I just read a very important piece on the case involving Kim Davis, the country clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The column in Commentary runs under the headline, “The Wrong Fight for Christians to Wage.”
The author is Peter Wehner, in my view one of the two or three brightest and most reasonable conservative writers in America. He is also a devout Christian, which perhaps gives him special insight and added credibility on this subject. I will quote from his article, extensively.
“This case raises several questions,” Wehner writes, “beginning with this one: If Ms. Davis was a judge supervising a divorce proceeding, does she believe a court entering a divorce decree would also conflict with her duties? Or is gay marriage rather than, say, heterosexual divorce, the only issue she’s willing to go to the mat for when it comes to fidelity to ‘God’s moral law’? (Ms. Davis might want to re-read Matthew 19:9, where Jesus says, ‘And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.’)”
On the political aspect of the case, Wehner has this to say:
“It’s no surprise that Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee weighed in on behalf of Ms. Davis. Governor Huckabee, for his part, tweeted ‘Kim Davis in federal custody removes all doubts about the criminalization of Christianity in this country. We must defend Religious Liberty!’
“This argument is both wildly overstated and muddled,” according to Wehner. “For one thing, if an atheist or Muslim refused to issue marriage licenses to gays, they, too, would be held in contempt of court. And imagine the reaction from Governor Huckabee and others if a person of the Muslim faith refused to enforce a civil law by invoking his conception of God’s law (sharia law).
“Beyond that,” he writes, “to argue that public officials can simply refuse to uphold laws they don’t agree with is a prescription for chaos and lawlessness. Don’t Governor Huckabee and others see the problem of demanding laws to protect religious liberty while encouraging public officials to break the laws with which they disagree?”
And what if the tables were turned? What if liberals in positions of authority decided to break the law and tell their critics that they were only following their religious beliefs? Here’s what Wehner has to say about that:
“One can easily see the problem with the Davis-Huckabee line of reasoning. Assume that during a Huckabee administration liberals decided Bible verses about welcoming the stranger and alien in your midst were the basis to defend ‘sanctuary cities’ and, therefore, refused to abide by federal immigration laws. When told they needed to comply or face legal consequences, those breaking the law claimed religious liberties protection – and declared that penalizing them for their lawlessness qualified as the ‘criminalization of Christianity.’ Mr. Huckabee would rightly view that argument as absurd. One wouldn’t be criminalizing Christianity; one would be criminalizing those who don’t follow the law.”
“Kim Davis,” he concludes, “may well be a person of sincere views. She may also believe she’s taking a principled moral stand. In fact, she’s being selective in which of God’s moral laws she insists must be obeyed – and obeyed not by those attending her church but by those living in our broader society. She could have allowed her deputies to issue the marriage licenses, preventing her from violating her conscience. But that wasn’t enough. She wanted to make this a (figurative) hill to die on.
“In doing so, she’s inadvertently doing a disservice to her faith, furthering the impression to a watching world that sex, and homosexuality in particularly, is a fixation of modern-day Christianity. The result is to reduce ‘a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex,’ in the words of [New York Times columnist] David Brooks. There was no need for Ms. Davis – or Governor Huckabee and Senator Cruz – to elevate this issue into a national fight Christians are destined to lose, and, in this case, ought to lose. …
“Christians,” says Wehner, “are in a period of transition and diminishing cultural influence. How we deal with our place in this changing world in a way that is both faithful and extends the hand of grace to others, that gives to others what God has given to us, that leads toward reconciliation and redemption, requires wisdom and discernment. Kim Davis and those who are rallying to her cause are showing neither.”
I received an email after my most recent column – “God, Gays and an Obscure Country Clerk in Kentucky” – which came from a long time “admirer” (his word) of my work. His point was that, and these are his words, “Non-Christians commenting on a Christian’s faith-based (in her mind) behavior doesn’t sit well with some. You didn’t ask my advice, but I recommend you sit out this story.”
I thanked him for his civility but said I won’t sit this one out. Kim Davis didn’t take her stand in church. If she did, that arguably would be none of my business. Her battleground was on public land – a government office. Her paycheck comes not from her faith community, but from taxpayers in the broader public community. This is my business – and everyone else’s – despite my faith or anyone else’s.
But for those troubled that an outsider would comment on the civil disobedience of a Christian, that charge can’t be directed at Peter Wehner. I stand with him. Kim Davis is wrong. But I’ll leave it to a devout Christian to say that this is the wrong fight for Christians to wage. And let me add: It’s the wrong fight for conservatives, in general, too.