The basic outline of this drama could have been predicted (and was predicted) months ago – someone objects to same-sex couples marrying; in their business or government position they refuse to issue marriage licenses or otherwise serve same-sex couples. A minor media brushfire occurs, a right wing legal organization leaps into the fray and throws gasoline on the fire. A court orders the person to issue said marriage licenses or provide said services. Person refuses, and on the advice of the legal organization starts talking about religious freedom. Court orders person to do their job. Person refuses. Right wing legal organization gives bad advice, hoping to create a martyr. Person goes to jail for contempt of court. The Religious Right goes up in flames.
The specific details were always up for grabs – there’s no reason it had to be Rowan County, Kentucky rather than Mobile, Alabama or Twin Falls, Idaho. The objector could have been a man not a woman, a judge not a county clerk or the owner of a business. That the objector would adhere to a form fundamentalist Christianity was a given, although the specific form doesn’t make much difference (Davis belongs to an Apostolic Christian Church). The actual nature of the objection could easily have been a cut and paste job – we were always going to hear screeching about religious freedom and how this poor person is being oppressed. Even the specifics of the punishment are largely unimportant – whether it was jail time or fines or an order to comply with nondiscrimination laws, the reaction was always going to be the same. Even the comparisons to Rosa Parks were inevitable as the religious right tries to coopt the luster of the Civil Rights movement.
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis helpfully stepped into the fray. Her refusal to issue any and all marriage licenses, especially to same-sex couples, put her in the middle of the fight the religious right has wanted for the longest time.
Davis used all the buzzwords – religious freedom, conscience, even God’s authority. She was going to be exactly the right test case. Kim Davis initially looked like a great candidate for martyrdom. A devout County Clerk standing on principal being forced by “the culture” to act against her religious conscience.
The right’s narrative of persecution has been written and refined over years. In this narrative, a secular, degenerate culture is out to persecute the devout, to force them to give up their faith in order to function in society. It’s an appealing narrative to a Christian sub-culture keenly aware of the biblical warning to be “in the world not of the world.” For those of us not steeped in the fundamentalist Christian subculture (portrayed largely sympathetically in the film Saved!) with its focus on sexual purity and moral certainty, that narrative seems bizarrely at odds with reality. ‘
Over the years, the religious right has successfully created a network of interlocking organizations and self proclaimed experts whose purpose is to advocate for the right’s pet causes. Notice that in almost any culture war controversy, there’s an organization dedicated to the cause, with a stable of experts ready to go before news cameras with a host of easy to repeat talking points. Whether the issue is home schooling, abstinence only sexuality education, creationism, gay marriage, or teen pregnancy, there is an organization and expert ready to tackle the cause. Floating around these single issue organizations are legal groups, such as the Liberty Counsel or the Pacific Justice Institute, who provide attorneys and legal resources for individuals and organizations. Then there are the larger organizations which tackle many issues (the Family Research Council is a good example). At the local level, there are a host of grassroots organizations and churches. These various organizations work in tandem to produce activists, speakers, conferences and controversies. It’s worth pointing out that many culture war dustups would be resolved quickly were it not for the activities of these organizations.
It’s no accident these organizations exist. When fundamentalist Christians (who make up about a quarter of the US population) venture outside the Christians sub culture, the experience is jarring. They walk away from mainstream organizations with the belief that these organizations are hopelessly in the thrall of liberal bias. The evolution of the right’s various organizations and institutions was in response to that perception. People don’t send their kids to Liberty University because they Lynchburg, VA – they send them to keep them safe from “liberal indoctrination” at other colleges and universities.
Liberty Counsel has been wandering the countryside looking for a case. The religious right wants this fight, they’ve been dreaming about it; they wanted to provoke this fight because they are convinced they will win. The Liberty Counsel may well be using Kim Davis, but, by all appearances, she wants to be used. Right wing commentators have probably had their articles written for months and were just waiting to add the specifics – the location and the name of the latest “martyr” to the cause.
