Why the truth is often stranger than fiction…
There is sometimes more to a story than meets the eye. In history context is always king and in that spirit I offer up this review of recent events.
Pope Francis was amiably chatting to journalists on the way back to Rome after what had appeared to be a public relations triumph in the USA and Cuba. He was at that point – as were the journalists – blissfully unaware that he was about to be swept up by one of those infamous Kansas Twisters which was to drop him without due ceremony into a cauldron of controversy bestirred by an elected minor official of the state of Kansas.
The official in question is Ms Kim Davis. The controversy was over same-sex marriage. Ms Kim Davis is the serving elected County Clerk of Rowan County and in her capacity as the County Clerk she issues marriage licenses on behalf of the state.
Last Summer the Supreme Court of USA ruled in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, (576 US). Briefly stated it ruled 5 to 4 that that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the US constitution. That ruling together with other rulings by Federal Circuit and Appeals Courts effectively legalised same-sex (civil) marriage throughout the USA.
There is no question that this decision was historic. It decisively settled the legal side of this argument. Inevitably such a decision was incapable of changing the minds of opponents to same-sex marriage. This is because this debate over the term ‘marriage’ is not simply a matter of law. It is a subject which concerns cultural, philosophical and religious belief.
Furthermore, in the USA the progress of this argument through the courts and through Congress had touched old wounds from that struggle between State and Federal that was largely fought out in the first century after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 but which still continues to own a resonance today. At the formation of the USA, civil marriage and its regulation remained a matter solely for the Governors and Legislatures of each state. Over time this led more socially conservative states to impose tighter regulations of marriage than others whilst out in the West for example some states permitted faster divorce on less onerous terms, notoriously in Nevada and in particular the jurisdiction of Reno.
After the end of Reconstruction some states imposed racial limits to marriage as part of the segregation Laws which to some extent continued slavery by another means. This led the Supreme Court in the 1950’s to suspend all the race laws as unconstitutional and forced those states to permit and to recognise legally contracted inter-racial marriage. The Civil Rights Movement seems now an historical inevitability – it was not the case as late as the end of the 1960’s. A recidivist minority has since continued to hold the action by the Federal branch was unconstitutional and that marriage is the sole business of the State alone. Ms Davis’s view of that the recent Supreme Court decision was unconstitutional is not without its supporters. Similarly, her parallel assertion that as ‘marriage’ can only be between a man and a woman that same-sex marriage was the equivalent of the homosexual serpent entering the heterosexual Eden that is Kansas – also has its adherents.
Therefore when eager same-sex couples came forward to obtain their licenses to marry and Ms Davis took it upon herself to spoil their gay gumbado, a tornado was bound to follow. She refused to issue marriage licenses to which her name was appended. What followed embroiled the state Governor; the state legislature; the state and federal courts; Ms Davis’s colleagues in the county office; her local church; and the justices of the US Supreme Court in the brouhaha. Ms Davis has taken such a hard line she has subsequently has fallen out with just about everyone who was sympathetic to her cause – bar Fox News and its stalwarts – some of the political religious right who have made cause with her – and it would appear from subsequent events – the Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Carlo Maria Varga.
Ms Davis objection to same-sex Marriage – whether principled or opportunist – resonates with a highly vocal and motivated minority in US society. These activists are the ground troops of a culture war that has been waged across the USA at least since the 1960’s and possibly arguably since the Prohibition movement. It has certainly defined the politics of parts of the USA for the last forty years. Nor can it be denied that the prejudices of this minority in some states almost constitutes majority opinion. More importantly, it also constitutes a powerful, organised and well-financed constituency in the Republican Party.
The states most resistant to same-sex marriage are often the most Republican. They are found in the heart of the Old Democrat Confederacy – the deep south that is now quixotically the Republican heartland – or it belongs to the land-locked, prairie and mountain states in the non-urban middle of the continent. In both cases – but for different reasons – alike perhaps perhaps the Unionists in Northern Ireland – the values of urban American ring hollow and are even despised in these small-town polities. In all these states today the GOP rules; in all these States Revivalist Evangelical Christianity dominates. The biblical literalism of this religion often injects a visceral anti-intellectualism into the culture.
