Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Kim Davis makes for very strange bedfellows

Westboro Baptist Chuch member protesting Pope Benedict XVI outside the United Nations in New York City in 2008.
Westboro Baptist Chuch member protesting Pope Benedict XVI outside the United Nations in New York City in 2008.

Westboro Baptist Chuch member protesting Pope Benedict XVI outside the United Nations in New York City in 2008.

I’m sure there were not a lot of people who expected the notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church to picket Kim Davis for her multiple marriages and tell her to obey the law and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Now comes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints likewise criticizing Davis for what she did.

Public officials “are not free to apply personal convictions — religious or other — in place of the defined responsibilities of their public offices,” LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks said in a speech in Sacramento, Calif. “A county clerk’s recent invoking of religious reasons to justify refusal by her office and staff to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples violates this principle.”

This puts the Westboro Baptists and the Mormons on the same side as the ADL, which takes the position that public officials who cannot perform their duties because of religious scruples should resign. Taking the opposite position, meanwhile, are an array of prominent evangelicals, Catholics (up to and perhaps including Pope Francis), and a couple of days ago, it seems, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow.

What explains the collection of strange bedfellows on either side?

Well, the one side links minority religious groups who are well aware of the dangers of permitting public officials to inject their religious beliefs into their jobs. These groups have learned the hard way that their rights depend on a government that is religiously neutral.

The other side includes majoritarian groups conditioned to believe that their religious rules should prevail in society at large. They are distressed when these views are rejected by civil law, and so are led, in the name of religious liberty, to embrace the cause of a government official who seeks to preserve them.

There is a certain irony in religious minorities opposing a strong claim of religious liberty and religious majorities supporting it. It’s emblematic of the meaning of separation of church and state.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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