These confrontations have become more and more common as the American government begins to tackle the gay marriage issue. Post-Obergefell, there's no reason to imagine the numbers will go down. Kim Davis is merely an opening skirmish.
As per usual when these issues surface, my immediately appeal for guidance is to historical cases I admire. Above all, I think of my favorite meditation on religious freedom, the film A Man for All Seasons, which examines the conflict between personal conscience and obeying the government.
Sir Thomas More was chancellor of England when King Henry VIII decided to amend the law, dissolve his own marriage, separate from the church of Rome, and declare himself lord over the newly-established Anglican church. More - a devout Catholic - heartily objected to the king's decision, but was aware of the danger of saying so. Instead, he resigned his post.
But the king would not stop there. He knew the importance of More's endorsement, and so invaded More's private life, determined to win his approval, and if he could not win it, then to obtain it by force.
Kim Davis and Thomas More were placed in similar situations, but handled them in different ways. There were three options:
1. Obey the law - breaking his/her conscience or:
2. Disobey the law, claiming it to be unlawful or:
3. Resign - removing him/herself from the equation
For obvious reasons, the first option was not possible, so Davis chose the second and More the third. And there's the rub. Which option is the correct approach? More describes his philosophy to his daughter in A Man for All Seasons:
God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it's God's part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.But More's way wasn't the only way, even in his own time. Another notable person who refused to pledge was Bishop John Fisher. Unlike More, he refused to keep his head down, preaching openly against the king's actions - though he notably maintained a legal silence until he was entrapped, later.
The issue of whether Kim Davis's actions are justified has the Christian blogosphere split. Should she follow the path of Thomas More or John Fisher? On the one side, Rod Dreher argues that the honorable way to deal with a situation in which one can no longer fulfill the functions of one's job is to resign. On the other, Douglas Wilson defends her, saying "Kim Davis is not just keeping herself from sinning, she is preventing Rowan County from sinning." She has the support of two presidential candidates: Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz.
Clearly, those that claim that civil disobedience is always wrong have not given the matter serious thought. There are obvious situations in which to break the law is the only righteous thing to do (think about it folks, I'm sure some will come to mind.) In addition, the church has always held that man's laws do not trump God's. "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty," wrote Thomas Jefferson, and SCOTUS's recent decision is blatantly unjust, and far more unlawful than anything Kim Davis has done.
A helpful question: Of these two options, which furthers God's kingdom? Once again, both can yield fruit. It's unlikely that resigning would have produced the same media attention as Davis's chosen protest, and in this world, if it isn't on TV, it isn't happening. Her determination has forced us all to deal with the issue on a national level. That's a good thing. But on the other hand, her case is not a black-and-white, morally clear issue. Not only did she disobey the law, but she failed to accomplish a major function of her job, all the while refusing to allow her co-workers to follow their own consciences.
While I think it would be uncharitable to condemn Davis as merely desiring attention, dragging an unwinnable, messy case like this before the courts is at the very least unhelpful. There are other, better cases to fight for. Civil disobedience shouldn't be our last resort, but a deciding factor in whether we engage in it is the question of whether it is profitable for society. Do we actually want to change things, or merely have our fifteen seconds of fame? If we have no other choice, then of course we must be "the King's good servant, but God's first" - but while there is a chance to avoid this confrontation, and pressing the point would do no good, then "Our natural business lies in escaping."
And "escape" by resigning is exactly what I think Kim Davis should do. I admire her very much. I think the spectacle of a fairly new Christian standing up for her beliefs, alienating both her co-workers and her political peers (she's a Democrat), is a thing we see far too seldom. She is doing nothing wrong. But in this case, resignation is a better option.
With all that in mind, there's a third character in A Man for All Seasons that we would do well to remember. Thomas Cromwell: the power-mad government official who convicted both More and Fisher, trampling a dozen laws to do so.
Much has been said about the inconsistency of chucking a small county clerk in prison when larger criminals go free. And to the victors on the other side of Obergefell I say: your revolution of love, based on a specious court decision, has resulted in a system which stoops to this behavior. And stoop is exactly the right word here. Instead of even attempting to find a middle way, a compromise between Kim Davis's faith and the SCOTUS ruling (as Ryan Anderson notes, North Carolina has done this, it's not impossible), a woman has been thrown into jail and slut-shamed by the self-styled defenders of tolerance.
Now even if jail is, as some argue, excessive, it is the legal penalty for her actions. But this didn't stop with jail. It extended to angry people asking her to her face: "What's the longest...that you've been married to someone?" and nasty, triumphant memes mocking her pre-Christian past circulating around the internet. There is no reason whatsoever to treat a woman this way. She's no picket-sign-waving Westboro Baptist, nor the greatest enemy of gay marriage. She's one person stepping out on a fledgling belief. She's one mild-mannered county clerk. And if a society decides the conscience of a small town lady is the great human rights disaster of our age, then our priorities have completely lost touch with reality.