In this inwardness the many virtues of being small-town are too often enmeshed with the vice of being small-minded. This reflects back the worst of its history as most often our many vices do.
1. The Kansas Component
Kansas sits of the edge of the the Great Plains that once composed the beginning of the fabled American Wild West. At its inception as a territory Kansas was at the heart of another Titanic struggle – the one against institutional slavery that tore apart the USA in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The State gives its name to a piece of legislation that was one of the immediate causes of the American Civil War. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) enabled settlers to new territories to determine for themselves whether or not to permit slavery.
Settlers of these Western territories were attracted there by cheap land and in the main were hostile to slavery. Although they saw it as immoral practically it was also an economic fact that slave-owning settlers from Southern States would have gained a natural advantage over other settlers drawn west who had to would have had pay for any additional labour needed to turn prairie into farmland. Morality may still be dressed in the shoddy of self-interest to striking effect.
The Act therefore broke the spirit (if not quite the letter) of Henry Clay’s ‘Missouri Compromise’ (1820) which had notionally permitted slavery in any new states south of the latitude of parallel 36.30 – with the singular exception of the Missouri where slavery was made legal despite being above the fateful parallel. The Kansas-Nebraska Act limited further westward expansion of the economic model of the Southern States which rested slavery. It was a losing cause but its loss left bitter resentments.
After the Civil War ended slavery and secession, the western territories expanded rapidly always drawing in new scrawny undernourished settlers in from the old world of Europe. In this new time ‘Kansas’ gave its name anew -as a vulgarism for a flat-chested woman. In the later nineteenth century a ‘Kansas’ bride was the butt of the Music Hall comic for not being – to borrow Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyric from South Pacific – broad where a broad should be broad.
About the same time – the state also became home to the Temperance Movement that swept the plains and mountain states.This was a muscular movement led by women activists and one in particular – Carrie Nation – became famed in Kansas for her uncompromising leadership. Her followers became known a ‘smashers’. They put saloons out of business in well organised mobs that broke more than windows and glasses – they broke the law. They went unpunished. Taking the law into your own hands is therefore part of Kansas folklore in much the same way as the Western movies later made the icon of the strong man with a gun into a folk-hero. Kansas was quickly in thrall to the Temperance movement in this intolerant incarnation and it was an early state to ban hard liquor (1881). Later, it was reluctant to be parted from its prohibitionist past and it was not until 1948 that the state finally got round to endorsing the 21st Amendment to the Constitution which had repealed Prohibition. Many counties were still dry in the late 1940’s. Even after 1948 Kansas owned a beer culture that was soberly and self-consciously male (and straight).
Since it got a little too inebriated on the cause of Prohibition Kansas has shunned ‘progressive’ causes. It has always belonged to the much more conservative social milieu dominant outside the great American cities – despite the easy-going reputation of Kansas City as immortalised in Oklahoma – and it this conservative culture that gave birth to the remarkable phenomenon of American Evangelical Christianity with its vivid revivalist meetings; its folk-music-style-hymn-singing; its born-again cult of adult Baptism; and above of the mesmerising high-jinx of its fiery preachers. It is this branch of Christianity that flourished all across the USA in the second half of the twentieth century. It has enjoyed a certain appeal in uncertain times. Indeed paradoxically, the more the scientific age has challenged the literal truth of parts of the bible the more the certainties of this old time religion have appealed….
This religion is as often as marked often by a particular antagonism to Evolutionary Theory and to Climate Change science. As a belief system it is as mistrustful of science as it is hostile to secular philosophies. It has not found resonance in the Old World. It has had a better reception in the rests of the Americas; in Asia and in Africa where its stridency and fundamentalism competes with Radical Islam.
