Today is Saturday, September 5, 2015.
The whole world is watching the controversy in Rowan County, Kentucky and the recent imprisonment of Kim Davis due to contempt of court charges after she refused the court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She is claiming the right to her religious freedom to disobey the law. Because the Supreme Court ruled in June that same-sex couples have the right to marry in the United States and state laws denying this right are unconstitutional, the federal judge is claiming she violated her oath to uphold constitutional requirements in her role as an elected civil servant. Even as she was escorted away from the court room, she refused to issue the authorization for her staff to hand out marriage licenses. Five members of her staff, after being threatened with the same contempt of court charges, agreed to issue the marriage licenses and those licenses were handed out beginning Friday morning. In spite of this, the controversy and argument are not over.
What is really going on here? In this specific situation, Kim Davis is being punished for not doing her job and violating the law. Her religious views were not considered as relevant by the judge. Yet, for Kim Davis, it is the only thing that is relevant. She is getting plenty of support from social conservatives and most of the Republican presidential candidates, as a result. They are claiming she was jailed for her religious beliefs. The judge denies those allegations.
I think what is really happening here is a deep-seeded change in American culture, probably due to demographic changes, that is dismantling previous Protestant Christian privilege. A glimpse into American History makes it pretty clear that, although there is a constitutional mandate for separation of church and state, and the government may not endorse any religion, the reality is Protestantism has always held a superior place in the culture and enjoyed an obvious cultural privilege. The way I see it, that has been changing and Protestants know this and feel this. There is, in fact, no war on Christianity. Kim Davis was not jailed because of her beliefs. She was jailed because she violated her oath and the law. She is still allowed to believe in her ‘Apostolic Christianity’; she is still allowed to believe, with all her heart, marriage is only between and man and a woman and she can preach that in her church. But what she cannot do is use her elected civil position to discriminate against people because she does not believe in what they are doing.
In the past, Protestant social values were often the basis for community laws and prescribed behaviors. That was a result of their cultural privilege–they were just accepted as our American cultural values. Ever since the mid 1960s, however, that cultural privilege has slowly eroded as a result of Supreme Court decisions regarding abortion, women’s rights, interracial marriage, civil rights, and now the rights of LGBT to be full participating members of the society. Marriage equality was the final blow to that privilege and I can imagine it must feel demoralizing for those Christians who feel they are increasingly marginalized in the culture. There is a problem of perception here though. They, as people and citizens, are not being marginalized at all. They have every right to believe what they believe and that has not changed. What has changed is the unwillingness of the majority of Americans and the judicial system to continue to allow them a privileged status complete with laws and community values that reflect and support their beliefs at the expense of others.
Christians adamantly adhere to the belief that the United States, its government, laws and culture are ‘Judeo-Christian’ in origin and that tradition and history should not be abandoned. However, as it stands now, only one in five Americans actively engages in a religious community or congregation. The younger generation is less religious than any previous American generation, and as they come of age, they do not tolerate the rigid religious social rules of behavior and identity that impinge on their freedom of expression. They simply do not understand how romantic and sexual love can be limited by biological gender and prescribed by a church or religion. It leads, obviously, to the question, ‘What about the civil rights of those who are not practicing Christians?’ And this is the crux of the conflict.
Kim Davis has become a hero or martyr of sorts to these Protestant Christians, which was expected. The wave of support for her is all about the last dying gasp of a privileged religious denomination that has dominated American culture for more than two centuries, but has lost that status over the last fifty years. The Republican Party is dominated by these believers and their field of presidential candidates makes that clear. But their privilege and cultural dominance will no longer be a reality and sending Kim Davis to jail is emblematic of their situation. The Republican Party and its believers, as they are now, will never be able to succeed in the current cultural, social and political landscape as long as they push for a return to the old White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant America of yesterday. Protestantism will still be the dominant American religious sect, but it will never again be allowed to dictate to the rest of us how we live our lives, whom we love, or how we plan or arrange our families. Those days are gone. It is sad that they are feeling marginalized when that is not really the case. It is even more disturbing that they are now taking to ‘civil disobedience’ in order to stop the erosion of their influence and privilege, because it is a futile, quixotic tilting at windmills. We are a nation of laws based on the Constitution and that includes the 14th Amendment that guarantees all of us equal treatment and equal access to all levels of society, not just Protestants.