Davis is, of course, the county clerk who has refused to obey a court order – one upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court – to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. That defiance has put her in jail for contempt of court. It also has made her the most famous county clerk in America, and that is reason enough for me not to write about her. She and her offensive claims about religious persecution have gotten her far more publicity than she deserves. I hate to add more fuel to a controversy that already has exceeded its fifteen minutes of fame.
I also hate to write about Davis because, in my opinion, the very lunacy of her legal claims is actually a good thing for the future of marriage equality. The outrageous nature of her argument – that she has a constitutional right to ignore and defy the rulings of the Supreme Court – only goes to show that marriage discrimination is on its last legs. If Kim Davis is the symbolic leader of the rebellion to keep gay and lesbian couples from marrying, it is a rebellion that is looking increasingly like a fringe movement of the willfully ignorant and the intellectually dishonest.
But I can't help myself. I have to write about Kim Davis because there is such a glaringly obvious contradiction in her understanding and interpretation of the Bible. I am such a consummate nerd of biblical study that it pains me not to point it out.
In her defense, Davis published a statement that says, in part, "I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God's definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience."
I'm going to put aside for the moment the idea that there can be any religious justification for public officials to refuse to carry out the duties of their offices. More on that later.
I have written in the past about the so-called "biblical definition of marriage." Suffice to say, if God has a definition of marriage, God has never published it. There is no single, clear definition of marriage to be found anywhere in the Bible. Any biblical support for Davis to justify her refusal to do her job must be based on her interpretation of the Bible. The Bible does have a few things to say about sex between people of the same sex and about marriage, but not all of them will support the choices that Davis has made in her job and in her life.
Davis, I am sure, will rest her case largely upon Leviticus 18:22, which states: "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman. it is an abomination." This is not the only biblical verse that deals with male-male sexuality, but it is one of the clearest. The Hebrew Bible does not like the idea of men having sex with men. It is not clear whether the verse is talking about consensual sex between men who love each other, or if it is talking about rape. There are no examples of the former in the Bible, but there are examples of the latter (see Genesis 19:5-6.) It is entirely possible that Leviticus 18 is talking mainly about rape, not consensual sex.
Some will note that Leviticus 18 is a prohibition against sexuality, not against marriage. That is true, but marriage is mostly equated with sex in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, there really is no verb "to marry" in Biblical Hebrew and there is no noun that just means "wife." The idiom for marriage is "to take." A wife, in the Hebrew Bible is a woman who has been acquired as a possession. When the Bible says, "He took her to be his woman" it means both, "He married her" and, "He had sex with her." From a biblical perspective, sex is marriage and marriage is sex. Some sex is permitted, and, thus, marriage is permitted. Some sex is prohibited and, thus, marriage is prohibited.
The word "abomination" used in Leviticus 18 about sex between two men sounds pretty strong – definitely not something that God wants people to do. However, this is not the only place in the Bible that talks about "abominations." In fact, the Bible uses the exact same word (to'eivah in Hebrew) in the book of Deuteronomy to talk specifically about marriage. Here is a fairly literal translation of the passage:
When a man takes a woman and masters her, but she does not find grace in his eyes because he finds something obnoxious about her, he writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her away from his house. She leaves his house and goes to become another man's. But if the other man hates her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her away from his house – or, if the last man who took her as his woman dies – then the first husband who sent her away cannot take her again to be his woman after she has been made ritually impure — for that is an abomination before Adonai. You shall not bring sin upon the land that Adonai your God is giving to you as a possession. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
Any honest reading of the Bible would suggest that if a marriage between two men is prohibited, then the remarriage of a divorced couple after the woman has been married to someone else must also be prohibited. The first prohibition is based on an interpretation of Leviticus – one that says that they cannot have sex with each other even if they are in a consensual relationship, and that the prohibition against sex implies a prohibition against marriage. The second prohibition requires much less interpretation, as it is clearly spelled out in Deuteronomy in precise, legal language. The prohibition in Leviticus is tangentially related to marriage; the prohibition in Deuteronomy is directly fixed on marriage.