In 2005 that the Kansas State Board of Education famously declared Intelligent Design to be a branch of Science. The board’s decision muddied the clear water dividing science and scientific proofs from those commonly used a means to explore ideas in philosophical and religious argument. It also completely misunderstood the working distinction between scientific method – the notion of stating an hypothesis and then testing it by controlled experiment – and that of philosophical deductive argument where ideas are tested by means of question and answer in debate. Whilst the latter has given us a useful tool to test the soundness of abstract ideas it would not be possible by those same methods to deduce for example that it was the HIV virus which caused AIDS. Whatever the Kansas Board of Education thought – if there was indeed much thinking involved in this strangely emotive decision its decision set off an avalanche of ever greater stupidities which thundered about the educational system in the USA burying reason and reasoned argument in its mighty tumble. Ms Davis ideas therefore rest on a cultural prejudice which is often not susceptible susceptible to reason.
Again in Kansas – this unreasoned-ness has from time to time fuelled random acts of violence. For example in 2009 in Kansan Dr. George Tiller was murdered outside his church one Sunday. His crime was that for 36 years that he had performed (legal) abortions at his Wichita clinic. Tiller had long been the focal point of the abortion debate in the State but that Sunday violent argument transcended into violence and Tiller was shot in cold blood. His death once more drew attention to the fact that violent fundamentalism is not the exclusive preserve of Islam or in fact the singular vice of any religion or any secular philosophy.
Human history is littered with the corpses sacrificed on the altar of ideas – good and bad and indifferent. We humans do not need to imbibe too much of any idea before we go crazy and kill people. This is not the exclusive vice of Kansas nor of Evangelical Christians. It is part of the abnormal that is sadly a part of the normal human condition.
If these realities have been hard on Kansas and her brides since those early days the state’s reputation has prospered rather better in fiction. Kansas is of course the home to Smallville – the small town where Superman grew-up. It is also home to the Lineman from Wichita made famous by Glenn Campbell. However, outranking these fictional Kansan luminaries by many degrees of Lux are Dorothy and to her little dog,Toto. They were the subject of a series of children’s books – carried far from their Kansas home on a Twister which landed them somewhere over the rainbow – in the the wonderful world of Oz; with its wizard; its witches; and its Munchkins – a world where the heroine Dorothy was destined to meet and make many new, strange and interesting friends…..
Subsequently – after the later post-war success of the Judy Garland Wizard of OZ movie – the film had initially been a bit of a flop- the term ‘friend of Dorothy’s’ took on another meaning as it entered the lexicon of gay slang as one of the self-identifying phrases employed by gay men and women to describe themselves and to introduce themselves to one another.
Yet, despite this florid association with gay cliche, Kansas has never been particularly friendly towards the friends of Dorothy. As a state and a culture Kansas was never likely to be glad to be gay. So it on one level should come as no surprise that Ms Kim Davis has been organising her very own witch-hunt against some of the friends of Dorothy.
2. The Kim Davis Component:
Ms Kim Davis as noted above is an elected official of the state of Kansas. Currently she is serving as the County Clerk of Rowan County where she had previously served in the unelected post of deputy clerk of the county from 1991 to 2011. She was actually on the Democratic Party ticket in Rowan County in 2014. Again as noted above one of the principal duties of the clerk of the county is to issue marriage licenses. On her election victory Davis told The Morehead News:
“My words can never express the appreciation but I promise to each and every one that I will be the very best working clerk that I can be and will be a good steward of their tax dollars and follow the statutes of this office to the letter.”
It is that last part of her statement which has come back to haunt her. Davis took the oath of office as the county clerk of Rowan County in January 2015; she is serving a four year term due to end in January 2019 and she has not offered to resign her office as she refuses to carry out all the duties involved for which she currently receives a salary of $80,000.
I make mention of her salary as Ms Davis was not exactly a stranger to controversy before her election.
