Kim Davis, Democracy, and the Pride of Christian Conviction

Kim Davis, Democracy, and the Pride of Christian Conviction September 1, 2015

Someone needs to tell Kim Davis, County Clerk in Kentucky, that Christendom is over.


She drew national attention when, back in June, she famously (or infamously) refused to fall in line with the Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell decision, ceasing to issue marriage licenses so she wouldn’t have to go against her conscience. This is a problem, however, because issuing marriage licenses is something county clerks are apparently supposed to do.

A New York Times article today explains the most recent developments:

After the state’s governor told county clerks to issue marriage licenses to all eligible couples, Ms. Davis filed suit in federal court, arguing that she should be excused from the obligation, given her religious beliefs. A District Court judge ruled against her, as did the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and she appealed to the Supreme Court.

On Monday, a stay granted by the District Court expired, and the Supreme Court rejected without comment Ms. Davis’s emergency application for a new stay, pending the outcome of her appeal. That left her no legal grounds to refuse to grant licenses to same-sex couples.

As the article explains, Davis is free to hold her theological/ethical/religious convictions personally, but the court has clearly ruled that her personal convictions cannot infringe upon the rights of others. This is simply how democracy and the state works. People, their elected representatives, and the legal system determine what counts as basic fairness, justice, equality, and so on, and then establish rules and laws to ensure that those basic principles are carried out as consistently as possible.

There are times when the state itself acts unjustly, over-reaches its authority, and there are moments when people of strong will and prophetic conviction have to take public stands–and accept the consequences. Davis seems convinced this is one of those times–and that she is one of those prophetic people. But for so many onlookers, myself included, her conviction seems terribly misplaced.

I’m not God, but I doubt that God is cheering Davis on for her continuing to exercise her stubborn, Christian convictions. She’s not exhibiting love and charity, but pride.

Perhaps Davis should re-read Romans 13:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[a] does not bear the sword in vain!

But whether or not God approves of Davis’s conviction, I’m pretty sure that Reinhold Niebuhr wouldn’t. Niebuhr warned against the infiltration of pride, in the human life individually but particularly in the way pride plays out in a democracy. When pride (also manifested as moral dogmatism) gets the better of us, our personal convictions become hammers which we use to beat others down.

A society functions best when people are humble, not when they are prideful (arrogant, self-assured, overly confident that they know how God wants everyone to live their lives). In The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Niebuhr writes,

Religious faith ought therefore to be a constant fount of humility; for it ought to encourage men [and women] to moderate their natural pride and to achieve decent consciousness of the relativity of their own statement of even the most ultimate truth.

Christendom is over. Or at the very least, the sun has set. However one views the morality of same sex marriage, and whatever a Christians view of the issue, they should at the very least exhibit a deference to the law and public policy (especially if they take their salary from the state). And for the sake of the witness of the church, a stance of humility and respect of the other goes a lot further than pride.

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