It’s not entirely an aside, but with the intervention of Liberty Counsel, the Rowan County attorney could probably have worked with Kim Davis and worked out a compromise. (I.e. her assistants are willing to issue the licenses, Davis could have authorized them to issue the licenses, the county attorney could have signed off on the legality of it and badda bing badda boom and it’s all done.)
The Saga of Kim Davis, Marty to the Gaystapo, was going well . . . Right up until stories of her checkered past began coming out – then she looked to all the world like a hypocrite. Rather than prim and proper, she appears dowdy and judgmental. By then, it was too late – Liberty Counsel was committed, so the fight had to go forward. Davis has proven unsatisfactory as a symbol of the right’s oppression at the hands of liberals. The outrage has felt entirely too manufactured. Eventually, Davis’ case will disappear beneath the waves, largely ignored and forgotten, like Terry Schiavo who was a cause celebre for a time but which backfired on the right and which has been mostly forgotten except by the most dedicated devotees.
The second Kim Davis’ saga resolves itself, the right will move on to a new front. They’ll intensify their attacks on Planned Parenthood, or find some school somewhere that told kids to not organize prayer rallies in the lunchroom or some school that is examining the possibility of comprehensive sexuality education. Although none of those activities ever fully stop, the merry go round of “high drama” keeps highlighting one issue or another.
It’s crucial that we on the left not underestimate the religious right. The lofty Jesus and God rhetoric, the gauzy, saccharine talk of family, the pleas for modesty and chastity, the endless moralizing, and the claims (both hysterical and not) of persecution, hide a toxic, deadly anger at the contemporary world. It’s not just gays getting married, it’s wanton women not getting their just deserts (damn contraception anyway!), it’s disobedient kids not getting beaten with sticks; it’s a whole world refusing to obey the moral rules of the right and getting away with it.
In Republican Gomorrah, Max Blumenthal described the way in which the religious right’s “culture of personal crisis” drives the devout into conservative politics. Divorce, infidelity, teen pregnancy, and general personal instability afflict religiously conservative communities in higher rates than the rest of American society – and are experienced as far more traumatic than in the rest of our society. As many writers have pointed out, it’s no accident that Josh Duggar has a lifetime history of sexual misconduct and abuse.
The saga of Kim Davis cannot be understood separate from the larger context of the heavily politicized religious right and its perpetual culture war. The interlocking network of organizations, schools, activists and issues produced Kim Davis.
The machinery of the religious right will shift gears, find another fight and keep on waging perpetual culture war. Our fundamentalist brothers and sisters are at war with the culture. Fundamentalism, in its most basic form, has always been grounded in the passionate rejection of modernity in all its forms. The religious right is angry – angrier than they’ve been in a long, long time. The same dynamics that are leading many conservatives to support Donald Trump are driving the anger in fundamentalist communities. Fundamentalist believers have given countless hours to support Republican candidates. They’ve knocked on doors, made phone calls, and faithfully voted in every election. Despite that, since the 1992 election, every victory has turned to ashes, and every loss has been compounded. The despised Bill Clinton not only won re-election, he survived impeachment and ended his term more popular than any other president in the history of such polling. George W. Bush ran on an orthodox religious right campaign (he even branded himself a “compassionate conservative” which conformed to the right’s vision of itself). His term ended in disaster. Then the hated Barack Obama won and then won re-election. And now the even more hated and despised Hilary Clinton seems favored to win the Presidency. Despite controlling Congress, Republicans haven’t delivered on their promises to the religious right.
It’s one thing to lose; it’s another thing to win and feel betrayed. The religious right is a seething mass of anger, ready to strike out at anyone. Kim Davis, and others like her, wants the fight. The organizations that make up the formal infrastructure of the religious right want the fight. They’re tired of relying on unreliable politicians. They’re convinced they’ll win and after decades of doing the work for others, they’re ready to do it themselves. Fired by fundamentalist faith, and a deep sense of their own righteousness, the Kim Davises of the world are ready to go out and pick fights. And they’re ready to win or lose – losing is a win in the eyes of heaven and winning is an act of claiming the culture for God.