The saga of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis is an epic tale of courage for her supporters, who view her as a sort of Appalachian Thomas More—and perhaps even more courageous than the Tudor martyr because she’s refusing to resign her public office (More did lose his head and his life, of course, but those were cruel times). To many of her detractors she’s a joke—a thrice-divorced hillbilly who epitomizes the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of Bible thumpers everywhere.
Behind the shouts, there are plenty of “religious liberty” enthusiasts who would prefer Davis quietly do her job or resign, and plenty of church-state separation champions who’d go the extra mile to keep her out of the hoosegow, so messy is her situation.
So it’s helpful to understand some of the deeper reasons Kim Davis has become the symbol of the latest battle over the shadowy line that protects some acts of “conscience” from the law-abiding behavior demanded of most Americans all the time.
Davis is distinguishable from her most immediate predecessors as “religious liberty” martyrs because she is a public elected official whose job is intimately connected with the prevailing public policies that most offend religious conservatives. The plaintiffs in the landmark Hobby Lobby case may have put together a successful legal argument, but didn’t evoke a lot of sympathy outside the Christian Right fever swamps for their demand to be free of financial responsibility for the “abortifacient” devices women chose to buy under the Obamacare contraceptive coverage mandate.
The bakers and florists who claimed they were persecuted by anti-discrimination laws that required them to sell their wares to same-sex couples were equally meh as martyrs, much like the earlier “pharmacists of conscience” who refused to dispense contraceptives to loose women who wanted to have sex without consequences! All these would-be victims of religious intolerance suffered from the relatively minor nature of the concessions they were asked to make to Sodom and Gomorrah, and from the tangential impact of social change on their professions.
But Kim Davis stands athwart the path to the altar in Rowan County, Kentucky, shouting “Stop!” And so she is a bad exemplar to those “religious liberty” fans (e.g., regular Republicans wanting to pander to conservative evangelical and traditionalist Catholic voters without much controversy elsewhere) who only want the strongest possible cases, while she is the ideal vehicle for those craving maximum conflict. As such, she is the perfect champion for Christian Reconstructionist/Dominionist advocates who do not believe public officials like Kim Davis can ever, ever be neutral on issues where Man’s Law contradicts God’s Law.
The religious views on which Davis herself is basing her plea for martyrdom are a bit murky; she appears to be a recent convert to the Apostolic Pentecostal faith community, in which a commitment to biblical inerrancy (as conservatively interpreted, of course) is viewed as a necessary counterweight to the evil power of an unredeemed world doomed to destruction.
There’s less ambiguity about the views of Davis’s lawyers, from Liberty Counsel, a Christian Right law firm affiliated with Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s gift to higher education. They are clearly invested in the idea that religious law trumps civil law wherever a conflict arises—and beyond that, in the idea that religious law should become civil law. That, of course, is the essence of the Reconstructionist/Dominionist belief in Bible-based theocracy. So of course they seek out cases where church-state conflict occurs, because without conflict there can be no suspension of “Caesar’s law” to give way to God’s, and no reason to compare America to Nazi Germany.
And then there are Davis’ political defenders, most notably Kentucky GOP Senate nominee Matt Bevan and carpetbaggers Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee. Cruz passed up an opportunity to be in Washington for the opening of his crusade to demand a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding to go hang around the Rowan County jail on Kim Davis’s account. But it was Huck, he of the “criminalization of Christianity” meme, who was given the favor of lifting hands with Davis and her chief attorney when she was released, with Cruz on the sidelines. You get the sense that this scene and its backstory could become a chapter in Game Change 2016.
Eventually the idea that marriage equality is incompatible with conservative Christian “freedom of worship” will fade as LGBT folk continue to get married and people continue to worship and yea, present the case for a depraved world that needs to bend to the will of a very angry and culturally conservative God. But that won’t end the culture wars, if only because the supposed tribunes of “religious liberty” really want dominion.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog and Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.