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Kim Davis and the seduction of martyrdom

It's as old as martyrdom itself.

Mosaic of St. Perpetua, Croatia
Mosaic of St. Perpetua, Croatia

Mosaic of St. Perpetua, Croatia

Martyrdom is a seductive thing in the Christian tradition.

Consider the autobiographical account of Perpetua, a young upper-class woman of Carthage who around the year 200 was condemned to death for refusing to offer a sacrifice for the well-being of the Roman emperors. Rejecting the pleas of her father and brother not to disgrace their family and abandon her infant son, she describes a vision of being turned into a gladiator, confronting a horrible looking opponent in her provincial arena.

And we drew near to one another, and began to deal out blows. He sought to lay hold of my feet, while I struck at his face with my heels; and I was lifted up in the air, and began thus to thrust at him as if spurning the earth. But when I saw that there was some delay I joined my hands so as to twine my fingers with one another; and I took hold upon his head, and he fell on his face, and I trod upon his head. And the people began to shout, and my backers to exult.

In actual fact, Perpetua was thrown into the arena, where she was killed by a wild cow and earned sainthood.

By contrast, the worst that can happen to Kim Davis is that she’ll spend a few weeks in jail — but (update) now she’s out! — and possibly lose her $80,000-a-year job as clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky. But like Perpetua, she is a Christian convert standing up for her faith, a gladiator in a virtual arena before a shouting public of hundreds of millions, with exultant backers presumably numbering in the millions — including, today, GOP presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee, who would love those backers to cast their primary votes for him.

Embracing what passes for martyrdom in 21st-century America, Davis seems to believe, mistakenly, that no couple obtaining a marriage license from Rowan County without her signature can enter into a valid state of matrimony. Ergo, she is single-handedly preventing same-sex couples from getting married in her jurisdiction.

But though she claims to want the law changed so that Kentucky marriage licenses do not require the signature of the county clerk, I’d say she’s fighting to maintain the same sort of moral norm that governs the sale of alcohol in her part of the country. For the Twenty-first Amendment repealing Prohibition specifically permitted states and localities to decide whether they want to be wet, dry, or something in between.

Rowan County is itself moist — which is to say, dry except for the county seat of Morehead, where alcoholic beverages may be purchased in a package store. Of the adjacent counties, Fleming and Morgan, from which Rowan was created in 1856, are both dry, and so are Bath, Menifee, and Elliott. Lewis is moist, as is Carter — sufficiently so that a resident of Morehead can drive the 38 miles to Grayson and buy drinks by the glass.

In other words, even though there may be people all over Kentucky’s Fifth Congressional District sipping mint juleps, particular jurisdictions can establish a public culture where commerce in such spiritus frumenti is not allowed. And so, by Kim Davis’ token, if there are same-sex couples living in Rowan County, so be it: Just don’t require the county to sanction them.

There’s only one problem with the analogy. Under the Twenty-first Amendment, no one has a constitutional right to buy alcohol. Whereas, under the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, same-sex couples have a constitutional right to obtain marriage licenses. No matter how seductive martyrdom is.