Kim Davis was finally released today after five days in prison in Grayson Kentucky for refusing to sign marriage certificates for gay couples taking advantage of the recent Supreme Court decision. She departed the prison to a crowd of thousands and the song “Eye of the Tiger” blaring out of loudspeakers (WP). Her release even garnered the presence of two Republican hopefuls for the presidential nomination in Mike Huckabee and Senator Ted Cruz. Huckabee claimed Davis as a representative from God sent to lead the charge against “judicial tyranny.” In an ironic twist, in line with Davis’ stand, Huckabee’s aides blocked Cruz from getting on stage to share in the moment. This comes on top of the other ironic twist, which is the fact the religious crusader was actually elected to the office as a Democrat.
Davis has become a conservative hero almost overnight. Yet one argue she is but the most recent example of a troubling ideological position that conservative Christians have been pushing for several years now. The idea is that individuals and organizations can ignore, or openly defy, the law based on their personal religious beliefs. This contentious stand started when pharmacists in the South and Midwest started refusing to fill subscriptions for birth control pills for women, or give the day after pill to women trying to avoid unwanted pregnancies. It has accelerated ever since, largely centered around the issue of gay rights and the freedom to refuse service to individuals based on their beliefs or lifestyle choices. In this case, Davis is essentially seeking to void the highest court in the United States and might just continue that position moving forward, as it was unclear whether she was now willing to comply with the order that got her thrown in prison to begin with. The other five clerks have complied with gender equity so far and one wonders what will happen if Davis again refuses to sign a marriage license for a same sex couple.
The larger issue, however, seems to get at the heart of the problem with both poles of the American political continuum today – the belief that it is acceptable to push others to support your personal moral perspective. This is a fundamental belief for all forms of fundamentalism and a fundamental threat to democracy. On the question of ethics, we must comply with the will of our legal system and the internal mechanisms of institutions. As individuals, we must follow the law, but have the freedom to develop our own moral beliefs. These will always be heavily influenced by social norms and beliefs, but to force the many to follow the beliefs of the few, whether they are in religious or ideological terms, is to fundamentally abrogate the rule of law and the obligation side of our social responsibility. Both rights and obligations are central features of democracy, with decisions made collectively by the people (who are, of course, sovereign). Yet the foundation of the U.S. system of governance also relies on individual rights, as first represented in the Bill of Rights. On the question of religion, it is clear both that people have the freedom to practice any religion they like but also, based on jurisprudence over the past 100 years or so, that separation of Church and state is the rule of the land.
From a broader perspective, political insularity creates myopia, where one is more apt to believe their ideological positions are immune to debate and compromise. Errol Morris once argued, in this vein, that “believing is seeing.” The idea here is our worldview is largely the result of our beliefs and cultural background rather than the other way around. People should be free to see the world as they like and, with limits, to be in that world as they like. However, a problem emerges when an individual or group decide that their beliefs should dictate the behavior of others. Kim Davis is just the latest representation of this idea, one at the heart of so much human suffering over the course of human history. Could we ever convince these fundamentalists to simply live and let live? While it seems unlikely, it would be the first step to creating a better, more just and equitable world for the many.