Ms Davis salary as Deputy Clerk came to public notice in 2011 during the time her mother was the Elected County Clerk. In 2011 in addition to her salary of $52,000 Ms Davis earned a further $11,000 in respect of overtime. While Chief Deputy Clerk Davis took home in excess of $60,000 the remaining deputies in the county – chief deputy sheriff and deputy Judge-Executive for example made do with salaries around $37,000. These other officers were also ineligible for overtime pay. Under pressure from the public the County Fiscal Court reviewed the compensation of clerks in the county and voted unanimously to cut the Deputy County Clerk’s salary by one-third in 2012. Behind this innocent seeming tussle over salaries lay unspoken accusations of corruption and nepotism.
After her mother announced she would not run for re-election in 2014, Davis filed as a Democratic candidate for county clerk. At a candidates’ forum, Davis stated she felt she was best qualified for the position because of her 26 years of experience in the clerk’s office. Davis won the Democratic primary advancing to the General Election against Republican John Cox. Cox made complaints of nepotism during the campaign but voters were unimpressed and Ms Davis won easily.
3. Same-sex marriage component:
If Ms Davis is no stranger to local controversy the same might be said of Ms Davis and marriage. She has herself been married four times. That is a small matter to the state as she has been legally divorced three times. However, she happens to be a member of a church that takes a particularly strong line in matters of sexual conduct. It espouses a biblical literalism and condemns not only homosexual acts and homosexuality; it also holds strictly to the literal teachings of Christ on the indissolubility of marriage. Not only is four-times married Ms Davis challenging her church’s norms it so happens her third marriage ended with her cited as party to an adulterous extra-marital affair with a married man – the man who was to become subsequently her husband number four. Sexual misconduct was very much a private matter until Ms Davis went public on her opposition to same-sex marriage on religious and moral grounds. It is a classic example of people in glasshouses not throwing stones.
As Ms Davis continued to defy the Supreme Court after it had had formally upheld it the civil right to same-sex marriage she said she was acting “under God’s authority”. It was large claim for a small town girl but given she had made it without any sense of irony it is a smaller wonder she should have then also sought out the support of the Infallible Papacy.
None of this has gone down too well with all her fellow churchgoers. Her conduct set off another storm – this time on Twitter and other social Media. Fellow churchgoers have called upon Ms Davis to resign from her public office for breaking her public oath (the one she swore to uphold the US Constitution on taking public office) and to repent her own adultery in public. Others have accused her of not only bad faith and hypocrisy but of public adultery – it has all become very personal – as one Tweet succinctly puts it: What if a clerk denied Kim Davis a license for her 2nd/3rd/4th marriage because Christ calls it adultery?
Ms Davis very public refusal to issue marriage licenses has duly garnered her much attention. Her claim to be exercising what she claimed to be a right of conscience also drew in other interested parties some with a very clear agenda of their own.
Ms Davis asked the Governor to permit her to exercise this right of conscience but under legal advice the Governor refused her plea. Ms Davis’s riposte to the Governor was a unilateral public and loud refusal to issue licenses to gay couples.
It must be noted that these events in Kansas are not happening in isolation. There have been a number of incidents of similar nature all across the USA. For example, a ‘Christian’ couple in Oregon has refused to make wedding cakes for gay couples and they too have become minor celebrities. They have been fined for refusing repeatedly to take orders for groom and groom or bride and bride cakes. Their fines have mounted and they are being paid by Evangelical Group. Their struggle is on-going and they’re said to be minded to close down their business.
(No one has quite explained to me why any gay couple would knowingly commission a cake from a homophobic baker but these quarrels are often baked to old family recipes whose special ingredients only fully make sense to those involved.)
In Tennessee there has been a furore over a state Judge refusing to grant a Divorce to a heterosexual couple as he claimed the Supreme Court has made Marriage into legal nonsense. In Mississippi and in Missouri there’s a movement in the State Legislatures to strike down all State Laws on marriage and withdraw state jurisdictions from further involvement in Civil Marriage. It has also rippled out as an issue in the Republican Presidential debates with Ben Carson making the issue very much his own crusade. Carson is some 12 percent clear of Donald Trump in some polls in Iowa.
