As she sits in jail for refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis is being compared to history’s greatest practitioners of civil disobedience.
"Kim joins a long list of people who were imprisoned for their conscience," said Davis' lawyer Mathew Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel, in a press release. "People who today we admire, like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jan Huss, John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more -- each had their own cause, but they all share the same resolve not to violate their conscience."
Except Davis is more like the bus driver than Rosa Parks.
And the religious right’s attempt to cast Davis as a martyr for “religious freedom” shows precisely why social conservatives lost the culture war in the first place.
At heart, civil disobedience is a way of dramatizing injustice. You break a law and invite the state to exercise force against you. In the case of the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s, you directly violate the unjust law you seek to overturn. Or, like ACT-UP protesters disrupting traffic at a busy street intersection with a die-in, you break an unrelated law in an effort to bring attention to the wider cause. It's ultimately a publicity ploy; the goal is to appeal to fellow citizens’ conscience, creating the political will to change the system.
Davis doesn’t fit into this template. As a county clerk, she’s an agent of the state like former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who famously stood in the doors at the University of Alabama to try to stop racial integration from taking place.
But the other problem with the morality play social conservatives have tried to stage in Kentucky is the casting. As so often seems to be the case with those standing up for traditional marriage, Davis has a terrible track record when it comes to her own. She’s been married four times, becoming pregnant with another man’s child during the third go-around. As Dan Savage pointed out in a recent television appearance, Jesus Christ strongly condemned divorce, calling it adultery; he never said anything about homosexuality.
Maybe Davis conveniently chose to become a devout Christian after all that, but the fact that she is willing to impose on the citizens of Rowan County a moral code she doesn’t follow herself makes her a hypocrite. It's not only that she was unwilling to personally grant gay couples marriage licenses. When the judge overseeing the case suggested, in the interest of compromise, that members of her staff could do so in her stead, she refused, showing she wasn’t so much opposed to sanctioning same-sex marriages herself as she was intent on making sure they didn’t happen at all.
The religious right lost the culture war because, despite Jesus Christ’s command to show compassion for others, the movement continues to demonstrate a stunning lack of empathy for anyone but fellow theocrats. Major leaders in the movement concede this themselves. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling this summer, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told The Huffington Post that, throughout the fight, “there were some people speaking to this issue from my side who were angry and presented a public face of outrage in a way that I don’t think was helpful.”
That’s an understatement. For decades, leaders of the religious right denounced gays, lesbians and transgender people as deviants and child molesters. They tried to have us banned from teaching in schools or working for the government. When the AIDS crisis hit, they were quick to call it divine retribution. We’ve been blamed for everything from Hurricane Katrina to the 2011 Japanese tsunami (for a list of other natural disasters we've caused, go here).
The Christian right has trouble finding stories that the American public will sympathize with, which speaks to the movement's insularity. As Moore put it, “I think that many pro-marriage people assumed that we would always represent a majority in American opinion. For a while, that was true. But we needed to be prepared to argue for something that is right regardless of whether or not the majority of Americans agree with us.”
As a PR ploy, the Kim Davis story is a flop. Only those who already agree with the anti-marriage cause are inclined to see the thrice-divorced public employee as a victim. To the rest of us, she’s a holdout from an era the culture has already moved on from.