Members of the infamously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) arrived in Morehead, Kentucky today to picket the Rowan County courthouse, workplace of Kim Davis, the county clerk and “religious liberty” martyr who rose to fame by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples citing “God’s authority.”
Davis’s religious right credentials are solid. Her stand for “religious liberty” has resulted in the support of four presidential hopefuls—Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Rand Paul—a visit with the Pope, and comparisons to Rosa Parks. Plenty of others opposed Davis, of course, both because of her anti-gay stance and because of her refusal to do the job she took an oath to do. No one, though, has criticized her for being both insufficiently anti-gay and disrespecting the law.
No one until Westboro Baptists, that is, who have launched perhaps the strangest homophobe-on-homophobe attack imaginable.
Like many of her critics, Westboro Baptists point to Davis’ four marriages as evidence of hypocrisy that undermines her claim to both strongly held religious belief and the moral authority to deny others marriage licenses. They also frame their criticism in a larger story about America’s declension into a full-blown Sodom and Gomorrah (a claim that many others in the Religious Right predicted with Obergefell v. Hodges but have not taken quite as far). The church, drawing from its hyper-Calvinist understanding of God’s engagement with the world, explains:
[T]he Supreme Court of the United States, fulfilling their destiny, made same-sex marriage the law of the land. The duty of all mankind is to OBEY the laws of God and the laws of man. Enter, Kim Davis….The Supreme Court, in the providence of God, and for the punishment of this nation, has declared that same-sex marriage IS the law of Doomed USA. So DO IT!! … Just note Kim Davis … God will NEVER have Same-Sex Marriage, but he does not require YOU to disobey to deal with this nation. … God has HIS weapons in HIS armory, so Kim Davis needs to HUSH and OBEY the law that she helped bring about.
In WBC’s view, same-sex marriage is a punishment that God is inflicting on America for our much larger failure to adhere to God’s standards for sexuality, specifically in our embrace of legalized abortion, no-fault divorce, and high rates of remarriage after divorce and premarital sex. Westboro Baptists are speaking not only to Kim Davis but to all of America when they say of same-sex marriage, “You asked for it, you begged for it by your disobedience and refusal to receive correction or instruction, so take it and like it!”
Of Fred Phelps’ children who remained with the church, nine are trained as lawyers (including Margie Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper who served as counsel for the church’s 2010 Supreme Court case over their right to picket funerals). According to these fierce defenders of the First Amendment, Davis had no religious right to deny applicants marriage licenses. Davis acquired her “high-dollar salary and digs […] ONLY after she took an oath to uphold and defend the constitution and the laws,” they write. Even the WBC argues that she needs to do the job she was elected—and is paid—to do.
Church members could cite their own success in doing their own work in ways that both respect the law and their religion. For example, Rebekah Phelps-Davis served on Topeka’s Human Rights Commission, which investigates claims of discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. When the church began its anti-gay activism during her tenure there, Phelps-Davis recused herself from cases involving discrimination based on HIV/AIDS status.
When her presence on the committee threatened to undermine the appearance of neutrality that is necessary for it to work, she resigned. The family law firm refuses to represent people seeking divorces in their first marriages because they believe that, while a person can be divorced without sinning, a person cannot file for divorce without sinning. (Church members will, however, serve as counsel in a divorce in a subsequent marriage since those marriages are invalid in the eyes of God anyway.)
One measure of how important this issue is to WBC is to realize that they reject potential clients over it. In contrast, Kim Davis refused to do her work, which was merely to verify the accuracy of documents, not conduct marriages. Thus Westboro Baptists point to her and say, without irony, “Kim Davis caused gay marriage.” Of course, they don’t mean that she advocated for it, but rather that her multiple marriages and divorces are typical of Americans, her refusal to do her job undermines the law, and our collective rejection of God’s sexual standard, especially regarding divorce and remarriage, has “doomed” us to legally recognized same-sex marriage.
WBC holds a view of divorce that wasn’t all that uncommon even a generation ago. Divorce is not permissible for church members; though, realistically, it is unavoidable if a spouse files for divorce, a position WBC shares with other conservative congregations. (Additionally, in cases of spousal abuse, separation is encouraged in WBC.) In the WBC perspective, if you are the victim of divorce, then you haven’t committed a sin, though it doesn’t mean you’re permitted to remarry. All remarriage after divorce is a sin, even if the ex-spouse has remarried. If you believe, as WBC does, that God brings a man and woman together to be husband and wife until death, then even a divorce doesn’t interfere with this. Drawing from multiple passages from the Christian Scripture, the church explains:
These matters are not hard and unclear. That man that Kim Davis is living with and calling her husband […] IS NOT! Her husband is Dwain Wallace, who she married when she was 18-years-old. It does not matter how many years you pile on, it was adultery at the beginning and it was adultery in the middle and it is indeed adultery today!
Of course, Davis is not alone among Christians in her marital choices. She is simply the poster child for WBC’s larger claim that “Christians Caused [Gay] Marriage.”
Kathleen E. Jenkin’s careful study of divorced Christians suggests significant unease, pain, and shame on the issue of divorce and remarriage among believers, and churches have responded in creative ways that provide both theological and practical avenues for divorced persons—as evidenced, for example, in new Catholic rules on annulments.
Yet the dissonance is not fully resolved. For example, in online chatrooms and in advice columns, evangelical Christians continue to ask not only whether remarriage is permissible but whether holding or even merely attending a second wedding in a church is a violation of Christian sexual ethics. Almost unanimously, though, evangelical Christian culture permits divorce and remarriage for Christians. Theologically, evangelical Christians note the mercy and forgiveness of God for a divorce, which then allows for remarriage. In particular, when the divorced person was not a Christian prior to their divorce but has become a Christian, concerns about the “sin” of remarriage are dismissed.
Kim Davis, who says she wasn’t a Christian prior to her fourth marriage, wouldn’t be a hypocrite in this line of thinking—indeed, one might argue that it points to the failure of secular marriage! But, in fact, Davis’ first two weddings were conducted by Baptist ministers, so even if Davis shouldn’t be held accountable to conservative Christian standards for her divorces, it’s likely that many in attendance, including the pastor who officiated her second marriage, could have raised an objection or refused to sanctify her marriage on religious grounds.
Indeed, the research suggests that there are many, many conservative Christian churches quite willing to marry divorced persons without regard to their spiritual state. About one-third of American pastors say divorce is acceptable for basically any reason, including falling out of love, and 29% of evangelical pastors will conduct a wedding for a divorced person “for any reason,” while 65% will do so depending on the circumstances. Only 5% of evangelical pastors refuse to do so on any grounds.
But for Westboro Baptists, evangelical pastors’ willingness to remarry divorced people is simply one more sign of their deep failure to do their duty as spiritual leaders. Or, as WBC says, Davis “has decided that her adultery is less sin […] than the sin of the sodomites.” From this position, Davis and her supporters have no grounds to speak against same-sex marriage.
Instead, Westboro Baptists argue that because Davis refuses to return to her first husband, she has made a mockery of Christian sexual ethics and needs to at least act with integrity as a hypocrite and issue marriage licenses to gay people. Thus, America’s most famous religious haters can say to America’s most famous religious liberty martyr:
If Kim Davis received mercy from God and grace, as she claims, she would, with all due haste put her sin away. She would mourn for her sins, and in a show of great mercy, she would be busy apologizing to [gay people who want to marry] for enabling them, and she would, with all diligence, give those perverts a marriage license.