This is easy to understand. If we don’t slam the lid on this religious-freedom business, Christians might find some loophole they can exploit to go on practicing their religion outside of church. Once you open the door to “conscience objections,” religious people start coming out of the woodwork.
Without some strenuous efforts at media spin, these figures might easily win public approval. Most Americans, after all, say they support religious freedom. Most likely they won’t warm to the idea that Christians should be bludgeoned into submission when a minor legal accommodation could enable them to adhere to their religious beliefs with minimal inconvenience to anyone.
For a left-wing pundit, however, accommodation isn’t the name of this game. What fun is their Supreme Court victory if they don’t get to stick it to the anti-marriage-equality bigots? For the sake of the liberal morality narrative, Davis has to go down. To sell that to the public, she must be dismissed as a right-wing crank.
The Confusion Is Vast
Over the last week, then, we’ve seen our liberal friends laboring to explain: what makes those right-wingers tick? This is always an amusing spectacle. Most of our elites are insulated in ultra-liberal pockets of the country where they don’t actually need to interact with the flyover-country rubes. So their explanations of how we think can be a great source of fish-out-of-water humor.
They ask lots of questions. Don’t conservatives believe in rule of law? Isn’t personal responsibility a major tenet of conservatism? So why would conservatives rally to the cause of a brazen lawbreaker who refuses to do her job? Also, how can conservatives claim to support Davis without opening the flood gates to innumerable other claims on behalf of religion?
Liberal pundits, you are in luck. I have prepared a handy guide to some basic principles of conservatism. Of course, if you’re really interested, you should make up a reading list, and bask in the wisdom of great conservative minds from Aristotle to Russell Kirk. Barring that, this might at least be enough to untangle conservative reactions to the Davis case.
Truth Isn’t Malleable
Conservatives believe in truth. Weirdly, things can still be true even when the popular culture has decided otherwise. It’s confusing, I realize. Multiple pieces (including here and here) marveled over the question: why do we have to discuss this when it has already been settled by the highest court in the land? The short answer is that truth isn’t infinitely malleable, even by the highest court in the land.
Davis believes there is a real, objective thing in our language is called “marriage,” which necessarily involves two people of the opposite sex. (As it happens, I agree with her.) By decree of His Majesty Anthony Kennedy, the law of the land now says otherwise, but that doesn’t mean she is wrong. You can weave a lie into a law. It happens all the time, in fact.
To be clear, conservatives don’t necessarily all agree with Davis about the truth of this particular matter, but most can sympathize with the problem. Truth doesn’t change just because it ceases to be trendy. We support religious freedom because we want to live in a free society, but another good reason is that dissenters sometimes turn out to be right.
Government Is Not God
Conservatives know that the government is not God. Left-wing pundits have made much of Davis’ declaration that she is following God’s will. In their minds, this is crazy-talk, akin to listening to Little Green Men. Quite a few have tried to make this into the Right’s Kermit Gosnell moment, with Mark Joseph Stern going so far as to declare that Davis is “the monster conservatives created” who will undermine voters’ enthusiasm for religious freedom.
As an aside: doesn’t this sort of thing make you feel great about being a conservative? Liberal monsters kill babies and sell off their parts; on our side, the “worst of the worst” engage in some ruthless non-issuing of documents. Interesting.
In any event, I see no evidence that Davis is either hateful or insane. She didn’t reference the Almighty as an explanation for her views on marriage. She was asked “on whose authority” she defies the law of the land, and she answered: God’s.
It was quite reminiscent of St. Thomas More’s stance (immediately before his execution) when he declared he was the king’s good servant “but God’s first.” For the more secular-minded, the basic point might be rephrased: “I won’t do something morally reprehensible just because a court tells me to.”
When Davis was elected, she had no problem doing her job. Post-Obergefell, she is now expected to do something she considers to be morally wrong. No court or politician actually has the authority to contravene the natural order, making wrong actions right. That is her point, and it is perfectly fair, although we all understand how liberal pundits occasionally get confused about the difference between “government” and “God.”
