Kim Davis is going to jail, which is a good thing for everyone. It's good for Davis, because she was caught between her "sincerely held belief" that same-gender couples could not be married and her job in Kentucky where she was required to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples on account of the recent change in the nation's laws. It's also good for gay couples who wish to be married and yet had to endure immense humiliation by someone whose salary they help to pay.
While the best solution would have been for her to quit once she understood herself to be no longer capable of fulfilling her duties, her jail sentence does, at least, remove her from blocking the rights of her fellow citizens to marriage and all of its privileges and responsibilities.
Now, I have a certain amount of empathy for Ms. Davis. I understand the desire to go against the law of the land when you feel it violates your faith and your God. For example, I was glad when Bree Newsome broke the law and lowered the Confederate flag while quoting the Bible, saying: "The Lord is my light - Whom shall I fear?"
Many people engage in civil disobedience in the name of religion. Most famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. went to jail for his non-violent resistance in Birmingham, where he wrote his "Letter From Birmingham Jail."
However, Kim Davis is no Martin Luther King, Jr.
Let me say that again.
Kim Davis is no Martin Luther King, Jr.
You may think that is obvious, but Kim Davis has already become a symbol for what is euphemistically called "Freedom of Religion," which unfortunately in recent months has just become code for anti-LGBT bigotry. With no irony, the Southern Baptist Rev. Mike Huckabee quoted Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail as he called for civil disobedience against same sex marriage.
The first obvious difference between King and Davis is that Davis was a government employee who was paid by taxpayers to do a job that included issuing marriage licenses. While conscientious objection is protected in America, such as pacifists opting out of military duty, it does not mean that people entrusted by the American people to enforce the laws of the land can "opt out."
As Jonathan H. Adler wrote in the Washington Post:
Someone who objects to war due to his religious conscience has a right to be a conscientious objector and not serve in the military, even were there to be a draft. But he does not have the right to serve as a military officer, draw a paycheck from the military and then substitute his own personal views of when war is justified for that of the government. The same applies here.
Personally, while it would be edifying, I'm pretty sure that it would be unfair of me, as a Christian who believes in strict gun control, to occupy an influential position in the office that handed out gun licenses and then simply refuse to hand out any licenses stating my sincere religious beliefs. It technically makes me unsuitable for the job. Just as Kim Davis' beliefs make her unsuitable.
But even more pressing than the legal dissimilarities are the religious ones. America's history is littered with religious people, with the deep conviction that they are acting under the authority of God, promoting ideas that in retrospect seem impossibly oppressive. Ironically, the treatment of women comes to mind, with ridiculous ideas about what women can and cannot do including having their own bank accounts, voting and divorce (of which Davis herself has had three). But of course the most horrific was slavery and later Jim Crow. Harry Stout at Yale explained how the "authority of God" had deadly consequences in the lead up to the Civil War:
If you pull the church out of the whole equation, it's highly likely that there never would have been a Civil War. Southern clergy had no doubt that slavery was not a sin.
Clearly religious conscience and authority of God in itself are never enough and have been used to devastating effect in America and around the world. There has to be another test and Martin Luther King offered the most concise example of that. His entire life's work was to make the world more equal, more just, and to extend Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of God to all people. He was guided by a deeply spiritual conviction of love that transformed many hearts and he is the highest example of a Christian that America has produced.
Kim Davis is going to jail for precisely the opposite reason. Instead of striving for a more inclusive world, she is going to jail in her desire to exclude. Instead of seeking justice for all, she was the obstacle to justice for gay couples. Instead of showing God's love for all, she is stingy in her understanding of love. Her actions, although she claims they are guided by God and love, have bruised and hurt the very people she was elected to serve. Here's a simple guide: If your love feels like hate then it is not love. If you are using God to denigrate and humiliate then it is not God.
Kim Davis has joined the many Americans over history whose religion at the time seemed fervent and real but in hindsight was warped by bigotry and oppression. Perhaps she will wake up before it is too late. Rep. John Lewis once told me about being so moved when a white man who had been part of a mob that beat him and a white friend who dared to use the 'whites only' waiting room came back years later to apologize for what he had done and for the thoughts that guided him.
Hopefully, before she dies Davis will have the opportunity to repent and apologize to the gay couples she hurt. I pray that when Kim Davis does have her "heaven or hell" moment with God she likes to talk about, that she will be treated with more mercy than she offered to those who asked her to simply do her job.