As a lover of liberty, I am generally sympathetic to principled anti-government sentiment: I enjoy reading stories of citizens who take it upon themselves to reign in unfettered bureaucracy, who, in many cases, are willing to fight for the rights of the individual in the face of overwhelming odds. I am also partial to the stirring, inexorable sense one often has to follow one’s conscience, despite what is enumerated in esoteric legal codes.
But when it comes to the case of Kim Davis–a case that Davis’ lawyer clumsily likened to Martin Luther King Jr., whose fight was one that could not have been had in any manner other than civil disobedience–I am not at all sympathetic, and am quite surprised that otherwise thoughtful presidential candidates are falling for her self-indulgent resistance.
Indeed, in almost any other situation similar to that of Davis, it would be unlikely for conservatives to rally around the supposed victim: Conservatives believe strongly in the rule of law, the idea that the law applies equally to all American citizens, and that all must follow it. As such, they tend to decry instances in which it appears as if a particular person has skirted the legal process. It doesn’t matter if it’s President Obama with his unlawful executive amnesty, or if it concerns an individual who isn’t treated properly by a judge or an agency. The conservative argument remains the same: the law is the law, established through a fair and representative process to which all people are subject.
That, at least, is how the Founders thought of the issue. They purposefully created an America of laws, not an America of capricious lawmakers whose whims are not tempered by established process and checks and balances. John Locke, one of Jefferson and company’s finest intellectual predecessors, thought that a polity in which the rule of law meant nothing was also one that ought to be considered the equivalent of a tyranny. The law is rendered impotent, because it does not perform its primary function of limiting executive power. According to Locke, rebellion is justified when government officials consistently ignore the law, and especially when the executive does not enforce the dictates of the legislature or the judiciary.
The same ought to be true of conservatives’ evaluation of Davis: she found herself in jail because the government did a good job of enforcing the rule of law, not because she believes that marriage is between one man and one woman. Davis is a government official, who is in part tasked with the specific job of issuing marriage licenses. Over the summer, the Supreme Court ruled that all states have to recognize same-sex marriage, but Davis demurred, and refused to follow suit. And even when a judge ordered her to perform her governmental duties–in other words, to follow the law in accordance to Lockean principles concerning the purposes of the bureaucracy–she remained obstinate, and was found to be in contempt of court.
In other words, this is not at all an issue of religious liberty, but of the rule of law. If Davis were simply a private citizen, and the government were forcing her to perform or attend or endorse same-sex marriages, I would be out on the streets in protest myself. But Davis was a government employee, and her job demands (like it does for all other bureaucrats) that she follow the legal codes that are established by a fair and democratic process.
My question, then, to the Ted Cruzes and the Mike Huckabees of the world would be as such: If Davis disliked guns–and cited God’s law as justification for refusing to hand out gun permits–what would be the appropriate reaction?
Kim Davis, of course, is altogether free to believe in the sanctity of Christian marriage. But if she wants to actually fight for that principle in an effective manner, she should respect the rule of law and recognize her personal inability to uphold the Court’s decision. She should, in short, follow T.S. Eliot’s earnest advice and “RESIGN RESIGN RESIGN.”