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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