting arrested for trespassing is only civil disobedience if you’re protesting laws against trespassing.

Civil disobedience can be a powerful tool of nonviolent change, but it is really only appropriate or effective in response to an unjust legal prohibition. It does not apply easily or work well as a protest against what one regards as an unjust lack of legal prohibition.

Let’s consider an unlikely hypothetical situation. The governor’s ex-wife collected stamps, so the governor railroads through legislation banning stamp-collecting and imposing mandatory life sentences for all convicted philatelists. That would be an unjust prohibition, and thus civil disobedience would be an appropriate and powerful tool against it. The strategy is obvious — everyone collects stamps until the courts are swamped and the jails are filled or until the outcry forces the unjust law to be repealed.

But consider the opposite situation: The law permits stamp-collecting, but you feel it ought to be prohibited — you believe that the lack of a prohibition is itself unjust. You’re not without options in that situation — there are paths you can take and strategies you can pursue to try to get such a prohibition written into law. But civil disobedience will not help you. This particular context will not allow for the use of that particular tool.

The latter situation is analogous to where the Family Research Council finds itself. In an increasing number of states, the law permits something — same-sex marriage — that FRC believes ought to be prohibited. And that means civil disobedience cannot “come into play.” Marriage equality does not impose any unjust prohibitions that FRC or its members could violate as civil disobedience. Their complaint is that the law is too permissive, and a law that extends permission is difficult to violate in protest. Civil disobedience just isn’t an option in such cases.

It’s also possible that by “civil disobedience,” McClusky was referring to specific action taken by those few individuals who are in a position to violate laws permitting same-sex marriage. Perhaps McClusky meant disobedience to those laws on the part of county clerks and justices of the peace. Maybe what he means is that such officials should disobey the law by refusing to fulfill their duties when it comes to same-sex couples.

But that would not be civil disobedience either. Those clerks and justices would not be acting as individual citizens, but in an official capacity as public servants — as civil authority. When civil authority chooses to disregard the rule of law, that’s not “civil disobedience” or “conscience,” it’s just petty tyranny.

And petty tyranny tends to have the opposite effect of civil disobedience when it comes to galvanizing public opinion.

So when I hear the Family Research Council call for civil disobedience to protest marriage equality, I give up. I have no idea what they mean by that. And I’m fairly certain they have no idea what they mean by that either.


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  •  > In this, and all the talk of rebellion and secession when their guy
    didn’t win, the far right are showing exactly how far their commitment
    to ‘freedom’ – and their concept of democracy – really stretches.

    There are people in this country who don’t understand why anyone should endorse the freedom of their fellow citizens to do wrong things. There always have been; there always will be.

  • The_L1985


  • Kubricks_Rube

    One predictable tactic of marriage equality opponents will be try to further blur the distinction between anti-discrimination laws and marriage laws. They already use examples of the former- usually in states that don’t even allow marriage equality- to claim the latter will impinge on their religious freedom. It seems likely they will become more aggressive in discriminating whenever they get the chance. Many of them may actually believe they are protesting same-sex marriages, but I suspect the more self-aware will drop that charade when they see which side of the Woolworth’s counter they’re standing on. A hint to all you would-be freedom fighters- MLK isn’t the guy turning people away at the door.

  • Carstonio

    “The people can vote on it … but I don’t think you can violate natural
    law and force Americans to recognize it as morally right”

    Many flawed assumptions in that quote. Mislabeling lack of prevalence as unnatural. Treating morality as a matter of rules instead of consequences of actions on others. Valuing procreation as the highest good.

  • Kelly

    I suspect their idea of civil disobedience is because they are still promoting (in the case of the liars) or honestly believe the lie (in the case of those who buy the lie) that legalizing marriage for same-sex couples means that churches MUST perform marriages for same-sex couples, who will be stampeding to THEIR churches in droves DEMANDING their legal right to be married, and the brave intrepid pastors/churches will refuse, and thus will be hauled off to jail. 

    This is, of course, nonsense since no church will be forced to marry same-sex couples (or any other couples it doesn’t want to marry) and I doubt gay couples are looking to get married in Tony Perkins’ church anyway.

  • My guess is, they mean that pastors who oppose same-sex marriage should refuse to perform weddings for same-sex couples. After all, they do believe that legalizing SSM means that pastors will be legally *compelled* to perform such weddings.

    Some of them may actually believe that; I suspect that most of them only pretend to believe it, though.  It would be hard to rise to a position of power and influence if you were actually that stupid.

  • I love Fred, but I think he’s underestimating the ingenuity of the anti-gay crowd. I track  the opposition and I believe they have indeed found ways of implementing civil disobedience. 

    For instance, businesses that cater to married couples or have special pricing for married couple will refuse to recognize same-sex married couples as married. (Bed and breakfasts, halls rented out for marriage ceremonies, wedding photographers, bridal registries, etc.).

    Or employers might choose not to offer spousal benefits to their employees in same-sex marriages.

    Hospitals and medical providers will refuse to recognize the legal relationship between two same-sex spouses when it comes to visitation and decision-making.

    Frankly, our country has quite a few such laws defining how individuals and businesses must treat married couples. This grants our opponents just as many opportunities to engage in civil disobedience.

    And trust me, they’re already cataloging them and working out a strategy.

  • SDGlyph

    Mm. They also seem to have trouble distinguishing between “harmful to others” and “I don’t like it” in that definition of wrong.

  • For instance, businesses that cater to married couples or have special
    pricing for married couple will refuse to recognize same-sex married
    couples as married. (Bed and breakfasts, halls rented out for marriage
    ceremonies, wedding photographers, bridal registries, etc.).

    It’s actually happened previously.

    And about 15 years ago a Canadian politician actually endorsed a discriminatory stance in employment of gays and blacks.

  • In this, and all the talk of rebellion and secession when their guy didn’t win, the far right are showing exactly how far their commitment to ‘freedom’ – and their concept of democracy – really stretches.

    In the words of John Stewart, “I think you’re confusing tyranny with losing.  When the guy you disagree with gets elected, he’s probably going to do things you disagree with.  […]  That’s not tyranny  that’s democracy.”

  • livinginva

    Mayor of New Paltz, NY did the same thing before it was legal there, too

  • Lliira

    These are the same people who rape-cheerlead. Their definition of “wrong” does not even include “harmful to others”.

  • Lliira

    Everything you listed is bullying, though, not civil disobedience. Of course, these donkey turds think bullying is a wonderful thing, invented at the dawn of time by God to keep the uppity in line, so there’s that.

  • Lliira

    There is pretty much only one thingthey *can* mean. Break into same-sex marriage and forcibly prevent them.

    I’m not sure they mean that, though I wouldn’t put it past them. They’re willfully stupid enough to think it would work, though, rather than accepting a certain eternal truth:

    “When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point” ~Jane Austen, Persuasion

  • EllieMurasaki

    Her daddy says, he ain’t worth a lick / When it comes to brains he got the short end of the stick / But Katie’s young and man she just don’t care / She’d follow Tommy anywhere / She’s in love with the boy / She’s in love with the boy / She’s in love with the boy / And even if they have to run away / She’s gonna marry that boy someday

    And then the last chorus swaps in ‘What’s meant to be will always find a way’. Of course Yearwood’s talking about a het couple (two, actually, once Katie’s mom has her say), but different sexuality doesn’t mean different human nature.

  • Tricksterson

    Then they will, hopefully, face a combination of business lost to more tolerant competitors and lawsuits.

  • Everybody knowing! I’d almost be inclined not to do anything!

    The housekeeping staff thanks you. (They’re knowing too. Are they ever.)