I used to be a conservative evangelical Christian. As a teenager, I was obsessed with remaining a virgin until marriage, appalled at the choices of a couple of my friends who needed to terminate teen pregnancies, and obsessed with my “sins” and everyone else’s. So I understand the thinking that informs the asinine and misguided show of (un)righteous indignation that is Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The God of (white) evangelical Christianity is obsessed with the policing of sex --in particular, who has it, how they have it, in what context, and with whom. Though some “good” evangelicals try to reframe these clearly hypocritical rankings of “sin” by insisting that God hates all sin, the truth is that most evangelicals believe that God is primarily appalled by non-normative sexual appetites. More specifically, God hates gay sex, though God may love gay people. God loves heterosexual marriage though, and because of this, God will continue to forgive you for numerous divorces and remarriages, as long as you ultimately end up in a good Christian, straight marriage. Or you stay celibate. Those are your only options.
For many people, this level of moral regulation sounds downright bizarre, not to mention damn near impossible to achieve. And if you are anything like me, such unholy and retrograde thinking causes you to have a complicated relationship to the church, or to reject it altogether.
Such belief systems are driven by fear – fear of God’s wrath, fear of the end of days, fear of divine retribution.
But here’s the thing. There are our moral quibbles with Kim Davis’ belief system and then there are our legal quibbles with it. I have both. Fear (and misguided thinking) can cause one to believe that upholding a person’s basic civil rights amounts to a condoning of their choices. But these moral panics only happen around issues of sexual regulation. We are society that believes that even mass murderers deserve defense attorneys. We do not equate the providing of legal representation with the condoning of crime. It is about the basic protection of rights. The idea that those who issue marriage licenses must agree with the romantic choices of those getting married is patently absurd. There are clear distinctions to be made about marriage as a civil institution, which is open to all, and marriage as a religious institution, which is regulated by individual churches and religious traditions.
But the thing about evangelical Christianity in its worst iterations is that it elides these clear and important social and civil distinctions, through the perpetuation of fear. Preachers tell congregants that attention to such levels of detail represent a searching for loopholes and a desire to compromise one’s moral integrity instead of risking it all for the faith. Evangelical Christianity sees itself as countercultural and spends a good deal of time in Sunday School and Bible Study pumping people up for unlikely scenarios in which they are called upon to “stand for their beliefs” against the encroachment of unholy orders from the secular world.
During my childhood Sunday School classes, we were frequently asked whether we would be willing to die for our beliefs. We were told that unless we could unequivocally make such declarations, then we didn’t really believe in Jesus, that we hadn’t sufficiently “counted the cost” of being followers of Christ. We spent far less time talking about what it would “cost” us to love those radically different from ourselves. We spent almost no time thinking about how appalled God surely is about racism and poverty. But we were a classroom full of working class, Black children.
Kim Davis and all her antics, not to mention her eclectic intimate choices, are low-hanging fruit. The moral and political chicanery of conservative evangelical Christianity is the real problem here. Fifty years ago, white evangelicals believed that Black people were the children of Ham, and that they were therefore cursed and morally conscripted to lives of less value than those of white people. In the 1960s, county clerks were the first line of assault on the dignity and personhood of Black people, come to exercise their right to vote.
Contemporary evangelicalism still refuses to grapple in any serious way with the extent to which it serves as the wingman for white supremacy. Yes, some evangelical pastors write and talk about the “sin of racism.” They discuss it as though racism is a problem of individually sinful attitudes. They act as though racism will be solved if individual white people learn to love individual black people and vice versa. Such teachings stay away from critiquing failing school systems or culturally incompetent teachers, or the school to prison pipeline, or the effects of white privilege on the ability of Black people to get jobs, or the way that Republican social policy reinforces all these systems of power.
The social grammar of white evangelicalism inheres in the deployment of moral claims to obscure the systemic operations of structural inequality. Kim Davis is not the author of this system; she is a student of it – a cult-like devotee, perhaps. Focusing on her rather than on the powerful white men like Tony Perkins and Mike Huckabee, who seek to incite the Christian base with her story, will find us missing the point. The point is that theologically inspired bigotry is still bigotry, and it has no place in American public life.
At some point in my own Christian journey, I began to realize that subscribing to the tenets of conservative evangelicalism was like a refusal to be on my own side. It was cheering against myself. To accept conservative white evangelicalism was to cosign a set of theological propositions that were patently antiblack and antiwoman.
I am still a Christian, though I am no longer an evangelical. I continue to insist on use of that title, because being a conservative evangelical is not the only way to be a Christian. The fear-based theology that makes evangelicals feel justified in denying other people’s rights is not unlike the fear-based political rhetoric that drives much of America’s foreign policy and terrorizing of brown people all over the world. The belief in a God who has favorites, a God who only blesses straight, middle-class, white Americans in traditional marriages, is the stuff that “manifest destiny” is made of.
And none of these kinds of thinking about God made space for the life of a Southern, working-class Black girl like me. I’ve seen my family ravaged by crime, austerity measures, and social welfare policies of the right. I’ve seen how their notions of social programs hurt the god-fearing Christian family members who raised me. I’ve seen how churches with retrograde teachings about sex and gender stifled the dreams of talented young women and made them more susceptible to parenthood before they were ready.
Kim Davis is, I repeat, low-hanging fruit. Her faulty thinking about how her faith should inform her duties as a public servant are an indictment not only of a problematic set of beliefs, but an indictment of a governmental system that has been in bed with Christianity for too long. That Christianity and American Democracy are seeming “natural” bedfellows has created the expectation that Christians can impose their beliefs on all American citizens. It is the 21st century and such thinking must change.