Can you be a practicing Christian as well as a public servant? That seems to be the question of the day now that Rowan County Clerk, Kim Davis, has been jailed for contempt of court. For those not familiar with the situation, Mrs. Davis and a handful of other Kentucky county clerks refused to provide couples seeking marriage licenses. This was in response to the Supreme Court’s summer decision to strike down all state bans of same sex marriages. The majority opinion in effect recognized marriage as a constitutional right that could not be denied to same sex couples. Many Americans were ecstatic by the decision. Others, such as Mrs. Davis, believed the ruling would have negative consequences for those who wish to practice their faith in public.
Which brings us back to the above question and it’s follow-up: Can you be a practicing Christian as well as a public servant? Why or why not?
One popular response is yes, but you must separate the two. Practice your faith in private, and withdraw those views and actions while executing a public office. This policy is a common one is often applied to employees of non-partisan organizations such as the League of Cities and the Council of State Governments. During their employment at these agencies, the political views of the workers are to be left outside the workplace and public areas (e.g. Facebook, campaign rallies, and blogs). This is to create credibility among clients that the services produced do not carry a secret agenda that may be viewed negatively by constituents or office holders.
As a political scientist, I find this argument very persuasive. We live in a pluralist society where many different views co-exist. In order for all these ideas to experience the same legal protection and freedom, none can be granted special favors. But is this an acceptable response for the current situation with Kim Davis? Consider that this approach requires that you divorce yourself from your own views. Thus you are no longer a political conservative or Reformed Jew working in a public position. Instead you are expected to be a blank slate that ultimately cannot rely on personal experience and thought to make judgment calls. You only can do what you are told and nothing less. To do otherwise would create bias and thus a conflict of interest.
Therein lies this response’s fatal flaw. As human beings, we cannot fully divorce ourselves from what we think or believe. It is in part what makes us human and not computers waiting for operational software. Wherever we are and whatever we do, we bring our beliefs and our actions are based them. By asking Mrs. Davis to ignore her conscience and beliefs, we are demanding that she make herself inhuman.
Yet how do we avoid the potential predicament of people acting on their personally held beliefs instead of the law? How would I respond if JFK or Mitt Romney had imposed their religious views on the nation? If a town with a high Muslim population wanted to enact Sharia law, why should we deny them the right to do so?
These are not straightforward questions. As I pointed out, our beliefs are a part of who we are. Being asked to refrain from exercising those beliefs would mean that we cease to be human. Yet we do live in a country with multiple beliefs and views that must somehow coexist. That has been one of the great assets to American and the narrative of Western Civilization as a whole: the relatively successful experiment with pluralism. It is why we have political parties and interest groups of varying backgrounds. This freedom of diversity is necessary for there to be a free exchange of ideas.
And that may also be, sadly, the problem. A pluralist society presupposes that individuals and groups of individuals of different backgrounds and beliefs can peacefully coexist without anyone having to sacrifice their identities or be subordinate to others. But to make this possible, someone has to impose his, her, or their view of how such a society would work. In the end, something has to fill this authoritative vacuum or else ideological anarchy takes place. Then the beliefs with the most adherents, strongest adherents, or even influential adherents win and all others are pushed to the margins of society.
I suppose we could try making compromises and exceptions. In Mrs. Davis’ case another public official, who doesn’t share her convictions, designated specifically for issuing marriage licenses would have easily solved the problem. However that would mean creating an entirely new field of public offices that bar people from serving based on their convictions. They would by definition be in opposition to the purpose of a pluralist society.
This brings us to one final and depressing thought: pluralist societies cannot exist. Historically speaking, no other political state has successfully maintained equity of opposing and differing thoughts. The Romans might have been the closest as they did allow conquered territories and client-states to observe their own customs and governments. Yet they were often quick, if not forced, to replace local practices with Roman ideas. Indeed, what helped make the Western Empire to decline was the lack of support for what it meant to be a part of the Roman Empire. The barbarians were not entirely willing to adopt Roman ways, despite some of their leaders’ policies. And citizens of the far territories were happy to revert to their pre-Roman ways of life. Without a foundational belief system, the Western Empire ceased to exist.
This leaves us to ask one final question: Will we cease to exist too, or will we fall into ideological anarchy?