By Alan Bean
My contention that we should cut Kim Davis some slack has raised several hackles. I wasn’t suggesting that Kim is particularly impressionable, robotic or stupid; I was merely suggesting that she is a normal person who reflects the culture that surrounds her like the air she breathes.
Still, people want to hate on Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk. Facebook culture personalizes everything. Most of us don’t think much about immigration policy until Donald Trump says “they have to go.” Some of us react in horror, others leap off the sofa with a triumphant “yes”, fists pumping.
But the ensuing argument isn’t about immigration policy; its about whether the Trumpster is the man on a white horse we’ve been waiting for since the Gipper toddled into the sunset, or a self-aggrandizing buffoon with a mystifying comb-over.
Here’s my point: while we mock poor Kim for her traumatic romantic history, her atypical wardrobe, her antiquated hairstyle, her homophobia, her bad theology and her faulty grasp of constitutional law, we fail to realize that, in Rowan County, Kim’s ideas are commonplace. She is sticking to her guns with atypical tenacity, but the guns she is sticking to are standard issue.
Liberals believe that the sheer diversity of the American populace demands that all parties have a place at the table. If the tyranny of the majority threatens to silence minority voices, we appeal to constitutional rights. And since we don’t interpret the Constitution in the same way, we set aside nine Supreme Court justices to make the hard calls. And since we can’t agree about who deserves to sit on the high court, we leave it up to the sitting president.
These simple facts create a dilemma for liberals.
What do we do if half the country, give or take, relies on the tyranny of the majority?
What do we do if, in certain regions of the country, folks believe that a rigidly enforced moral consensus will protect our cherished way of life.
What do we do with those who believe that straight white Christian males should have a privileged place in society because (a) the Bible says so and (b) because, should we grant equal dignity to women, gay people, people of color and religious minorities, America would no longer be a city set upon a hill?
Liberals might not like it, but in some sections of our country (and Eastern Kentucky is one of them) preachers and politicians with white constituencies defend straight white Christian male hegemony or find another line of work. Sophisticated theologies, political philosophies and exotic theocratic hybrids have been devised to under-gird this status quo.
Kim Davis was born into a world where the supremacy of straight white Christian males is unchallenged. People don’t discuss this shared commitment; it is merely assumed. People who don’t think this way are “liberals” who “don’t believe God’s word” and “want to destroy America.”
This explains the curious appeal of guns in certain portions of America. The gun, for reasons I dimply grasp, has become the symbol of straight white Christian male hegemony. Brandish a pistol or an AK-47 in public and we can guess what you think on every other subject.
How do liberals make a place at the table for people who think this way? Should we give them a place at the table?
Or is it our call to make? Can we even speak of a single American table anymore? Did such a thing ever exist?
In much of America, straight white Christian males are retreating (somewhat grudgingly) from our inherited privilege; but it ain’t happening in Kim Davis’s world. And, for the most part, it ain’t happening in the Dallas-Fort World Metroplex where I live.
If you live in a section of America dominated by straight white Christian males (and a few women and people of color who bend the knee to the status quo) your options are limited. If you live in a big city like Dallas, you can find a few backwaters of tolerance where people agree with you. But if you live in Rowan County, Kentucky, you either accept straight white Christian male hegemony or you share your opinions selectively.
Kim Davis is utterly convinced that if she makes the easy choice and signs her name to a same-sex marriage license (or allows a subordinate to do so) God will hold her accountable. The Bible endorses straight white Christian male hegemony and God wrote the Bible. Sign off on a gay marriage and you are trampling on the Bible; trample on the Bible and you are thumbing your nose at God; thumb your nose at God and you go straight to hell without collecting $200 dollars.
In my recent post, I pointed out that Kim’s pastor, Kim’s husband and Kim’s attorneys are singing in harmony. She must not back down. She cannot back down. And if she sticks to her guns long enough, brave county clerks across the nation will grow a pair and go to jail just like Kim. Imagine, thousands of county clerks languishing in prison for God. Then what will the liberals do?
That’s the way Kim’s puppeteers think. Unsettling, but there it is.
Kim’s dilemma is that she lives in a section of the nation where straight white Christian male hegemony reigns but she holds a job that forces her treat homosexuals, people of color, women and Muslims as equals.