Like all such disputes as it has continued on more heat than light been generated . The losing side has been tempted to take-up what inevitably will become an unsustainable position. But as history repeatedly informs an old cause lost wins many new adherents.
Back to Ms Davis – as she has taken a public oath to uphold the US Constitution her position is legally and morally considerably different to that of the Oregon confectioners. Ms Davis refusal to issue licenses to gay couples broke her public oath as much as it defied the law. The Federal courts became involved very quickly and they fined Ms Davis as well as over-ruling her.
Given the above, it should not come as any surprise that with Media interest in her case, Ms Davis’s cause drew support from Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and she quickly came to the attention of a law firm – Liberty Counsel. This firm was founded in 1989 by attorneys Mathew Staver and Anita Staver. The husband and wife firm is non-profit and its goal is to provide legal services to causes “dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family.” On the subject of marriage Matthew Staver has observed:
“Make no mistake about our resolve. While there are many things we can endure, redefining marriage is so fundamental to the natural order and the common good that this is the line we must draw and one we cannot and will not cross.”
Mr Staver has organised an annual conference ‘The Awakening’ and has several years running been its keynote speaker. The conference is, in its own words,“an in-depth Prayer and Patriotism event where people are united by love for our country’s freedom and our faith in Christ.” It thereby elides its particular brand of Evangelical Christianity with direct political action. In 2012 for example – the topics covered by the Conference were: Israel, Islam; the LGBTQ Agenda; and Abortion.
The firm has a bit of a reputation for playing fast and loose with facts and only recently ran into trouble by passing off a photograph taken in 2014 at a rally in South America against legalising abortion as being of a demonstration in favour of Ms Davis. Liberty Counsel filed an emergency application to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. By way of response the Court filed a one-line order in which they refused to hear the appeal.
In response to the Supreme Court’s refusal to grant her stay Ms Davis stated: “I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience.”
It was we are told at this stage that Kim Davis came to the attention of the papal nuncio.
4. The Papal Component.
With the Pope in flight – Ms Davis appeared on US TV to proclaim both God and the Pope were of one mind and were both on-side in her struggle to preserve true marriage. God Fearing Ms Davis not only knows what the Bible teaches and she knows right from wrong and she claimed in this judgement she and Pope Francis were of one mind.
When Ms Davis announced her meeting with the Pope she implied she had received his endorsement of her stand – ‘he told me to stay strong’ – suggesting in these few words that the pope knew what she was doing in Kansas and had approved her defiance of the US law. By way corroboration Ms Davis produced two sets of rosary beads the Pope had given her at this ‘private meeting’.
The Vatican was caught off-guard and news of the meeting between pontiff and Ms Davis. LGBT Media and others more broadly were quick to criticise the pope. Additionally this news over-lapped into the early stages of the Synod Part II which had been assembling in Rome to consider matter relating to the Family. A few days later the Vatican was rocked by a polish monsignor coming-out in a press conference with his partner in tow. and which last year had included some detailed discussion on the Catholic Church’s response to homosexuality.This in turn muddied the waters of two very distinctly matters – clerical sexual conduct and discipline and same sex marriage. We live in an age where celibacy is routinely treated as a synonym for chastity – the latter being a state to which all unmarried Christians are meant to be called and to espouse as a moral ideal, male or female, straight or gay…
In the event accusation was made of hypocrisy and worse. It appeared to some that Pope Francis said one thing in public but in private was taking a different line by supporting groups and individuals opposed to same-sex marriage and those who are defying civil law in various jurisdictions.
The Vatican had refused to comment beyond confirming that Ms Davis did meet the pope but formally pointing out she did not have and would not have been granted a private audience.
