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That Public Square Thing

By September 15, 2015 10 Comments

Probably I shouldn’t touch this touchy subject but here goes anyway with some random musings about the Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis and her defiance of the law by not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  (Actually she stopped issuing all marriage licenses in protest of having her name appear on the licenses of same-sex couples.)  I will leave it to history to decide if she is a hero or not or some kind of Christian martyr for the cause.  It is way too early to ponder such grand-scale things, millions of Facebook posts notwithstanding.

Let me make clear first off that Kim Davis, as a Christian, is perfectly within her rights to disagree with same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court’s recent upholding of its constitutional legality.   As a Christian, she and her fellow church members are right–if they believe the Bible prohibits same-sex relationships–to not participate in such things and to keep their own church clear from officiating such unions and even in making certain restrictions within their membership for any people who want to be active in that church but who are in a relationship with which the church disagrees.

That’s all fine even if fellow Christians were to disagree with her church’s interpretation of it all.

The real issue is that at some point in her life Kim Davis decided to become an elected official in a country that has a separation of church and state.  She was not forced into this position–she actively sought it, spent money running for it, and took vows/oaths once she was elected by the people.   True, religion for devout believers like Ms. Davis is not a hobby.  You don’t check faith at the front door of your house when you leave for work in the morning.  Being a Christian should mean letting your faith influence your morality on the job and how you treat other people and through displaying Christ’s love to all.   Faith is not incidental to us except when we are in church on Sundays.   For Ms. Davis her faith now is also involved when it comes to her participating in the legal support of something she believes as a Christian to be morally wrong.

And so she should resign.   It is the honest thing to do.  If her faith won’t let her do this public job in an elected office–if she cannot issues those licenses in a Christian manner since she believes it requires a suspension of her faith to do so–then she should quit.   She would be acting very consistently if she did so.

It’s not clear whether she has contemplated that option.  And it makes one wonder what she thought she was getting into when running for office in an officially pluralistic nation.  What I suspect is that she is among the millions of “God and country” Christians in the U.S. who assume that being a Christian and being an American have since time immemorial meant pretty much the same thing.   There won’t be any religious compromises, any significant faith conflicts, when serving the public because we are a Christian Nation.  We wrap the cross in the flag and hold patriotic hymn sings right before Memorial Day and the Fourth of July in many churches.   And the message becomes clear: to be a good American is to be a good Christian and if something happens in the culture to create dissonance after all, then we will hold our breath, turn blue, and wait for the country and the law of the land to come back around to being Christian again.

But that’s not how it works.  The early church is instructive here.   It’s impossible for most American Christians to wrap their minds around what it meant for the Apostle Paul to tell Roman Christians to pay their taxes to and to obey the laws of an empire that was not only not Christian, it was openly hostile to the church.   The fact is that negotiating Christian identity with national identity is supposed to be hard–it’s supposed to be the stuff of nuance and wisdom and hard thinking about what really matters.   But the muscles of the brain and of the heart that are supposed to be in good shape to do such thinking have long since atrophied for many Christians in the U.S.

But let’s leave that angle to one side for a moment and ponder something else.   As a Bible-believing Christian, Ms. Davis has no doubt issued lots of marriage licenses over the years to divorced people who were getting remarried.  But has her faith led her to hesitate over this?   Jesus’ words are crystal clear: the divorced who remarry are committing adultery.   Maybe for reason of adultery a marriage can end in divorce in ways that do not accrue sin to the innocent party–at least that is one way some churches have let their divorced members remarry and still be full members of the church.   But assuming Ms. Davis has known when the divorced were applying for a license–every marriage license I have ever signed as a pastor has a line on it for number of previous marriages–has she checked out every case to make sure the reason for the divorce was adultery?   And did it ever bother her that she was perpetuating–according to our Lord’s own dictates–ongoing relationships of adultery by giving people legal permission to marry someone other than their first, second, or third spouse?  (You’d surely never give a license to the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4 . . .)

No doubt Ms. Davis has not been hesitant about that because, perhaps she reasoned, as a public official it was not her place to make such religious judgments about fellow citizens who may not share her particular faith.

Well then . . .

Now perhaps she does not regard divorce to be a sin or remarriage to be ongoing adultery in every case.   Maybe her church allows for all this and so there is no faith conflict for her in this scenario, in which case my analogy breaks down.   But surely she has issued lots of licenses in her term of office to people with no religious faith, with no real respect for the institution of marriage, people who run through multiple marriages, who lived together before marriage, etc.   And again, it’s part of being a public servant that you have to live with those tensions.   The President has to take care of people who share his faith but also those who actively criticize religious faith.   When you are a public servant, you have to protect and serve Tim Keller AND Bill Maher, Timothy Dolan AND Tom Cruise.

I wonder if our public witness would be more consistently Christ-like if we’d wrestle with all this as a matter of course instead of waiting for hot button issues to make a fuss.


Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


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