Kim Davis is Not a Hero

Kim Davis is a county clerk from Kentucky who was recently jailed for her persistent refusal to issue any marriage licenses because gay marriage violates her religious views. So naturally she has become a battleground in the culture wars. Liberals cast Davis as a backwards religious extremist who lacks the neurons needed to recognize the difference between public office and private beliefs. Conservatives cast her as a hero of traditional values and religious liberty. Both miss the point. Davis is not a religious extremist. She is a Christian with a particular set of views, and the way she has chosen to act on those views is hardly heroic.

Liberals are constantly misunderstanding the way religion works. This is nowhere more apparent when they suggest that belief is something that can be kept to oneself. That is easy for a liberal humanist to say; the privatization of religion is one of liberalism's core doctrines. So the only conflict they experience is when people breach that wall between faith and public life. The same cannot be said for many other world religions, including Davis's. For somebody like her, faith, by its very definition, must own a person. It defines life, both inside and out. According to the theologian, Paul Tillich, faith is best understood as a person's "ultimate concern." This definition has its shortcomings, but it can help us understand how faith functions for people like Davis. Namely, it is a kind of polestar. Whatever we care about the most is the object of our faith, and whatever we have faith in shapes everything we do.

I would be remiss if I did not point out the sad irony in the liberal demand that Davis keep her faith private, i.e. conform to their definition of the "proper" place for religion in public life (which is to say, almost no place at all). That demand imposes their understanding of faith on someone else, and thus amounts to the kind of religious coercion they rightly despise. Only the terms are different.

But Davis is no hero either. She is an embarrassment to the church, and it is a shame that more of my sisters and brothers do not see it that way. The fact of the matter is that Davis swore to uphold the law. If she refuses to do so, then she is breaking her oath. And an oath is something Christians are supposed to take very seriously. Christian requirements for integrity go well beyond formal affirmations like, "I swear," "affirm," or "promise." Jesus commanded that one's "yes" should be "yes" and one's "no" should be "no." Every word we say is to be as if it were an oath. Every statement is a promise, and every promise is binding. Davis made a promise, and she is in jail for breaking it.

The ultimate Christian hero is a martyr. We have a long tradition of people choosing to suffer and die rather than denounce Christ either in word or deed. That word, martyr, means witness. In the early church, when given the choice between offering sacrifice to a Roman god or dying a violent death, martyrs chose death. To be a martyr is to bear witness to Christ by suffering like him. But there were also false martyrs. The story of Polycarp tells of false Christians who turned themselves in to be martyrs, but they ended up failing the test, renouncing Christ and choosing to live. Some scholars think this story is included in the tale of Polycarp as a caution to Christians who would rush headlong into the arena. Martyrs were chosen by God, not themselves.

It is hard not to look at Davis's behavior and wonder if she is not doing something similar -- walking into martyrdom, choosing it for herself. After all, she did not have to decide only between jail or her conscience. She could have resigned. That was a viable alternative. Were she to do that, however, she would be giving up her livelihood, her $80,000 a year income, and walking away from her career as a public servant. She would have to start all over again. I do not know Davis or her motives. All I can say is that the path she has chosen looks more like fear to me. But whatever the case may be, it certainly is not any kind of Christian heroism. Davis is no martyr. She is bearing false witness; she is telling the world that a Christian is someone who breaks her word.

I do not think Davis is a villain. I actually respect her more than I disapprove of her. I do not share her politics when it comes to gay civil marriage (which I note has no bearing whatsoever on the theology of any particular church), but I applaud her for standing by her convictions. My problem is with the way she is doing it. I am so very tired of Christian obsession with the LGBT. People around the world are sick and suffering and dying. There is a refugee crisis in Europe, and there has been one at our own borders too. Isn't it about time we turned our attention elsewhere? Isn't it about time to become a people known more for those we love than the sins we condemn?

Davis is right that her oaths to God take precedence over her oaths to the state, but one does not necessarily nullify the other. Indeed, a Christian is commanded to obey the law of the land whenever possible. Davis could have remained true to God, her word, and her conscience if she had chosen to resign in protest. But instead she chose this circus!

I do not see Davis as an exemplar of the faith. I see fear and grandstanding. And I am ashamed. Is it fair to force someone to choose between her job and her conscience? Maybe not. But Christians do that sort of thing all the time. Davis's situation is no different. Besides, fairness is not the litmus test for faith. Faith sometimes means we must suffer wrongs in silence, much like Christ himself. Instead Davis has chosen to put her righteousness on display before others, and she has received her reward.