It has since emerged that Ms Davis met with the pope in passing with a number of others in series of brief meetings arranged for the papal visit. It has emerged the Pope did not speak with her for any length of time. The mechanism by which the pope’s brief meeting came to pass is straightforward enough. Just as with invitations issued to meet with a President or a Prime Minister; or to be a guest at a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace; or, indeed, to be invited to the US Ambassador’s annual shindig at Winfield House; names are put forward and sponsored by various interested parties. In any event popes princes and presidents have spoken meet with all manner of people with all manner of opinions without creating a moral fuss. It as they say goes with the office.
Be that as it amy, Pope Francis also met with Yayo Grassi, whom Pope Francis had taught at a Catholic High School in Argentina in the 1960’s and with Grassi’s long-time male partner. The had a private meeting with the pontiff on 23rd September at the Papal Nunciature in Northwest Washington.
Grassi said later that Pope Francis had apologised for the “hurt” his reported comments against Argentina’s same-sex marriage law had caused him personally. In an interview with the Blade ( a Gay publication) Grassi added “He” (the Pope) “said I have never said any of those things that the press is publishing about me” and specifically referring to criticisms he was supposed to have made over Argentina’s same-sex marriage law Grassi said the pope “said as a matter of fact he never expressed himself about this question. And he” (the Pope “ended up by saying something that to me is so important. He said believe me, in my pastoral work there is no place for homophobia.”
Therefore, whatever is to be made of the Pope meeting with Kim Davis it certainly is not to be seen as an endorsement of her or of her views. Indeed, unlike the gay couple (both of whom are Catholic) Ms Davis belongs to another church which has as strong and as hostile views about the papacy and Roman Catholicism as it claims to have about Homosexuality, Adultery and Abortion.
Subsequently as it has become known that Ms Davis and her lawyers planned in advance to exploit this meeting to further her own political campaign. Her lawyers have now gotten themselves into trouble for being less than honest about facts and have been reprimanded by the state Bar Association for a statement they issued after Ms Davis appeared on TV in which they gave a very false impression of what had happened in the ‘meeting’ between Ms Davis and the pope. When questioned over their assertions in the press release the Stavers conceded they has no idea how the meeting was arranged; who was present and if the pope had spoken to Ms Davis at any length.
In court Ms Davis had claimed her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples was a matter of political conscience; a matter fundamental to her religious faith; and a matter of her Human Rights. These of course were issues Pope Francis had chosen as themes for his pastoral visit. The Nunciature says Kim Davis had approached the Nuncio to ask to meet the pope; she claims the Nunciature approached her.
The US Nunciature is the diplomatic arm of the Holy See. It would have assembled lists of names of those to be included in various the classes of audiences with the Pope. Some of these would have been passed over to the Curia to be vetted; the Curia would itself have submitted its own list to the Nuncio and we now know Pope Francis let it be known he wanted some names he wanted to be included – like his gay former student and his partner. Some of these invitees would have been closely scrutinised – mainly those with whom longer audiences were arranged – but those in the largely hand-shaking exercises may not have been that closely scrutinised in Rome.
In these times of globe-trotting popes ensuring the Pope would not be placed in an embarrassing situation is a principal job of any Papal Nuncio.
The current nuncio in the USA is Cardinal Carlo Maria Vega. The cardinal ended in the USA only after he was involved in a turf war within the curia and had a falling out with Pope Benedict XVI’s then Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertello. It is fair to say Cardinal Vargo has a reputation for being hugely talented but also for voicing controversial opinions in a quite undiplomatic way. The strong line he has taken on Same-sex marriage is a case in point. In the Media he has also expressed opinions about homosexuality which are at variance with those of the Pope. His tendency to forcefully express his views has forestalled both his diplomatic and curial careers and he is now near retirement age. Often Vatican diplomats carry on well after 75 but in the case of Cardinal Vargo this is thought to be the final mark on his card. He has now upset two Popes in succession – two men very different in character and temperament – and it seems unlikely he will be given a third chance.
If the Vatican is left with some egg on its face and some explaining to do……there is both more and less to all of this than meets the eye…