Which side are you on?
That’s the question that fuels most of our culture-war animosity. Instead, the question we should all be asking is this: What’s the right thing to do? In the case of same-sex refusenik Kim Davis, some conservative intellectuals and pundits are willing to break ranks and see the bigger picture.
In case you’ve been milking the last warm days of summer and haven’t seen this story, Kim Davis is the Kentucky county clerk who has been jailed and released for her refusal to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Opportunistic conservative politicians such as Mike Huckabee have promoted Davis as a conservative Christian hero, stage-managing Davis’s release as an American triumph, equal parts Christianity Triumphant and Rocky III.
Governor Huckabee’s shameful pandering to frustrated Christian voters should be an embarrassment for every conservative out there. But progressives also could stay a little classier in this case. For those like me on the progressive side of things, the furor and venom over the Kim Davis case burst onto our Facebook feeds like a sweaty middle-school pimple. I don’t agree with Davis’s refusal to do her job, but I also think it is counter-productive and petty to attack Davis’s hairstyle.
We could all learn a lesson from a few conservatives who refuse to conform to their culture-war scripts. Fox News anchor Shep Smith, for example, earned the ire of conservative viewers for pointing out the obvious hypocrisy in the case. Critiquing the Huckabee rally, Smith commented,
They set this up as a religious play again. This is the same crowd that says, ‘We don’t want Sharia law, don’t let them tell us what to do, keep their religion out of our lives and out of our government.’
Predictably, conservative Fox News viewers reacted furiously, calling Smith a “puke” and accusing him of “anti-Christian bias.”
But Smith was not alone. Conservative intellectuals also took issue with Davis’s brand of publicity-hogging culture-warriorism. Writing in the pages of The American Conservative, crunchy conservative Rod Dreher warned that Davis had ignored the central point of civil disobedience. Dreher argues,
It’s clear that there are many Christians who support Kim Davis because she’s doing something, even if that something is arguably counterproductive. This is unwise. . . . If the public comes to think of religious liberty as the constitutionally guaranteed right to ignore the Constitution whenever it suits us, the cause of religious liberty — which is guaranteed by the First Amendment — is going to suffer tremendously. Conservatives are supposed to understand the difference between the vice of cowardice and the virtue of prudence. If religious liberty means that even officers of the state can defy the law without consequence, then it makes every individual a potential tyrant.
Writing from the conservative bastion of the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker made a similar point. While Moore and Walker bemoaned the “judicial overstep” and “government inaction” that led to this situation, they did not excuse Davis’s reckless behavior. “We must recognize,” they note,
the crucial difference between the religious liberty claims of private citizens and government officials. Let us be clear: Government employees are entitled to religious liberty, but religious liberty is never an absolute claim, especially when it comes to discharging duties that the office in question requires. While government employees don’t lose their constitutional protection simply because they work for the government, an individual whose office requires them to uphold or execute the law is a separate matter than the private citizen whose conscience is infringed upon as a result of the law. It means the balancing test is different when it comes to government officials because of their roles as agents of the state. Government officials have a responsibility to carry out the law. When an official can no longer execute the laws in question due to an assault on conscience, and after all accommodating measures have been exhausted, he or she could work for change as a private citizen, engaging the democratic process in hopes of changing the questionable law.
We must be very clear about the distinctions here between persons acting as an agent of the state and persons being coerced by the state in their private lives. If the definition becomes so murky that we cannot differentiate between the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the responsibility of agents of the state to carry out the law, religious liberty itself will be imperiled.
For these brave conservative commentators, agreement with Davis’s opinion of same-sex marriage did not mean an automatic endorsement of Davis’s actions. All of us could learn from their example.
Those of us who consider ourselves progressives should commit to examine every case with the same gimlet eye. Just because we agree with someone’s position in general does not mean we must agree with their actions in every case.
Conservatives should be reminded to differentiate between today’s headlines and the big picture. Civil disobedience is a right and duty of us all, at times. But not every act of civil disobedience is equal, and civil disobedience has never meant simply flouting the laws we don’t like.
More important, we must all be willing to speak up against our own “side” when it is in the wrong. The first question should not be “Which side are you on?” but always “What is the right thing to do?”