Kim Davis, Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, has been jailed for her defiance of a court order to process marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Her view is that, by refusing to process any marriage license for anyone, she is engaging in an act of civil disobedience based on a position of Christian conscience.
It is an odd position for a clerk to take. I know that, because I am one. My day job is as a Presbyterian pastor, but I also serve as part-time Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Monmouth — our denomination’s county-government equivalent here in central New Jersey, a legislative assembly comprising elected “commissioners” from 45 congregations.
Part of my job as clerk is to serve as parliamentarian for our presbytery meetings: advising the moderator on Robert’s Rules of Order and our denominational Constitution. When called upon to dispense advice, we clerks are meant to keep our personal opinions to ourselves, speaking neutrally to matters of procedure and church governance.
Clerks are not decision-makers in our system; the presbytery is. Our task is to help that elected body do the hard work of governance, in ways that are both fair and faithful. Should we wish to participate in debate at a Presbytery meeting, we’re supposed to leave the clerk’s table and walk to a microphone in the audience — making it crystal-clear that we are speaking for ourselves, not for the church.
Our denomination has recently amended its Constitution to permit ministers to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies — a decision that happens to coincide with my own considered beliefs, based on my study of the scriptures. Until that denominational sea-change, I was frequently asked whether or not such marriages were permissible under church law.
My answer, at that time, was always “No.” My pastor’s heart — well-acquainted with the travails of faithful, committed LGBT couples in my community — wanted to say “Yes.” But my clerk’s mind told me I could not. That would have been unfaithful: not to my understanding of the gospel, but to the responsibilities I had pledged to fulfill as servant of the governing body.
Ms. Davis’ decision to close her office door to LGBT citizens (and, soon after, to all couples seeking licenses) reflects her personal theological position, but it fails to honor the position of the government she serves. She forgets that she herself does not issue licenses. The licenses do bear her signature — indicating that the paperwork was properly processed — but at the top of the license is not her name, but the words “Commonwealth of Kentucky.” States issue marriage licenses; county clerks do not.
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.
I have not heard of any earthquakes striking Rowan County, Kentucky and throwing open the doors of the County Clerk’s jail cell — as happened to the apostles Paul and Silas in Acts 16. Undoubtedly the only news to rock Ms. Davis’ world, since her self-righteous perp walk, has been the news that her Assistant Clerks, in the absence of their boss, have quietly started issuing marriage licenses again, some of them to same-sex couples.