I want to make clear that this is not my interpretation of the Bible and it is not my understanding of what Judaism teaches. But Kim Davis reads the Bible rather differently than I do. She claims to read the Bible as giving clear and certain teaching for the present day about a definition of marriage. My belief is that the definition of marriage has changed greatly over the centuries and that we should feel fortunate not to live in a time in which the Bible's rules about polygamy, captive brides and women being required to marry their rapists still apply.
I respect those who have a greater sense of certainty than I do about what the Bible decrees about marriage, but I do ask them to apply those standards consistently. Kim Davis does not.
One might assume that Kim Davis, who refuses to "violate a central teaching of Scripture…regarding marriage," would refuse to issue marriage licenses to couples who want to get remarried after their divorce even after the woman was subsequently married to someone else. After all, such a marriage is clearly and directly prohibited in the Bible. It is an "abomination." Maybe Davis did refuse to issue such marriage licenses. I don't know.
However, I do know that she would have a pretty hard time explaining her refusal to the couple who wanted to get remarried, because she was in exactly the same situation herself. Davis has been married to Joe Davis since 2009. It is her fourth marriage. Joe Davis was also her second husband, from 1996 to 2006. In between her marriages to Joe Davis, she was married to Thomas McIntryre in 2007. Kim Davis' lawyer says that she is "a completely different person" today than she was in 2011 because she now "loves the Lord." Her conversion, however, did not include the rejection of her marriage which is a clear violation of a biblical law, an ongoing and current "abomination" according to a literal reading of Deuteronomy.
Is it fair for me to use Kim Davis' personal life as an argument against her? After all, people can make mistakes, change, and be forgiven. How long can we hold a person's past against him or her? Should not Jewish and Christian ideals allow us to forgive past mistakes? Yes, absolutely.
However, it is Kim Davis who has not repaired her past mistakes according to her own stated fidelity to the "teachings of Scripture regarding marriage." She is still married and enjoying the benefits of marriage to a man who is biblically prohibited to her according to her own strict standards. It is Kim Davis who has intruded into the personal lives of others by denying them their constitutional rights to benefit from civil marriage. I think that opens the possibility that we look at how she applies her principles to herself.
Here is our biblical train wreck, and it is becoming all too common in our times. Many so-called "biblical literalists" and fundamentalists like Kim Davis grant themselves the authority to apply their interpretation of the Bible to other people's lives. Even worse, people like Kim Davis are using Scripture as a weapon against others without applying it equally to themselves. That is not what either Judaism or Christianity teaches. Both religions guide us to be scrupulous in applying high standards to ourselves and to be compassionate and loving to others. Kim Davis has done the opposite.
Just to make matters worse, Davis, her lawyers and supporters have thrown on top of this noisome heap of hypocrisy the charge that Davis is being persecuted for her religious beliefs. No less a figure than Senator Ted Cruz has charged, "Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong. This is not America."
No, Senator Cruz. Davis is in jail for disobeying a court order. If she wants to conduct herself according to a religious standard in her own life – even a hypocritical standard – that is her right and she is welcome to it. But she does not have the right to use her elected office to impose that standard on others. Religious persecution is when the government prevents you from practicing your religion, not when the government stops you from forcing others to adhere to your religion. Claiming religious persecution, in this case, is offensive to the many people in the world today and throughout history who have been been denied basic rights of faith and religious practice.
We are a country in which public officials perform their duties according to the law, not according to their ecclesiastical whim. If there is no way for Davis to execute the duties of her office within the confines of her conscience, she should resign.
Bad legal arguments and bad biblical interpretation are the double sign of those who want to cling to a discriminatory past – a past that is now sputtering to its oblivion in much the same way as biblical arguments in favor of slavery sputtered out in the 19th century, and biblical arguments against interracial marriage sputtered out in the 20th. I remain hopeful that this train wreck is a sign that the debate over marriage equality is coming to an end.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Searching for How the Bible Defines Marriage
What Does the Bible Say about Marriage? What Should We Say?