Years ago, I remember Christian right leaders fretting about pastors going to jail if they expressed their anti-gay views; when that didn’t come to pass, they fretted about churches losing their tax-exempt status. These worst case scenarios never happened, because we have this thing called the First Amendment, which protects peoples’ and churches’ right to say gay people are going to hell, or shouldn’t be able to get married, or should be cured by divine redemption.
Years later, the Christian right finally has its martyr in Kim Davis. Thanks to United States district judge David Bunning—who, despite having other options for securing marriage licenses for all Rowan County, Kentucky residents, ordered Davis to jail for six days—a new heroine was born.
Yet while Davis is most obviously a symbol for a Christian right bent on claiming its religious freedom is under siege, she is really a symbol of something else entirely. The Republican Party, and even its most reliable base of support, the Christian right, is being forced to move on when it comes to the marriage issue. According to a 2014 Pew survey, 58 percent of Republican millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) favor gay marriage. A Public Religion Research Institute survey conducted last year found “white evangelical Protestant Millennials are more than twice as likely to favor same-sex marriage as the oldest generation of white evangelical Protestants (43% vs. 19%).” That’s not a majority of millennial white evangelicals, but it’s certainly significant, given that this demographic has long been one of the staunchest opponents of marriage equality.
Davis, then, is a little late to the party, an anachronism delivered to the doorstep of the party’s most desperate presidential candidates. Her host and chief supporter Mike Huckabee reminded us at yesterday’s rally in Grayson, Kentucky, that Davis came to Christ just four and a half years ago. To her, everything is new again, but to evangelicals who have either embraced marriage equality or acquiesced to its inevitability, her rebirth as a celebrity victim of Rowan County’s gay and lesbian betrotheds and of the judiciary’s “tyranny” must feel a bit stale.
The Davis phenomenon has some Republicans worried, as Sahil Kapur and Greg Stohr report at Bloomberg. “I think the longer this lingers, the worse it is for the Republican Party and for the conservative movement,” John Feehery, a Republican strategist and lobbyist, told Bloomberg, adding that Davis’s stance “smacks of bigotry.”
Then there is the matter of the law. Yesterday Davis embraced Huckabee and lawyer Mat Staver, both of whom have pronounced the Supreme Court to be without authority to decide constitutional questions like whether bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Even Fox News host Gregg Jarrett called this view “stunningly obtuse” and his guest Sharon Liko, a lawyer, called it “ridiculously stupid.” Piling on, the network’s Shepard Smith described the entire spectacle as a “religious play” and criticized Davis’s refusal to accept an accommodation, adding, “Haters are going to hate. We thought what this woman wanted was an accommodation, which they’ve granted her, something that worked for everybody. But it’s not what they want.”
While not a majority view among a group of evangelical thought leaders interviewed for the web site Breakpoint, Hunter Baker, a lawyer and political science professor at Union University, opined, “Kim Davis’s office is obligated to perform the state function of issuing wedding certificates. She disagrees that marriage can exist between two people of the same sex. I agree with her.” But, Baker maintained, “the state of Kentucky has little choice other than to respect the ruling of the Supreme Court.”
Who else agrees with that statement? None other than Donald Trump, who called the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges “the law of the land.”
Trump’s perch atop the GOP field is, of course, driving his adversaries in search of a potent boost from the fractured evangelical base. At yesterday’s rally, a Huckabee aide did the Christ-like thing of blocking Ted Cruz from a key photo opportunity with Davis; after all, the Bible does say those polling in the single-digits shall reap the glory of exploitative publicity stunts.
While Trump’s summertime standing with evangelicals was thought to be a blip, it has persisted into September—along with continued analyses of why. “Mr. Trump’s criticism of the Obama administration and of Republican Party leaders has many social conservatives cheering for him,” the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.
Writing on the Fox News website, Robert Jeffress, the Texas megachurch pastor who in 2011 called Mormonism a “cult,” maintains, “No Evangelical I know is expecting Trump to lead our nation in a spiritual revival.” But, he goes on, President Barack Obama has “drastically lowered the threshold of spiritual expectations Evangelicals have of their president. No longer do they require their president to be one of them. Evangelicals will settle for someone who doesn’t HATE them like the current occupant of the Oval Office appears to.”
Do evangelicals need Kim Davis, political motivator? She may very well have missed her moment.