Friday, September 04, 2015

The Kim Davis religious-exemption case

Has irony been laid to rest forever?

Joe Davis, fourth husband of the heroic defender of traditional Biblical values Kim Davis, is demanding that the Governor of Kentucky release her from jail in this way: "Shortly after 6 a.m. Friday morning, Joe Davis stood in front of door, chanting 'Governor do your job or resign.'" (Antoinette Konz, Historic day in Rowan County: Marriage licenses finally issued to same-sex couples 09/04/2015)

I'm not a fan of the "nyah-nyah, you're a hypocrite" line of arguments but they're as common in politics as in teenagers arguing with their parents.

But I can't sympathize with Kim Davis much on this one, just because of the "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" factor. And in this case, since she's claiming the right to use her public office in a way that defies the law on the grounds of her Biblical beliefs on marriage, it's very telling that she was once in her own life fine with something that Jesus is shown in the Gospels as speaking out against explicitly - divorce - but is totally opposed to something the Gospels never show him mentioning - homosexuality.

The Young Turks have been covering this story. How Many Times Has This Defender of Traditional Marriage Been Married? 09/02/2015:

Anti-Gay Marriage Clerk Kim Davis Goes To Jail 09/03/2015:

One thing about this case that I would like to see get more emphasis is this: "U.S. District Judge David Bunning ... offered to release Davis if she promised not to interfere with her employees issuing licenses, but she refused." (my emphasis; With defiant clerk behind bars, gay couple gets license to wed in Kentucky Aljazeera America/AP 09/04/2015)

In other words, she wasn't just objecting to personally do something that violated her conscience, she was also using her power to force her employees to not do their legally required duties based on her minority religious beliefs.

5 of Kim Davis' deputies to issue marriage licenses, Davis still jailed WLKY News Louisville 09/03/2015:

Christian Right religious-exemption scams of this type are not primarily about personal conscience. They are about theocracy. They are also about segregation. If the courts and legislatures let this kind of exemption get established, we'll suddenly see a lot of white Christians discovering that their conscience forbids them to serve Negroes in their restaurant, just like in Segregation 1.0 days. Curse of Ham and all that. That's not a slippery-slope argument. Segregationists defended the practice that way (and every other way they could think of). It's also country officials in charge of registering voters.

The lawyers like to say that "tough cases make bad law." But the principle here isn't a difficult one. It's basic separation of church and state. It's hard to improve on John Kennedy's statement of it to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 when he was trying to assure Protestants that he wouldn't be taking policy direction from the Whore of Babylon in Rome:

"I want a chief executive ... whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation. ...

But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same." (Transcript: JFK's Speech on His Religion NPR 12/05/2007) [Update: JFK quote corrected immediately after first posting to remove my own text erronously included in the quotation box.]
County clerks should take the same approach. In any case, the authorization of the government (county or otherwise!) doesn't determine the recognition of that marriage as valid by a church. Issuing a marriage license does not imply or confer religious approval.

Carlos Wilton in From One Clerk to Another: Kim Davis Got It Wrong Religion Dispatches 09/04/2015 analyzes Kim Davis' brand of fundamentalist political Christianity:

Ms. Davis’ stubborn refusal to follow a federal judge’s order is indicative of two mistaken views that have become entrenched in much of conservative Christian culture: radical moral individualism and the establishment of Christianity as the de facto established religion of the land.

Ms. Davis has declared that she is acting on “God’s authority” and that her decision to issue marriage licenses is a choice between “heaven or hell.” Creedal statements, to her way of thinking, are an individual matter, between the believer and God. Those who profess correct beliefs earn God’s favor, but those who differ risk damnation. There is little sense, in her public remarks, that creedal formulations are products of a Christian community. In this uniquely American view, individual believers are charged with maintaining their own personal creeds, participating only in congregations whose collective creed jibes with their own personal standard of orthodoxy. Ms. Davis is transferring this outlook to her work as an elected public official. One has to wonder what — as a divorced-and-remarried person herself — she would make of a devoutly Roman Catholic county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to divorced citizens.

This intellectual sleight of hand arises from Ms. Davis’ second mistaken viewpoint. She clearly regards Christianity as the de facto national religion, despite the First Amendment to the Constitution and numerous judicial cases founded upon it. This wild assumption has become a popular meme in conservative media. Right-wing Christians have become a regular feature on newscasts, loudly decrying their persecution by a godless government, one that prevents them from imposing their personal moral convictions on society at large. Ms. Davis is making good use of her fifteen minutes of fame to raise similar complaints.
Davis' view is a variety of Christian Reconstruction, as Sarah Posner explains in Kentucky Court Clerk, A "Professing Apostolic Christian," Questions Legal Authority Religion Dispatches 09/01/2015. She also explains:

Davis’s lawyers at Liberty Counsel, the conservative Christian law firm affiliated with Liberty University Law School, describe her in court papers as “a professing Apostolic Christian who attends church worship service multiple times per week, attends weekly Bible study, and leads a weekly Bible study with women at a local jail.”

That might leave a lot of people scratching their heads, as this description is not as recognizable as “Presbyterian” or “Baptist” or “evangelical.”

So what does that mean? I asked our own (very busy covering the Pope) Anthea Butler, a religious historian at the University of Pennsylvania. In all likelihood, “it means she is part of a group of churches that believe in apostolic succession,” Butler told me. “They see themselves as a direct line from the early church.” These churches are often Pentecostal, believing in signs and wonders (such as miracles and divine revelation), and “believe in high moral boundaries—no drinking or smoking, modest dress; many have prohibitions on cutting their hair. They are literal interpreters of the Bible,” Butler said.

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