Thinking Thrice Before Supporting Kim Davis
September 12, 2015
1. Selective Moralism?
In the year 2006, Captain Joseph Rodriguez of Aurora, CO, a Christian, was dishonorably discharged from the Army after refusing to follow orders to deploy his company to Iraq, on the grounds that it was a Biblically unjust war.
In 2007, Amy White of Evansville, IN, a Christian, was fired from her job as a grocery sales clerk for refusing to process any purchases of pornographic magazines.
In 2008, Judge William Clark of Macon, GA, a Christian, was forced into early retirement for refusing to hear the majority of divorce cases in his court, on the grounds that none of them met biblical grounds for divorce.
In 2009, Molly Thompson of Billings, MT, a Christian, was fired from her job as a hotel clerk for refusing to allow gay couples, or obviously unwed couples, to check into the same hotel room.
In 2010, John Barlow of Rochester, MN, a Christian, lost his job as a loan officer at a payday loan company for actively advising his customers not to take out loans from the company, and to go elsewhere where they would not be usuriously exploited,
In 2011, Michael Jones, a policeman of St. Petersburg, FL, and a Christian, was jailed and suspended from the force after conspiring to shelter an undocumented immigrant mother and her son, rather than arresting them to get them deported, as he was ordered.
I am quite certain that none of you readers have ever heard these stories. The reason I am quite certain, I must confess, is that I made all of them up. But even if I hadn't made them up, I imagine it is rather unlikely you would have heard of any of them. And yet you all have heard of Kim Davis's punishment for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Why might that be?
The list above includes a dizzying variety of ethical dilemmas in which Christians, serving in their various vocations within the world, but seeking not to be of the world, might find themselves. In some of these cases, I would tend to side with the conscientious objector, in other cases, perhaps not, but each raises important questions about complicity in wrongdoing, questions that are at least as pressing as those which Kim Davis must face. Here is my question: if Christians are going to hold up Kim Davis as a paragon of Christ-like refusal to compromise with injustice, then how soon are we going to hold up the hypothetical John Barlow or Joseph Rodriguez or William Black as well? Are we all prepared to examine our own vocations with the same rigor, and leave all to follow Christ? And if not, then is our admiration of Kim Davis simply proof of what progressives accuse us of--namely, a highly selective Pharisaism that takes sexual sins with profound seriousness, and everything else as relatively negotiable?
2. The Prudence Test
Besides the fact that you've never heard of any of them, all of the stories above have something else in common: no one forced any of these people to be in this situation. Most of them should have known, when they entered their profession, that they would be signing up for these sorts of dilemmas. To the extent that they were surprised to confront them, they would have had the opportunity to quit or resign once they realized that they could not faithfully carry out their job as Christians. Kim Davis could have done the same. So the question arises, why force a confrontation?
Although Christians, like their Savior, are never supposed to be quarrelsome or needlessly provocative, and should happily turn the other cheek when their own honor is on the line, they should not shy away from confrontation either, if there is an important opportunity to defend the suffering or draw attention to an injustice. In some of the cases above, one can imagine a Christian strategically inviting controversy in order to highlight a too-neglected moral issue, rather than simply quietly resigning from their job and letting the injustice carry on unimpeded. But I think it is safe to say that none of these conscientious objectors should feel required to provoke a confrontation, and the decision to do so must be a prudential one: is injustice likely to be restrained, is Christ likely to be glorified, is anything likely to be gained by my high-profile protest?
In Kim Davis's case, it is somewhat difficult to see how. After all, it is not as if the issue of gay marriage, and the injustice thereof, was somehow not on anyone's radar before this. Nor is it as if conservative Christians had failed to make their position clear. Nor was it as if the battle was undecided, and one strong stand might shift it in our favor. How many people opposed to the Christian view of marriage, do we think, were persuaded by Kim Davis's stand? How many were instead confirmed in their hostility toward Christians "trying to impose their morality on everyone else"?
Some will say that Davis's case was different because she was no mere employee, but a lesser magistrate tasked with restraining the injustice of a tyrannical state. The so-called lesser magistrate argument has long since descended into a farcical parody of itself among the Christian Right, but invocations such as this are surely enough to make the noble author of the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos roll in his grave. The lesser magistrate is tasked with protecting the people against murderous predations, not going to war over each and every injustice. Moreover, if he is to go to war (for that is, functionally, what the lesser magistrate's resistance is), the just war criteria of "proportionality" and "probability of success" must apply. It's hard to see them here.
3. Faithful Magistracy
But if it's true that Kim Davis is a magistrate, not on par with a mere hotel clerk, then what examples does the Bible give us of godly magistrates in unjust societies? Joseph in Egypt. Obadiah in Ahab's court. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego in Babylon. Nehemiah in Persia. Cornelius in the Roman army. With several of these magistrates, we see famous refusals to compromise, but these examples are confined to outright commands to worship idols or dishonor God. Do we honestly believe that none of these faithful men found themselves presiding over a system of unjust laws, that their legal systems were purer than ours? God does warn us against complicity in evildoing, but he seems to be less tidy-minded than us when it comes to what that means for faithful governing. There is no perfect polity on earth, and never will be, and yet God calls Christians to participate in the messy business of governing, lest it be left entirely to the covetous and murderous. Perhaps the time has come in America for every Christian involved in government to be as uncompromising as Kim Davis, but if so, we need to be consistent: no more Christian judges, no more Christian Congressman, Senators, Governors, district attorneys, tax collectors, policemen, the list goes on and on. Perhaps the time for the "Benedict Option" has come (although I rather think not), but if it has, then let's get on with it, rather than cheering lustily from the sidelines while one or two magistrates take one for the team on our pet issues.