Kim Davis, Freedom of Conscience, and the American Tradition of Religious Pluralism

Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis has been in the news for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on the grounds that her religious beliefs forbid it. She has been jailed, national politicians have jumped to her defense, she has been both demonized and trumpeted as a hero. The pluralism of belief in the United States means that the place of religion in public life will always have the potential to be one of the most divisive topics in American politics.

In the documents that form the United States and in their own private lives and discourse, our Founders intended to establish a society where freedom of conscience reigned and no one would be subject to coercion in their beliefs by an official of the government. Because the U.S. is an increasingly religiously diverse nation, an authentic, ongoing, sharp-edged pluralistic discussion is a necessity if the unity of the United States is to be maintained and a just society is to be cultivated. Otherwise, our rhetoric will devolve into the vitriol we have seen surrounding Kim Davis and the gay marriage question in the last few weeks.

A Christian Nation?

Kim Davis, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson would not exactly see eye-to-eye with the Founders who made concrete their Enlightenment principles in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. While the Founders certainly carved out a place for religion in America, they never gave credence to a specific religion.

A well-known document crafted by John Adams and the U.S. Senate puts this bluntly. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. Specifically Article 11:

the government of the United States... is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.[^1]

President George Washington, for his part, was no Christian. According to Brooke Allen, on his deathbed Washington did not speak of heaven or ask for a minister to preside over his death. Rather, "his last act was to take his own pulse, the consummate gesture of a creature of the age of scientific rationalism."[^2]

Other Founders went to greater lengths to impose their rationalism on the world. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia with no religious affiliation, and "even banned the teaching of theology at the school."[^3] It is well-known that Jefferson edited his own version of the New Testament, which he called "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Jefferson carefully deleted (literally cut out of the Bible with a scalpel) any miraculous passage of the Gospels that did not conform to Jefferson's understanding of reason.

These three examples don't cover the entire body of men who shaped the beginnings of the United States,[^4] but they represent a sample of the kinds of sentiments that operated among men of their standing and generation. For the Founders, the main concern about religion was that the new nation be free from bondage to its rule. With this concern, the Founders established a possibility for pluralism and laid the groundwork for the great flourishing of religion we see today.

The Founders understood that the power afforded the banner of religion by its adherents could be a corrupting agent in government. They knew that governmental power and religious power combined could be catastrophic to the new nation. They sought to mitigate the threat to individual freedom posed by the confluence of religion and government.

In the person of Kim Davis, we can see the outcome when government power and religious doctrine meet. In her power as a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, Kim Davis has unilaterally limited the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of her fellow citizens based on her religious beliefs alone.

There is an overwhelming feeling in the United States that the country will tear itself apart over issues of religious diversity, including secularism. However, according to John Meacham “history suggests… that there is hope, for we have been fighting these battles from our earliest days and yet the American experiment endures.”[^5] The question is why, even with all of the challenges presented by a society like the United States, the Union still stands.

The Founders knew this would be a divisive issue for their new nation. Their solution was to separate the state from the power of religion and religion from the power of the state. These separations were grounded in freedom of conscience.

Freedom of Conscience

What does freedom of conscience mean? Basically what we’re talking about here is freedom from external coercion directed by the government. However, it cannot mean that individualism and total self-sovereignty reign. That is the way being tested by Kim Davis and her supporters.

If freedom of conscience is to flourish, it must be based first on respect—perhaps even love—between individuals, and it must be guarded by the government. Freedom of conscience, guaranteed by America’s framing documents, promises something deeper than freedom to act, speak, and assemble; it promises that the right to think freely will be defended by the government, as long as citizens respect each other.

The Founders did not seek to separate “faith and politics” or “religion and public life.” No. They sought to separate the institutions of religion and government. Separating the public spheres of religion and government was not about secularizing society, it was about “protecting conscience by insisting on clear institutional boundaries.”[^6] Personal faith could inform politics, private religion could be manifest in public life, and how an individual chose to exercise her religion was her own business. But faith itself “should not be singled out for special help or particular harm” among private citizens.[^7]

In a nation as diverse as the United States, the government and its officers have a responsibility to the free thought of every individual under the government’s power. Importantly, the Constitution’s religion clauses exist not only to protect doctrinaire believers, but to “protect the right of religious dissenters.”[^8] For the Founders, the greatest sin was to impinge upon another human being’s freedom of thought and ability to choose. Here the reader may herself connect the issue of “religious dissenters'” rights being impinged upon to the actions taken by Kim Davis’.

For Americans, the way forward is paved by freedom of conscience grounded in the Constitution and in respect for one another. For Christians, the way forward is paved by love of neighbor grounded in Christ and in freedom of conscience grounded in the Constitution.

Pluralism

”Freedom of conscience is, in a sense, the reason for pluralism and also the appropriate and just response to pluralism.”[^9]

Pluralism is forever an attempt. The point of pluralism is not to achieve perfect agreement on all matters and tastes. Pluralism is not the savior of society; it will not fix all ills or erase sin from the world. What pluralism does do is aim at achieving relationship. Only if we openly, respectfully disagree can we come to understand our disagreements and begin to find common ground. The Founders knew this and so built freedom of conscience into the Constitution through separation of church and state, providing the foundation of plurality itself.

This is all well and good, but if the discussion of who we are devolves from respectful dialogue to angry muttering, idealistic positivism (as in the Kim Davis case), or outright violence, then we should begin to worry.

A generation of pluralism is not enough. A commitment to religious literacy, respect, understanding, and the responsibility of citizens to teach their children the way of pluralism is required. For Christians, pluralism means dedication to Jesus' command, “You shall love your neighbor.” American Christians should be the champions of pluralism. It is time that we worry less about politics and more about love. Building a perfect society is an unattainable goal. We will not save ourselves from sin. But pluralism grounded in freedom of conscience and love of neighbor grounded in Christ are steps toward a society that cherishes justice for all.