We’ve been through this before, of course.
First, the idea of religious equality was written into the US Constitution. People in Kim’s world didn’t like it (and still don’t), but they adapted.
Then the legal equality of women was mandated. People in Kim’s world didn’t like that either, but they adapted.
Then, forty years later, the principle of racial equality went mainstream. Kim’s world didn’t like it (at all), but they gradually adapted.
And now the principle of marriage equality has received the imprimatur of the nations’ highest court. People in Kim’s world don’t like it and . . . they will probably adapt . . . in time.
They won’t like it, but they will adapt.
We have two Americas, one grounded in the principle of equal justice; the other clinging to straight white Christian male hegemony. Some of us live with both feet planted firmly in one America or the other. Some of us are forced to navigate both sides of that line.
Technically, Kim Davis was one of these navigators. Left to her own devices, she probably would have backed down. But when the majority of Republican presidential candidates, your husband, your pastor and an unholy host of lawyers from Liberty Counsel are telling you to stand your ground, you stand your ground.
At least, most of us would. If you were Kim, you probably would.
This lyric from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore comes to mind:
For he might have been a Roosian,
A French, or Turk, or Proosian,
Or perhaps Itali-an!
But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!
He remains an Englishman!
The joke resides in the bizarre idea that we are free, willy-nilly, to embrace whatever nationality we choose and should be commended for choosing wisely.
Technically, we are free to choose. I am a Canadian who decided, largely for domestic reasons, to become an American citizen. Many of the adults I grew up with in school and at church, emigrated to Canada from the UK.
But the default position of an Englishman is to remain an Englishman. When H.M.S. Pinafore was first performed in 1878, Britannia ruled the waves and England was the world’s most favored nation. Englishmen traveled the world in the service of Empire, but no one thought of being anything other than English. The song is funny because it makes a virtue out of a virtual necessity.
Similarly, it would be nice if Kim Davis would suddenly emigrate to equal justice America and “just do her job”. And if her husband, pastor, and lead attorney weren’t holding her feet to the fire, she probably would. (The job pays $80,000, for God’s sake, and in Rowan County that’s big money.)
But the natural expectation is that Kim Davis, looking at the world as she does, and supported by such a great cloud of witnesses, would do precisely what she is doing. “In spite of all temptations to become a Yankee liberal, she remains a Southern conservative.” (It doesn’t scan nearly as well as the G&S lyric, but the principle is the same.)
We shouldn’t condemn Kim for being who she is. And here’s the important thing: if you had grown up in Kim’s world you too would be in prison and, if you weren’t, it would only be because you lacked Kim’s resolve.
Differences abound, obviously. For those who believe in equal justice, Rosa was right and Kim is wrong. Rosa knew what she was doing and why she was doing it (she was well schooled in the principles and strategies of non-violent resistance); Kim is just following directions with little grasp of the larger picture.
But at the psychological level, it takes just as much guts for Kim to go to jail for her principles as it took for Rosa. And, for people who think like Kim (and most people in her part of the world do), her stand will be just as inspiring as the stand Rosa took. Which is why so supporters of straight white Christian male hegemony everywhere are celebrating (including Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).
I know it’s hard to imagine how the world looks through the eyes of Kim Davis. Can we admire her commitment to principle while deploring the principle to which she is committed? Yes, we can. And we should. Our failure to do so betrays a lack of moral imagination.
We need to stop personalizing this fight. It isn’t Kim Davis v. the US Constitution; it’s equal justice America v. straight white Christian male hegemony America. If we spell it out in these terms the salient issue will gradually come into focus. If we continue to demonize a single woman we are begging the question.
Equal justice liberals must come to terms with the other America. Should we find these folks a place at the table if they insist on consigning the other table guests to the kitchen?
Or should we understand that, like it not, these people are part of the American family. You can laugh at them, rail at them, condescend to them, or demonize them if you will, but they’ve always been there and they aren’t leaving now.
I love straight people, white people, Christian people and male people . . . in fact, I’m all of the above.
These folks only become a problem when they reject the principle of equal justice. We are not against Kim Davis as a person. We love and respect her. But because we are for equal justice we stand with the same-sex couples who want Kim to give them a marriage license.