As Kim Davis sat in jail, she received criticism from not only the usual liberal suspects but also conservative-leaning Christians who take an oddly absolutist stance against civil disobedience by government officials. If a Christian clerk resists an unconstitutional and unjust law to sign gay marriage licenses, why is that morally wrong? It undermines the proper functioning of the government, say her Christian critics. But that argument only makes sense if the smooth functioning of a tyranny is a moral good. It isn’t.
Justify Davis’s civil disobedience and the “rule of law ceases to exist,” says Rod Dreher of the American Conservative. No, the rule of corrupt judges is impeded, and that is all to the good. If the rule of law has been twisted tyrannically, why prioritize its preservation? The unquestioning adherence of government officials to unjust laws does far more damage to the real good for which government exists than the supposed bad example of Kim Davis ever could.
Were civil disobedience by government officials everywhere and always wrong, the United States of America wouldn’t exist. Its origin traces to the willingness of colonial officials to resist King George III’s unjust decrees, and many of those acts of resistance look like minor quibbles compared to the serious objection Kim Davis raises.
Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker of the Southern Baptist Convention rule out civil disobedience for Christians in government, writing that they “have a responsibility to carry out the law” or resign. Limiting the Christian response to those two choices is music to the ears of tyrants, as it means either the corruption of Christians or their total marginalization.
Implied in the stance of Moore and Walker is that civil disobedience by Christians who remain in their positions and resist somehow violates the will of God. But how could it possibly be the will of God for state authority to rest entirely in the hands of secularists or secularized Christians? That is the inevitable consequence of the “do your job or quit” stance.
Forbidding Christians in government from practicing civil disobedience at a time of tyranny is a formula for the extinction of Christianity. “I die the King’s good servant but God’s first,” said St. Thomas More. Now Christians, if they take the claimed prohibition on civil disobedience seriously, will have to delude themselves into thinking they can be God’s good servant while the secularist state’s first. Will they end up God’s good servant if they serve as secularism’s amoral arm?
Defenders of Davis, according to Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s former speechwriter, are “doing great harm to the cause of religious liberty and to the reputation of their faith.” By Gerson’s reasoning, cooperating with religious liberty’s steady diminution and Christianity’s secularization somehow advance religious liberty and Christian integrity. Such sophistry explains how secularism triumphed so easily, to the point where judges now feel cocky enough to throw Christians in jail. The secularists can always count on appeasing Christians to make their arguments for them.
For decades, oh-so-nuanced Christians, desperate for a pat on the head from those in power, have counseled their less respectable brethren that this or that violation of religious freedom is “not the hill to die on.” The consequence of this counsel is that secularism now controls all the hills.
“I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos,” says Thomas More in the Robert Bolt play. It is curious to hear the Christian critics of Kim Davis reverse this argument and fret over the chaos that might result should conscientious Christians in government forsake their duties, as if the stability of a government separated from God’s law is more crucial to the common good than is the moral truth to which that disobedience gives effective witness.
Without that moral truth, all of government descends into chaos and civil disobedience becomes a corrective to it. By exposing herself to jail, Davis has helped reveal the increasingly coercive character of secularism, which will not rest until all Christians bow to its dictates or disappear from public life. For her Christian critics, in the midst of this purge, to be worrying about the propriety of her actions looks like a case of straining at the gnat and swallowing the camel.