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.

Similarity & Difference

Check out the rest of Logan’s series on friendship.

I left off exploring the concept of friendship last time with Buber’s observation, “All real living in a meeting.” We investigated friendship as a concept that has no measurable object but itself, a continuous process of becoming, and as a relationship which contains freedom, joy, and affection within mutual responsibility and solidarity.

Similarity

Normally, we think of friendship as a matrix of shared experience and interests. Throw in a chance meeting and you’ve got a friendship. A quote from one of my favorite movies, High Fidelity, captures this:

“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter. Call me shallow, it’s the fuckin’ truth.”

It would be easy to cast this sentiment aside as unserious, except I think it sketches around the edge of a fundamental truth: it is impossible to encounter the fullness of another person. Books, records, films, these things can suggest who another person “really” is—and it's how we "really" meet each other.

Remember our short look at Martin Buber’s concept of ‘Thou’ in the previous post? With this language he’s suggesting another person is totally other. Buber wants to say there is a transcendent quality to a human being that is impossible to approach.[^1] Even to make the attempt to meet “what you are like” is folly when we do not first recognize the constraints of language and limited human understanding. Perhaps the best we can do is to approach the Thou of another person through manifestations of our similarities. Encountering and acknowledging this unbridgeable gulf is the basis of relationship based on freedom, mutual responsibility, and a process of becoming.

But this only partially meets our definition of friendship. If we’re content to define friendship through mutual interest, we miss a deeper understanding of friendship based not on similarity, but difference. It is difference which drives friendship as a site of action where need and desire are joined.[^2]

Difference

Shelley Jackson writes of the power of difference in friendship through the metaphor of a book: “A book, like a friendship, has two sides.” Jackson says that these two sides are “you and me” or “author and reader.” The power of the relationship between the two sides comes directly out of their difference. The desire for that which is out of reach of both the reader’s understanding and the author’s ability to express holds the two sides together in a mutual process of difference and togetherness.[^3] The same is true of friendship. We seek to express who we really are (what we are like) through our friendships. We seek to know another person, and ourselves. Through this process we come to know a bit of God—the divine sustaining center which makes friendship possible in the first place, the first thing we all share. We fall short, but the infinite qualitative distinction[^4] between ourselves, the other, and God stokes our desire and compels us to continue searching.

Meeting difference in another person is what drives our desire to continue the process of friendship’s becoming. Difference is also what makes solidarity possible. It fills out our definition of friendship. Most importantly, moments of reconciliation within difference are where we experience joy.[^5]

In an upcoming post, I will more deeply investigate mutual responsibility and solidarity as basic requirements for the fullness of friendship generating freedom and joy in those who constitute the relationship.

All Real Living is a Meeting

Check out the rest of Logan's series on friendship.

Through conversation over the past week, I've been led to continue reflecting on the concept of encounter that I touched on in my previous post, Encountering Poverty. Specifically, I will look into the concept of friendship and how it functions practically, philosophically, and theologically as a relationship. This will be a multi-post exploration, and I thank you for humoring me.


The word friendship shares etymologies with the word "freedom" in English, "freude" (joy) in German, and "philia" (affectionate love) in Romance languages and Greek.

For the sake of illumination, let's take a longer look at "philia." Philia is defined by Aristotle as, "wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one's own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him."[^1] Discussing the same, John M. Cooper writes, “the central idea of philia is that of doing well by someone for his own sake, out of concern for him (and not, or not merely, out of concern for oneself).”[^2] It is important to note, in both of these examples philia is directed toward and concerned with the other over the self.

With this etymological understanding in mind, friendship is not merely affection, but a relationship which contains freedom, joy, and affection within mutual responsibility and solidarity.

Becoming

The edges of friendship are fuzzy and imprecise. Friendship is fundamentally a relationship of becoming. Svetlana Boym writes that friendship is not an object of analysis but a process. It is a process of coming to know the self, another person, and the boundaries of a relationship. Roland Barthes calls it a “miraculous crystallization of presence." Friendship is a site of action where need an desire are joined.

The process of friendship is always imprecise and non-prescriptive. It opens into the universal and cannot be wedged into preconceived models or easily understood tactics of marketing, mission, or outreach. Rather than a relationship of increasing closeness and a fusion of individuals, friendship defies symbols of fulfillment. Instead, friendship has no measureable object but friendship itself—the continuous development of two people into a life where friendship is more and more possible. The only goal of friendship is its own continuous becoming and the becoming of its constituents as selves.

When this process ends, we say people have "fallen out" of friendship.[^3]

Thou

Martin Buber traced the full weight of friendship in his formation of the relationship between I (one, as an individual person) and Thou (another person). For Buber, to relate to another person is to become a person, a self, an "I." And as a person becomes more and more a self, she likewise increasingly understands that another person is himself an "I." But Buber goes beyond the impoverished, individualistic understanding of "I" we commonly hold.

Buber reveals that to relate to another person is to relate to the divinity of that person—her total otherness and transcendent quality as a human being. Another person is not "you," or "they." She is "Thou."[^4] Only this formulation of friendship can contain the fullness of freedom, joy, and affection within the bounds of mutuality, responsibility, and solidarity.

Truly and freely encountering another as a friend rules out coercion, violence, utility, and possession.

