Kim Davis Isn't Fighting for Religious Freedom


The current situation of Kim Davis, the county official in Kentucky who stands to lose her job if she continues refusing to grant now legal same-sex marriage licenses would be funny if the issues at stake weren't so important. Let's face it, we couldn't ask for a better protagonist. Here's a woman, married four times by her own admission, taking a stand for her religious views on marriage. That irony alone is enough to choke on. Add to it that she looks the part--her long hair, no make-up, pitch perfect twang--her rather right-wing, Pentecostal appearance play right into the scene.

But this isn't a play by Del Shores, and the irony that seems so obvious to folks on the left in this case seems to be completely, utterly lost on folks on the right. Not only that, but those folks are rising up to defend her, ready to martyr her under the banner of religious freedom.

This, we are told, is exactly what they warned us of if militant gays got to marry. They predicted that gay marriage was the beginning of the end of religious liberty in this country, and Christians should search their souls, gird their loins, and prepare to fight to the death. The rhetoric around this is so heightened as to suggest that this is it, Armageddon.

And yet, the heart of Davis's case isn't actually about gay marriage or religious freedom. This debate is about civil vs natural law, and it's a debate that we have engaged in throughout history. It is about the meaning of law in this country. Indeed, it is about the very soul of democracy.

And that's where this all gets very interesting. The actors are all mixed up in this instance. The very people who are most often effecting stringent laws and insisting on punishment for failure to adhere to those laws are, in this case, arguing for anarchy. They believe Davis should be able to ignore the law because she doesn't agree with it. And the very people who are most often arguing for exceptions to the law or, at least, for softer punishment for failure to adhere to the law are now arguing for the absolute sovereignty of the law.

Political parties have changed radically over time, and they have done so sometimes gradually and other times as the result of a particular debate. It is not hard to imagine, therefore, that something as contentious as a supposed debate over religious liberty could be the nidus for another party identity switch.

But the stakes are even higher in this debate, and from a certain vantage point it looks like the sides are getting ahead of themselves. Forget the sideshow on the far right, like Pat Robertson saying Davis is a victim of sodomy or that gay marriage will lead to forcing Christians into beastiality. There is no logical way to respond to someone so clearly delusional, someone rarely held accountable for his venom.

Beneath those loud voices, though, are quieter, seemingly more authentic Christian voices suggesting that Davis's case is, actually, about religious freedom. It is for those folks that I would like to slow the debate, erase the hyperbole, and examine the implications of the right's stance. I want to take seriously the question of religious freedom.

The one catch is that by religious freedom I believe we must mean religious freedom for those practicing all religions, not solely those practicing a particular brand of Christianity. And it is precisely on that basis that I believe we should agree that religious freedoms cannot be grounds to disobey the law. I fully understand the question as it is framed by the right: when civil law and natural law (in this case, perceived God's law) are in conflict, one must stand by convictions even if that means breaking the law. I hear that, and I feel the noble tug that such a framing prompts.

I just don't believe for a minute that the people who are now claiming this to be the case for Davis would defend her right to place natural law over civil law if the natural law to which she believed she answered were not Christian. And that's where the right's position is flawed. Until this country actually adopts a national religion and privileges it above all others, we cannot accept one person's adherence to natural law over civil without being prepared to accept, indeed, to celebrate, everyone's.

Kim Davis's case, though it has the makings of great, dark comedy, is not about gay marriage or about religious liberty. It is about a far more sobering argument. It is about a dominant religious view and, in fact, an implied argument for a national Christian religion. How ironic, then, that in the name of religious freedom, the arguments in Davis's defense are the most serious threat to religious liberty we have seen in some time.