When supporters of Kim Davis see her defiantly refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple, they see someone bravely standing for her faith and her principles, refusing to budge from them. This defiance has made her a hero to many on the far right, who view marriage equality as something imposed by the federal courts and an existential threat to a cherished way of life.
Instead of accepting that threat lying down, Davis remarkably stood up and was willing to go to jail rather than compromise her beliefs. Local armed militias such as the Oathkeepers have even rallied to her side, vowing to keep her out of jail using force if necessary. To her supporters, she is the Rosa Parks of religious liberty, someone who finally said, “Enough is enough, I have rights, and I will fight for them.”
When I view her behavior, however, I am reminded of a different character from the early civil rights era: Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. For those who weren’t born yet or simply don’t remember, Wallace was a staunch and vocal opponent to racial desegregation. For him, the sanctity of white privilege was a cherished way of life. When he took the oath of office, standing on the same spot where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the President of the Confederacy more than 100 years earlier, Wallace famously proclaimed, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
As with Davis, supporters of the old order cheered Wallace’s brazen stand. And like Davis, Wallace was more than just his words. In 1963, he stood defiantly blocking the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama as two African American students prepared to enter the premises to enroll. Federal forces had to be called in to forcibly permit the integration, and others like it in Alabama, to proceed.
For Wallace, the federal government’s plans to integrate public education in the South amounted to a surrender of the state to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his friends in Washington. There are echoes of this in the Davis case, as once again, a ruling from the Supreme Court in D.C. trickles down to the state and local levels. The people are reminded that unelected judges are “making law” just as they have before, that these laws are wrong and are contrary to God’s will, and that the good people are only doing what is right by standing up to this threat to their way of life.
Here, marriage equality, like desegregation, tells an already wary conservative base that their belief system, and their exclusion of certain members of society from rights and privileges they themselves enjoy, is not only wrong but illegal. The weight of the law, once so firmly in their grip, has suddenly now shifted to operate against them, and now they are the ones who will go to jail if they don’t concede defeat.
Despite these parallels, marriage equality cases are far less disruptive to everyday life than desegregation. Permitting two people who love each other to marry affects only those two people, with tangential effects on those who might minister, verify or cater to the happy couple. Thus, we see eruption points where we might expect them: at the clerk’s office, on the church steps, in the bakery shop. But federal troops are unlikely to be headed to Kentucky any time soon, despite the bluster of groups like the Oathkeepers.
There is, however, an eerie and disheartening similarity to how insecurities and fears are still being exploited by today’s politicians. Presidential candidates such as Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz were quick to stand by Davis’s side as she emerged from jail, observing ominously that this was part of the overall War on Christianity. Religious liberty is now a rallying point for the right, even as that concept is distorted beyond all recognition to permit government officials to inject their personal beliefs into purely ministerial or clerical matters.
Gov. Wallace also understood the power of exploiting fear. He was once a candidate endorsed by the NAACP, but took a drubbing in his first bid for governor. Then Wallace discovered that Alabama voters were genuinely afraid of what desegregation would mean for their communities, and he shifted quickly to run on a staunchly segregationist platform. When asked why by 1962 he had started using racist messaging in his campaign, Wallace was blunt: “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about n*****s, and they stomped the floor.”
Happily, the days when overt racial discrimination and segregation are championed by social conservatives are long past. Imagine if instead of denying a license to a gay couple, Ms. Davis had sought on religious grounds to deny a license to an interracial couple. She likely would have been fired on the spot, and no politicians would have rushed to stand by her side, no matter what her sincerely held religious convictions were. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is headed to a similar, inevitable end in the dust heap of history.
But along the way there will be opponents like Davis to remind us that social change means social displacement and a recalibration of what is acceptable. And as with Gov. Wallace, decades from the day Davis stood her ground we will no doubt look back and wonder above all why so many stood with her.
George Takei is an actor, social justice activist, and social media mega-power.