It is with this understanding that we will continue our investigation of friendship. And throughout the series, we shall keep in mind Buber's poetic wisdom: "All real living is a meeting."[^5]

  • [^1]: Nicomachean Ethics, 1380b36–1381a2
  • [^2]: "Friendship and the Good." The Philosophical Review
  • [^3]: Svetlana Boym's reflections on friendship play heavily into the previous two paragraphs. I found out today that she died on the 5th of this month after a year of living with cancer. I am thankful for her and her work: “Scenography of Friendship,” Cabinet Magazine
  • [^4]: The Christian theological tradition formulates this as the Image of God (or Imago Dei) in every person.
  • [^5]: I and Thou

Advent3, 2014

This post is late, I know. Advent4 is right around the corner and here I am still on Advent3. Like any good American, I'm too busy to really observe Advent for real. So I write blog posts instead.

Sticking with Isaiah[^1] (as I have in my two previous posts in this series[^2]) brings us to hope, which is appropriate because that's what Advent is. Garland instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning. These are hoped for in the midst of Advent. And implicit in the Christian liturgical observation is that the child born on Christmas is the garland, the gladness, the mantel of praise. Except right now I can't help but think ahead to Good Friday.

When it was announced that there would be no indictment for the death—ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Investigator—of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Many quoted scripture. Many of them quoted scripture from Good Friday, the day marking Jesus' death on the cross. Advent's hope couldn't bear the burden of suffering. Only the cross could do that.

Hope is a work of love. It takes energy and effort to hope, especially in the midst of suffering. But as we hope for the child to deliver garland, gladness, and praise, we do well to remember that his life was not without ashes, mourning, and perhaps even, at times, faint spirit. We remember this not to increase the burden of suffering in the face of hope, but to take full stock of the world the Child enters.

If we hope only for the bright, nostalgic kitsch of nativity scenes, Santa, and holiday cards, we hope for an empty nothing. We deny the full power of the claim that the divine has entered the world in a barn, as the son of an oppressed people yearning for freedom, who truly realized the weight of the world, and who preached gladness but ultimately experienced pain.

Fragments

Some fragments from a sermon:

Freedom

As followers of Jesus, what are we free from and what are we free to? We’re free, first of all, from fear. We’re free from the story our culture tells that we should strive toward power and meaning. We’re free from a story that tells us that in the beginning and the end we are individuals, that we depend on nothing but ourselves, that we write our own stories, and that we ought to make sure we have enough power over others and our lives to determine the final meaning not only of our stories but the stories of those who surround us.

All of this is revealed by Christ to be an illusion. Jesus, in faith, submits himself to relationship. He passionately opens himself to the divine, to his neighbor, to the world, even to his enemy, and shows us how really to be human. And Paul argues in the passage for today that we are free to do the same: “serve each other through love.”

Idolatry

For Paul, to live for the flesh, rather than for the Spirit, is to seek to establish one’s own life and worth externally, rather than recognizing one’s inherent worth as a created being in relationship with the divine. So he throws out a list of all of the external ways people try to use to justify their existence. This doesn’t mean that things outside yourself aren’t important. They may be very important. But, whatever it may be, it should serve something greater and not be raised to be the greatest.

These means by which we try to find meaning for our lives may not always come to the point of idolatry. But often they do. I’m referring to anything that dominates people and compromises their freedom, their ability to live with faith in true relationship with themselves, their neighbor, and the divine.

Both faith and idolatry begin with the recognition that to be human is to be a contingent being – that is, a creature that depends on something other than itself, alone, for its survival. But faith differs from idolatry in that it lives every moment as if this were true. Faith submits itself to God and other human beings, even to creation. And thus, “to faith” is to live freely within the contingent reality of existence. Idolatry, however, refuses to accept the truth of our need to depend on God, neighbors, and creation. And so – though it may feel and look like freedom – idolatry finds itself grasping at anything and everything that passes by – it grasps at the flesh, and thereby it loses its freedom to all of the external things of life.

Violence

Fear drives what I reckon to be the greatest idolatry active today: violence. The resort to violence places trust not in God, but rather puts its hope in our effort alone. Violence denies that, like Christ, we ought to submit ourselves to God, to each other, even to our enemies. It denies the power of resurrection as well, that God’s victory does not look like what we expect. To those who have faith in violence, the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion is a way to participate in freedom and to really live is foolishness pure and simple.

We, perhaps foolishly, are called to practice Christ’s faith, by ceasing to constantly try to take ownership of “the flesh,” the stuff of life. Instead we stand in the Spirit with empty hands, and submit ourselves to each other, to creation, and to God. Because of what Christ taught, how he lived, how he died, and that he rose again, we are free from fear and we are free to live foolishly.

Foolishness

And what happens when you live foolishly, unburdened by idolatry, free in the spirit of Christ? Paul says that you will live with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You might come to a little church in the center of the city to see friends, hear jazz, sing songs, eat donuts, and talk. You might serve breakfast way too early in the morning to a bunch of homeless folks, or make lunches and serve them at the park. You might end up raising funds for windows, weeding a garden, or helping design a bridal room. You might contribute bras to be strewn across the altar and donated to women in Africa. Or you might donate spa treatments, of all things, for boys and girls locked in cycles of gang violence.

Whatever you do, if you live and die with Christ, these things, and not fear, will be how you live. You may not be lead to live just as the world expects. It sounds ridiculous. And maybe it is.

May you be so blessed to be seen by the world as a fool.