The Slippery Slope of 'Sincerity'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.


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Reader Jim Elliott reflects on the Kim Davis saga:

Looking at the events in Rowan County, Kentucky, I believe it is tempting to dismiss Mrs. Davis’s refusal to do her job as the temper tantrum of a bigot who has learned that the people of her nation, as a whole, do not believe as she does. However, I think this misses the context of Ms. Davis’s moment of martyrdom, as Emma Green argues in her piece, “Kim Davis Is Winning.”

Ms. Green is correct to point out the challenge of the symbol of Ms. Davis and, more importantly, the recent turn towards “symbolism” in other religiously-based policy disputes, such as the Hobby Lobby decision. I believe what I said in the comments of Ms. Green’s article: Ms. Davis, and those like her, are not seeking accommodation of their religious liberty; they are seeking to impose a tyranny of their subjective conscience.

It is not merely enough to acknowledge that, though Christian denominations themselves appear to disagree about the probity of gay marriage, some individuals will court a religious justification for their bigotry. They are demanding that their belief, since it is “sincere,” as Justice Samuel Alito argued, it must truncate the ability of others to believe otherwise.

Ms. Davis’s demand, just as with Hobby Lobby’s demand, is to be removed from any participation in anything that could be construed as enabling someone else’s action. Ms. Davis, demanding the ability to refuse to do the job for which she was hired by the people of Rowan County and is paid for by their taxes, lest she be put in the position of having to pick between her secular duties and her particular brand of piety, is no different from, say, the sole pharmacist in a region embracing Scientology and refusing to dispense mood stabilizing medication to her customers, no matter that she has employees willing to do the actual dispensing.

This new demand for moral accommodation is nothing less than the abandonment of personal responsibility. It places the onus for Davis’s moral choices on everyone but Davis; it is a relativistic (in the laziest possible way) slippery slope that requires everyone else to tiptoe around her sincerity.

Where does this argument stop? Since Hobby Lobby pays a woman’s salary, can they place restrictions on what she does with her paycheck? No paying for a marriage license so she can marry the woman she loves? No purchasing her birth control by herself? Where does the “symbolic” enabling of someone else's choices end, and if it does not, are we all responsible for everyone else's choices?

No, Ms. Davis. You are not a martyr because you refuse to choose between Mammon and Yahweh. You’re just a coward.