The basic details of the Kim Davis saga are readily available, and now scholars and commentators are seeking explanations for her actions. Davis refused a state order to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, and her persistence landed her in jail. Some articles have emphasized Davis’s denominational positionality as a member of the Apostolic Christian Church. Others see Davis as the most recent conscientious objector, in a long line, to be inspired by religion. Sarah Posner made the helpful observation in Religion Dispatches that, “if you listen to what Davis is saying, her real argument is that God’s authority trumps that of the courts … not that her religious liberty is under siege.”
How can religious history help us to better understand Kim Davis? In this blog post I suggest Davis is participating, inadvertently or otherwise, in a broad conversation – widely conducted in America in the 1960s and 1970s and present in our own times – about the “Theology of Conscience.” Davis may not know it, but she has stepped into a dialogue often rehearsed in American history, one vigorously debated in the 1960s and 1970s.
Davis seems to accord conscience a pride-of-place. As she explained to fellow Kentuckians:
I have worked in the Rowan County Clerk's office for 27 years as a Deputy Clerk and was honored to be elected as the Clerk in November 2014 …To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God's definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience … Our history is filled with accommodations for people's religious freedom and conscience … I intend to continue to serve the people of Rowan County, but I cannot violate my conscience.I have read many statements like this in primary sources, both published and private, for my dissertation on the Theology of Conscience in postwar America. Catholics and Protestants yearned in the 1960s and 1970s to not be forced by political power to “violate conscience.” They often claimed that being forced to violate conscience left permanent scars. Against this longer historical context, Davis’s exegeses on conscience, it seems to me, ought to be taken seriously, no matter where one stands on gay marriage. She seems to believe that a violation of conscience could bring permanent pain. She might anticipate the pain to be so deep and lasting that she dares not trespass against her own conscience. This is not a call to make her theology normative (in the sense that, as she claims, it reflect God’s will), it is a call to understand how conscience actually operates in her life.
It is not clear precisely how Davis defines conscience, but conscience seems present to her. How does a conscience become present? If she is a biblical literalist, the New Testament may have her convinced that carrying on with an undefiled conscience is an empowered mode of Christian life. The Gospel of John provides one template: “if we cannot be condemned by our own conscience,” as the evangelist writes, “we need not be afraid in God’s presence.” Or perhaps Davis has gleaned Paul’s explanation to the Sanhedrin about why his violations of civil law did not leave him with anxiety: ‘My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.’” The Letters to the Hebrews, to provide a final example, urged the early Christians to “purify conscience from dead works.”
But Davis need not turn to the Good Book. She has other sources at her disposal. By mentioning the many accommodations the American legal and political systems have made for “religious freedom and conscience,” Davis has placed herself into an interpretive stream of American history increasingly cited in recent times by Republican politicians. Political iterations of the Theology of Conscience are widely available these days. In his speech at Liberty University in May 2015, for example, Jeb Bush insisted that “Federal authorities are demanding obedience, in complete disregard of religious conscience – and in a free society, the answer is 'no.'" Whatever the source for Kim Davis, since the 1940s and 1950s theologies of conscience have been widely available in academic books, official denominational and episcopal statements, political discourse, cheap religious pamphlets, and seminal documents like Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, which in 1965 called conscience “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man.”
There is another dynamic of the Theology of Conscience at work in the Kim Davis affair: in cases like hers, the conscience claimant usually has campaigners rush to his or her defense. A theological aspiration needs missionaries and the Theology of Conscience is no exception. Sometimes the campaigners are hired guns. Davis’ lawyers, who we could think of as one type of missionary, have taken the theology of conscience into the public sphere. Their petition to the Supreme Court claimed that forcing Davis to issue a license would be a “searing act of validation” that would “forever echo in her conscience.” At a press conference the lawyers declared that Davis “will never violate her conscience.” The lawyers assured reporters that, “Kim Davis slept well last night, and she slept with a very good conscience.” The lawyers also called Davis a “prisoner of conscience.” This turn of phrase has a history: Amnesty International popularized the phrase “Prisoner of Conscience” in the 1960s and 1970s in their campaign to free non-violent critics and dissidents from jails all over the world.
Politicians are campaigning for conscience. Jeb Bush is not alone. Mike Huckabee stood by Davis once she was released from jail. Ted Cruz, playing on the Prisoner of Conscience idea, announced strangely at a press conference that, “for the first time in history, a Christian woman was put in jail for standing up for her beliefs.” But Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal drove the point home most forcibly in a chat with The Huffington Post: "I don't think anyone should have to choose between following their conscience and religious beliefs and giving up their job,” Jindal said, before explaining that “We are seeing government today discriminate against whether it's clerks, florists, musicians or others … I think you should be able to keep your job and follow your conscience.” It’s worth mentioning that in May 2015 Jindal issued The Marriage and Conscience Order (an executive fiat that bypassed Louisiana’s legislative procedures), granting state employees the right to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Will Kentucky follow Jindal’s lead?
A history of the Theology of Conscience and its campaigners may help us to better understand Kim Davis and the events surrounding her refusal. Davis and her supporters, whether they know it or not, have stepped into the Theology of Conscience. Bible verses can help to write this history, but we have other avenues to explore. Precise definitions of conscience, born of medieval scholasticism, are present in Catholic confession. Mainline Protestants used the Theology of Conscience to help Selective Conscientious Objectors from their respective denominations refuse service to the state during the Vietnam War. Before Kim Davis refused to issue a marriage license in Kentucky in 2015, doctors and nurses allegedly refused abortions in the 1970s with claims that being forced to participate in such acts “violated their consciences.” The secular and religious human rights activists who joined Amnesty International in the 1960s and 1970s went to bat for Prisoners of Conscience. Davis, for better or worse, has some history on her side.