What Kim Davis Actually Said Matters
Conservatives appreciate that a person’s word should matter. It’s really shameful how the liberal press has distorted the true nature of Davis’ complaint. Again and again, they reported that Davis had ordered her office not to issue same-sex marriage licenses, without bothering to mention that the office wasn’t issuing marriage licenses to anybody. Clearly, Davis was seeking a solution that would not appear discriminatory or hateful.
Another vital point that was mostly omitted from mainstream accounts: Davis does not per se object to a solution wherein other people in her office issue licenses to same-sex couples. She objects to the documents being issued with her signature, because she doesn’t want her authoritative seal on a document that she believes to be a lie.
Stern mocked her for “not being patient enough” to wait for a legislative solution to her dilemma. But again, as she sees it, declaring two men to be “married” is bearing witness to a falsehood. Is it reasonable to tell her, “Just play along with the doublethink exercise for a while, and we’ll get the legislature on it. Sometime next year, perhaps, you’ll be permitted to stop asserting that two plus two equals five.”
Isn’t it nice to see that there is at least one public official out there who feels obliged not to lie to the public? Considering the state of our political order, it kind of figures that she got thrown in jail.
Personal Responsibility Is Not Despotism
Conservatives value personal responsibility, not despotism. Some pundits tried to make this into a “gotcha” moment, invoking that uncomfortable concept of “personal responsibility” in an effort to hoist us on our own petard. Over at Salon, Bob Cesca ranted that conservative support for Davis reveals the “core of Republican hypocrisy.” My, my.
Conservatives do believe in personal responsibility. Accepting responsibility for our actions is part of being a responsible grown-up, and those are in short supply nowadays. But obviously that message goes hand in hand with some expectation of reasonableness in the laws and customs to which we are accountable. When tyrannical governments jail people for distributing Bibles, execute boys for watching a soccer match, or throw gays off buildings, we don’t stand around cheering, “Hooray for personal responsibility!”
Personal responsibility is about accepting the natural consequences of our actions. Floating it as a justification for despotic intolerance is highly distasteful.
Conservatives Value Personal Integrity
Conservatives value personal integrity. We’d like to live in a society that tries to accommodate sincere believers rather than jailing them. It’s true that the legal issues are tricky, and in this case conservatives are genuinely divided on how the point should be handled. Unlike many liberals, we don’t think it’s okay to disregard the law whenever it happens to inconvenience us. Still, general expressions of support for Davis are widespread, because people shouldn’t have to go to jail for being faithful to their Christian beliefs.
I know this is hard for some liberals to understand. They love to smear conservatives as “reactionary,” confident that they will never incur such a charge so long as they stay cozily united to the liberal hive mind. I particularly enjoyed Mary Elizabeth Williams’ reflection on this, in which she notes that she hasn’t been persecuted at all for her Catholic beliefs. (She then mentions offhand that, on all the issues on which the Church is at odds with the mainstream secular culture, she’s gone ahead and sided with mainstream culture. Yet she still isn’t persecuted! Amazing.)
Both Law and Tradition Matter
Conservatives respect law and tradition. Suddenly, liberals have discovered the beauty of the law. With the issuing of Obergefell, their respect for legal authority has blossomed like a morning glory in August. Forget civil disobedience. Why should Davis be permitted to brazenly disregard what is now established in law?
The law of the land is not just a rule book. It’s more accurate to understand it as an organic tradition, which already has many precedents for exactly the kind of problem that arises here: dealing with good-faith conflicts between legal norms and sincere moral or religious beliefs. So, in a sense, it is the law itself that gives us good reasons to look for ways to accommodate people like Davis, whose free exercise of religion is burdened by revisions to current laws.
Liberals, we get that you aren’t big fans of tradition. But maybe you could try to remind yourselves now and then that we aren’t reinventing the wheel every time interests conflict? Many people think they are being principled when they suggest that Davis should quit her job if she feels unable to discharge her duties. But that’s not how these sorts of cases have been handled in the past. Both the Federal Civil Rights Act and state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (which Kentucky has passed) provide a legal framework for seeking accommodations for employees who are unable to execute specific duties for reasons of conscience.
It turns out, then, that our legal tradition gives us good reason to seek an accommodation for Davis, and, happily, such a fix could easily be provided along the lines of North Carolina’s already-existing model.