Law & the Courts

Kim Davis and the Roots of Protestant Resistance to Civil Authority

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Before a judge today ordered her release, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee announced their plans to meet with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis whose refusal to worship at the First Church of Justice Kennedy and sign her name to same-sex marriage licenses landed her in jail over the Labor Day weekend. Had her stand happened a few short centuries ago, Huckabee and Cruz would likely have been joined by a few notable figures from Christian history — men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox — the men who first put the “protest” in “Protestant.” They would have understood her stand completely. It’s the stand of the “lesser magistrate” — the lesser public figure — against a “greater magistrate” who has not only abandoned his God-given role and forsaken his God-ordained responsibilities, but is demanding that his subordinates participate in his rebellion.

At the dawn of the Reformation, the early Protestants faced the twin challenge of defying both ecclesiastical and earthly authority — often combined in the form of rulers acting in the name of the Catholic Church. The result wasn’t just a clash of arms, but a clash of ideas — a theological argument over whether the Reformers, including Protestant public officials, were required to obey their Catholic rulers as God-ordained authorities, abandon their new faith practices, and bring themselves — and their cities — back into obedience to the Holy Roman Emperor.

RELATED: Kim Davis and Civil Disobedience

The theological response was relatively simple: When rulers defy God, they lose their God-ordained authority. When rulers require lesser authorities to cooperate in and facilitate evil, the lesser authorities must resist. As John Knox stated, “True it is, God has commanded kings to be obeyed; but likewise true it is, that in things which they commit against His glory, He has commanded no obedience, but rather, He has approved, yea, and greatly rewarded, such as have opposed themselves to their ungodly commandments and blind rage.” Calvin was even more blunt: “For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. We ought, rather, to spit upon their heads than to obey them.” In support of this assertion, the Reformers could point to no shortage of biblical examples, including such luminaries as David and Daniel.

RELATED: For an Example of Lawlessness, See the Supreme Court, Not Kim Davis

But resistance is not to be mounted impulsively or lightly. The Magdeburg Confession, a 1550 statement of defiance of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, notes that all men — both greater and lesser rulers — are subject to “natural weakness” — their own “vices and sins” — yet these common, “remedial” offenses present no cause for defiance or rebellion. But the situation grows more grave as a ruler takes away the rights of others and graver still as the ruler commands that the lesser magistrate participate in his wrongful acts. The “highest level of injury” comes when rulers “persecute God, the author of right in persons, not by any sudden and momentary fury, but with deliberate and persistent attempt to destroy good works for all posterity.” This — the reformers would argue — was precisely the goal of the Holy Roman Emperor, to “extinguish the true worshippers of God, that is, the true Church of God.”

#share#One can see the influence of this doctrine in our own American Revolution, which began as a conflict between greater and lesser magistrates, with colonial legislatures and then the Continental Congress serving as the vehicle of American efforts first to appeal to, and then later to defy the crown. Mob violence occurred, but it was mercifully brief and relatively bloodless (especially as compared with that of the French Revolution). Indeed, the Establishment Clause itself — part of the First Amendment — has historically stood as a bulwark against just the kind of crisis triggered by Charles V and other religious rulers of Europe.

It’s critical for the social-justice warriors to understand that victory over the faithful in political and even cultural clashes will not cause them to yield.

Mercifully, for much of our nation’s history, not only has our government not adopted positions explicitly opposed to orthodox Christian faith and practice, when it has encroached on religious conscience, it has been generous in granting exemptions for the faithful. Even when the nation’s very existence is at stake, we don’t demand that pacifists take up arms. Even as our nation’s judiciary created a right to kill innocent children, lesser magistrates erected a labyrinth of conscience exemptions to prevent taxpayers from directly funding abortion and to protect health-care practitioners from participating in murder. In fact, our system is built from the ground up to withstand a high degree of religious dissent.

RELATED: Cultural Conservatives Have Barely Begun to Fight

But this time of relative peace may be at an end. Ever since Justice Kennedy began to establish a new federal religion, most concisely articulated in his infamous “sweet-mystery-of-life” passage in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”), America’s Christians have seen their space in the public square shrink, with dissent re-labeled as discrimination and orthodox religious faith slandered as bigotry. Yet it’s critical for the social-justice warriors to understand that victory over the faithful in political and even cultural clashes will not cause them to yield. The alternative to accommodation isn’t coercion but rather conflict.

#related#Last year — while writing in support of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts — I noted: : “Religious liberty exists as a core civilizational value not just because pluralist societies profit from it, but because the human heart demands it. If history teaches anything, it teaches that the religious impulse — the sense of eternity set in the hearts of men (to paraphrase Solomon) — is nothing if not powerful.” Or to put things more bluntly, Justice Kennedy can purport to change the Constitution, but he can’t transform Christian conviction. Unless his social-justice church grows more tolerant, the Kim Davis case is a harbinger of more conflict to come. We Protestants are simply returning to our roots.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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