BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Elected official, check; multiple marriages, check; self-proclaimed apostolic Christian, check; Religious Right martyr, check; media star for a tad more than her 15 minutes, check; Pope meeting, check (sort of); Soldier for Christ, check. Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, defied United States District Judge David Bunning’s court order, and spent five days in jail because of it, is all of these things and even more, the symbol of the fight over religious liberty and individual conscience, a battle that has been brewing for quite some time.
It was undoubtedly the summer of Kim Davis’ life. For a short time, the Davis Affair even gave Donald Trump a run for media attention. The stakes were always much greater than Davis herself: religious liberty and individual conscience, and a new iteration of the religious right’s culture wars. While religious liberty can seem like little more than a fall fashion, or in this case, a summer fling, for Christian Right organizations and candidates it is a theme that has been decades in the making, and one that has gained momentum in recent years.
“The Christian Right has been steadily reframing their culture war agenda in terms of religious liberty since at least the 2009 manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration, which for the first time brought the leaders of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops together with top leaders of Protestant evangelicalism to forge a common platform -- comprising three interrelated themes, ‘sanctity of life,’ ‘dignity of marriage,’ and ‘freedom of religion,’ Frederick Clarkson, author of the invaluable Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1997) and one of the journalists that pioneered research and writing about the religious right, told Truthout in an email exchange.
“This three part agenda is emblazoned on organizational web sites from the Catholic Bishops to the Washington, D.C.-based conservative evangelical lobbying group, the Family Research Council, and is coming to deeply reframe the way that Christian Right organizations and their preferred candidates for public office discuss their agendas. No understanding of modern religious and political life is even close to complete without this basic realization,” Clarkson added.
As the Davis case ripened, Republican Party politicians stepped forward to express their disdain: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz bellowed: “Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith.” Former governor Mike Huckabee having publicity-drenched field day, stated: “When people of conviction fight for what’s right they often pay a price, but if they don’t and we surrender, we will pay a far greater price for bowing to the false God of judicial supremacy.”
At the height of the Davis affair, Mat Staver, founder and leader of the Christian Right legal agency, Liberty Counsel, and Kim Davis's attorney, compared the clerk’s stance to that of Martin Luther King after he was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 for protesting how black Americans were treated in that city. Vehement opponents to any government-led investigations of homegrown terrorists, Liberty Counsel sent email to supporters warning them of President Obama’s “radical onslaught being waged against Christians right here in America.”
According to Clarkson, the author of a forthcoming report on the subject of the Christian Right and religious freedom, “On the eve of the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision of the Supreme Court that legalized marriage equality, Mat Staver wrote in the Christian Post that the Manhattan Declaration had ‘anticipated what lay ahead’ and that now ‘the future is here, and we are facing a fundamental conflict between the laws of Caesar and the laws of God.’”
Now that summer’s over, the Associated Press has done some digging. Under the Kentucky open records law, they obtained email that Davis sent to supporters prior to spending time in the jail:
“The battle has just begun…It has truly been a firestorm here and the days are pretty much a blur, but I am confident that God is in control of all of this!! I desire your prayers, I will need strength that only God can supply and I need a backbone like a saw log!!…They are going to try and make a whipping post out of me!! I know it, but God is still alive and on the throne!!! He IS in control and knows exactly where I am!!…September 1 will be the day to prepare for, if the Lord doesn’t return before then. I have weighted the cost, and will stay the course.”
“I think the emails confirm what we already knew about the way that Davis conflates her responsibilities as an elected official with her self-aggrandizing and idiosyncratic religious notions,” Clarkson added.
Clarkson, Senior Fellow for Religious Liberty at the Massachusetts-based organization, Political Research Associates, optimistically pointed out that, “the Summer of Davis revealed that the country has decided to methodically handle the likes of Davis, who apparently imagines herself to be God's vigilante warrior of righteousness. Judge Bunning did not allow Davis and her attorneys to take the law into their own hands, and he properly ordered her to do her job or go to jail. After getting a taste of jail, and the threat of more, she opted to do her job.
“We know that a lot of people don't like marriage equality, but it will go forward as a matter of settled law, even as society makes sometimes difficult adjustments.”
Recently, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy told an audience at a Harvard Law School event that public officials who do not wish to follow the Court’s marriage equality decision should resign.
While he didn’t mention Davis by name or specifically call for her resignation, Think Progress reported that, “the thrust of Kennedy’s remarks suggested that he believes that officials in Davis’s position should choose to either follow the law or resign. After alluding to the fact that very few judges resigned from the Nazi German government, Kennedy offered his endorsement to officials who do quit when asked to do something they find morally repugnant.”
The Davis case once more raised questions about how society will deal with those claiming the right to individual conscience. “Although there are many county clerks and judges around the country who are opposed to processing same sex marriage paperwork out of a claimed religious objection, Davis has become their public face and her name is synonymous with their cause,” Clarkson pointed out. “Unfortunately for all of them, Davis is a remarkably unsympathetic character. So much so that the Vatican went to great lengths to keep her meeting with Pope Francis a secret and to downplay its significance when the story leaked.”
During the time of the pope’s visit to the U.S., Davis was in Washington, D.C., being honored at the annual Values Voters Summit, the Christian Right's premier political conference.
Meanwhile, People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch reported that Liberty Counsel, Davis’ legal team, was once again playing the martyred victim card: “In an email to members … Liberty Counsel head Mat Staver found another opportunity to embrace the victim narrative, this time highlighting a new Justice Department effort to combat homegrown extremism.”
The Summer of Davis ended with a whimper and not the bang the Christian Right hoped it would. According to Clarkson, “The Christian Right always needs fresh blood and a good story to carry on their narrative about government persecution. Davis is being cast as a Christian martyr who was obedient to God and stood up to the tyrannical federal government. The facts don't matter much in this kind of narrative. But the story of the Summer of Davis will probably lead to a rather thin election-year book, numerous public appearances, and will be the defining moment of the rest of her life.”
Kim Davis may become a footnote in the history of the Christian Right, but the issues raised by her case will not easily disappear. “The Christian Right is invoking the legacy of the American Revolution and the Framers of the Constitution to justify contemporary exemptions from the law and to claim the right to practice religious and anti-LGBTQ discrimination,” Clarkson said.
“Recent Supreme Court decisions by the conservative Republican majority have tilted the legal playing field powerfully in favor of religious rights, from individual rights of conscience, to broadening the definition of what falls under the definition of ‘ministry’ for legal purposes, to advantages of religious institutions in land use disputes. The legal fall out from the Hobby Lobby decision alone, giving religious rights to corporations for the first time in American history, will make for a very full docket of religious freedom framed cases for decades to come.”