I’m not at all interested in the talk of Kim Davis’ “hypocrisy,” in the wake of her decision to deny marriage licenses to a gay couple in Kentucky. But let’s talk about hypocritical religion anyway:
Any time anyone professes a worldview accompanied by the “moral codes” (and I use that term loosely) overwhelmingly present in Christianity and other textual-based or Law-based religions, they’re describing an ideal. Now, for the “Christian Right,” these “moral codes” are blatantly homophobic, sexist, racist and wrong. These moral codes are generally theologically unsubstantiated, using out-of-context proof texts to justify slavery and segregation for hundreds of years or dehumanizing non-binary conceptualizations of gender and sexuality today. Again, they’re wrong and generations of theologians of color, feminist theologians, and queer theologians have challenged these oppressive interpretations.
There are historical and cultural reasons why so much of fundamentalist Christianity clings so tightly to its homophobia, but that’s a history too long to account for here. There’s also, for that matter, a long historical and cultural reason for why the Church has made divorce a non-issue over time, without which we may not have an Anglican Church. If marriage has sanctity, it’s not threatened by non-heterosexual marriage, nor is it threatened by Davis’ divorces.
But despite the wrongness of Davis’ idea of “traditional marriage” and her marginalization of non-heterosexual people from that idea, it is her ideal towards which she orients herself. That’s what moral codes are; to the owner of said beliefs, they are the ideal way to conduct oneself.
Ideal, however, does not mean “actual.” In fact, the two words are diametrically opposed. People create ideal morals because they know they’ll fall short of them. “Thou shalt not kill,” “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not commit adultery” are included in the Ten Commandments precisely because people kill, steal and commit adultery. Those who call Davis a hypocrite most often point to her three divorces and four marriages. But the biblical prohibitions those accusers point to, that chastise divorce, are themselves an acknowledgement that divorce is a fact of life and that humans are prone to divorce.
Part of developing a moral or ethical ideal is the knowledge that you’ll fall short of it, but nonetheless striving for better. This is a big element of religion in general, and it implies that hypocrisy is unavoidable. So when I hear accusations about how Davis’ divorces make her a hypocrite, I hear people indicting Davis for being human, and for believing that she could be better.
If you’re one of the crowd shaming Davis’ appearance, then you’re actively engaged in misogyny and body-policing and entrenching the patriarchal idea that women should not engage in public life. But if you’re one of the well-meaning liberals who think calling out Davis’ hypocrisy is an edgy critique of fundamentalist Christianity, it’s not. Calling out hypocrisy is nothing more or less than an acknowledgement that humans create moral codes because they know they’ll never be able to attain them. A prominent progressive pastor started a hashtag contributed to by other progressive clergy and theists – #IWasKimDavis – to discuss growing up in conservative, right-wing churches and being able to grow out of the narrow-minded attitude they were once conditioned to believe, without losing their faith. But even those of us who never shared Davis’ theology all share one thing in common with her: our hypocrisy. After all, I’m writing this editorial on a laptop likely made in a Foxconn sweatshop, and you’re probably reading this on a sweatshop-produced device of your own. So long as we have ethics, even if they’re illegitimate ethics, we will all be hypocrites.
Let’s call out Kim Davis for her homophobia. Let’s address it honestly and thoroughly. But let’s do so with a genuine acknowledgement that her crime was to deny a legally protected civil right to two loving and consenting adults, and that her denial has negative material and emotional impacts on that couple. Her crime was to deny that right under the façade of religious liberty when – in a secular governmental position – her religion ought not have any bearing on her job, not to mention that her homophobic beliefs and predispositions are not well supported by the Bible she claims to get them from. Her crime – for which she is now actually sitting in jail – is ignoring court orders and federal law. Let’s criticize her misuse of her position of authority to subjugate others, but let’s drop the hypocrisy critique, because if Davis were not a hypocrite – if her sexual and marriage history were consistent with the narrative she preaches – her display of homophobia and heterosexism is the crime we need to address. Homophobia is something we can overcome, but if hypocrisy is a crime then we’re all guilty, and I’m not sure it’s something we could ever quite “grow out of.”