Even as I type this presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are off to Kentucky to console jailed county clerk Kim Davis in her hour of despair, yet another victim in the relentless assault on religious liberty waged by unsavory political and judicial elements in the United States. For those who haven’t been following along, Kim Davis was imprisoned on contempt of court charges for refusing to issue marriage licenses in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling mandating non-discrimination against same sex couples. [She has since been released, with the understanding that she will cease interfering with staff who are willing to comply with federal law.]
Web sites like Catholic Online have gone straight for the “martyr” hot button: “The history of the Roman Empire is filled with stories of Christian Roman soldiers who refused to make pagan sacrifices on pain of death. These men were always martyred and became some of the earliest saints and martyrs of the Church. Kim Davis is likely to share their fate, at least figuratively.”
There are so many things wrong with this statement that my head spins even contemplating putting words to paper. But let’s dispense with the easy issue: Kim Davis is not a martyr. And I don’t mean that in the “she’s a bigot” sense. But if we’re going to engage in a conversation about religious persecution in which the same word is employed for Christians who are dragged from their homes and beheaded and for those who engage in acts of civil disobedience and are held accountable in a lawful way for their actions then…well, we need a different word.
Fortunately, there is a perfectly serviceable one that first came into use during the second half of the second century: a confessor. Back then, the term “martyr” was reserved for individuals who died rather than renounce their faith, while “confessor” was bestowed on the faithful who were imprisoned, tortured or exiled for their beliefs. (It could be argued that Davis isn’t a confessor either, since the Carthaginian bishop Cyprian who first used the term thought, in a perhaps very Catholic way, that believers couldn’t be judged truly worthy of the title until they had died and the whole expanse of their life lay open for examination. But I’ll leave that as a technicality.)
Why throw the word “martyr” around in discussing Davis rather than the more nuanced “confessor?” Among her supporters presumably for the drama, conjuring as it does images of beheading and burning at the stake and limbs torn asunder by lions. And among her detractors presumably for the melodrama, also because it conjures images of beheading and burning at the stake and limbs torn asunder by lions. And to be fair the comparison seems to pop up more often on liberal-leaning sites than conservative ones, where it can serve as a straw man held up to ridicule. The much divorced woman not only denying innocent lovers a chance at happiness but tyrannically ordering her staff to do the same, a martyr? Oh, puleeese. But all other issues aside, it seems reasonable to state that Kim Davis believes in the righteousness of her cause (misguided or not), and that belief is rooted in her faith (misguided or not), and she is willing to endure some pain and suffering in the defense of that belief. That she is, in some sense, a confessor.
The presidential candidates weighing in on the case have avoided the supercharged word “martyr,” though their rhetoric has still been heated. From Mike Huckabee: “Having Kim Davis in federal custody removes all doubt of the criminalization of Christianity in our country.” An aide to Ted Cruz was quoted as saying that he “is going to be doing everything in his power to ensure more Americans don’t become victim to religious persecution by the government,” and Cruz himself stated after the ruling against Davis, “We are a country founded on Judeo-Christian values, founded by those fleeing religious oppression and seeking a land where we could worship God and live according to our faith, without being imprisoned for doing so.”
But the term “persecution,” so liberally employed here, could stand some scrutiny itself. Ted Cruz isn’t wrong in his statement that the original colonies were founded by individuals fleeing religious oppression. But what kind of oppression are we talking about here? The Library of Congress has a fascinating summary of an exhibition called Religion and the Founding of the American Republic that speaks directly to this issue. The short version: the colonists were fleeing beheading and burning at the stake and, if not being torn apart by lions, certainly being expelled from their homes in the dark of winter when their survival was at best dubious. (This was almost exclusively violence perpetrated by Christians against other Christians, but I’ll also leave that as a technicality.)
They were attacked over nothing more and nothing less than their entire belief system. “I believe in the infallibility of the Pope and you don’t, so off with your head,” or “No, we are not going to stop baptizing children and start promoting pacifism, get the hell out of our country.” These were broad brush stroke incidents of intolerance, with no quarter given and no possibility of compromise. If you were a Jesuit under a Protestant regime, or a Mennonite in a Catholic one, being caught practicing your faith even in the privacy of your home was punishable by exile or death. Mounting a public gathering was tantamount to suicide.
Kim Davis clearly does not find herself in this position. She has run afoul of a conflict between a single belief of hers – that same sex marriage is immoral – and a Supreme Court decision which has ruled that denying marital rights to a subset of the population is a violation of their constitutional rights. She was offered alternatives: to resign her position, to allow willing clerks to issue marriage licenses so she wouldn’t have to, and refused them all. She chose to engage in an act of civil disobedience and suffered the consequences.
What do we say of such people, believers who suffer or even die, but as a side effect of their belief? For example, there is a certain squeamishness in some Christian circles about anointing Dietrich Bonhoeffer a martyr because while he was a Christian condemned to death, his execution was ordered not specifically because of his Christian practice, but because he participated in a plot to kill Hitler. In other words, he chose a conflict with a government that was otherwise content to leave him alone. That may make him a hero, a man of principle and conscience, a man to be admired, but it doesn’t make him a man who was persecuted.
I would argue that Kim Davis the confessor is in a similar situation. At most (and I’m not arguing the pros or cons of this, just the semantics), Davis has suffered a curtailment of her civil rights. She stated her sincerely held belief that same sex marriage is immoral and the court found her in contempt not for possessing that belief but for obstructing the normal functioning of a government office. The former might qualify as persecution, but the latter at best is an act of discrimination – in the grand scheme of things, a venal rather than a mortal sin (compare, for example, the difference between same-sex couples being denied marriage licenses versus being stoned to death), and a hazard of any pluralistic society trying to define the bounds of fairness among citizens with competing belief systems.
Open Doors USA, a charitable organization that tracks persecution of Christians worldwide, doesn’t even list the United States in its top 50 most oppressive countries. Why would that be? Maybe because the United States government isn’t an oppressive regime systematically persecuting its citizens, “criminalizing” Christianity, but one struggling in as much good faith as it can muster to ensure the social well-being of all of its many-principled residents. Florid claims to the contrary not only erode democracy, they trivialize genuine religious persecution and genuine religious martyrs. And I confess that I don’t understand why a certain subset of Christians is interested in doing that.