Kim Davis and Thoreau’s Ideas of Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau helped to popularize the idea of civil disobedience in work, “Resistance to Civil Government”, or as it is more commonly (and appropriately) known, “Civil Disobedience”. Thoreau went to jail for his acts of disobedience, which happened to be opting not to pay any taxes. He believed that if you morally disagreed with the actions of a government, you couldn’t morally support that government in any way, taxes included. He is not, of course, the only person to be jailed over acts of civil disobedience: countless leaders in various movements for civil rights have been arrested as well.

Kim Davis

While trying to come up with ideas for this blog post, I stumbled upon an article claiming that Kim Davis, of all people, participated in civil disobedience. Davis has become rather notorious over the past few years. She was first seen in the news for denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and she was arrested for defying the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. She was released after 5 days, and marriage licenses in her county no longer require her approval. Nowadays, she is campaigning against gay marriage in Romania. Many of her supporters say she was simply defending her Christian beliefs, others say she was simply denying the rights of the same sex couples. Could her actions be classified as a sort of civil disobedience? Perhaps. Do they fall in line with Thoreau’s ideas of civil disobedience?

Good god, no.

First of all, Thoreau would have said that if she truly disagreed with the decision of the government, the first step she should have taken would be to quit her job. According to “Resistance to Civil Government”, if any government employee asked Thoreau “‘But what am I to do?’ my answer is, ‘If you really wish to do any thing, resign your office.’ When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished” (850). The first step, if Davis’ goal was civil disobedience, would have been to resign. Her goal was not any sort of effective civil disobedience, but to be a thorn in the side of same sex couples who wanted to get married by denying them their right to do so.

Additionally, Davis’ actions impacted her fellow citizens more than it did the government. A quote that stuck out to me in “Resistance to Civil Government” was “I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject” (854). In refusing to issue marriage licenses to couples in her community, Davis was being a bad subject, yes, but she was being a worse neighbor. The impact that refusing a marriage license has on the government is very small. The impact that it has on a couple that is in love and wants to get married is everything.

Finally, Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience was a way to rebel against a harmful government. The American government is not harming anyone by allowing same-sex couples to marry. “But what about-” No! Full stop! It’s not hurting anyone! If the government was forcing people of the same sex to marry each other, that would be harmful. If the government was forcing people of a different sex to marry each other, that would be harmful. As it is, no one is being forced into marriage by the government, and there are far more important things to focus efforts of civil disobedience on.

Most of which, the likes of Kim Davis wouldn’t think twice about, but that’s a topic for another time.