I was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force when I found myself heavily conflicted with my obligations and responsibilities as a commissioned officer and my newly developed sense of morality regarding the Vietnam War. The year was the fall of 1970. I was in the third year of my four-year commitment that was required from my ROTC commission. The war had become morally untenable for me, even as my sense of patriotism was still firm. I was, in a word, conflicted.
And then I received orders that brought my moral objection, on the one hand, and my acknowledgment of my obligations and responsibilities, on the other, into the most painful of seemingly irreconcilable personal conflicts. At the age of 24, I was faced with one of those potential life-altering decisions, one which I fervently wished I could avoid.
As it was, my Nam orders were cancelled at the eleventh hour for unrelated reasons, and I was able to complete my four years, honorably discharged with the rank of captain in 1972. But in the months after I got the original orders, I had fully prepared a conscientious objector application.
I had prepared it, but I had not submitted it, as I had been reasonably certain that it would have been denied. I didn’t fit the required profile (religious conviction opposed to all wars), having lost my faith in the interim and believing that I would have served in World War II, a view I could not honestly deny. And so I was at sea right up until the very moment that the orders were cancelled, ever uncertain that I had the courage to be true to my conscience.
Of course, it didn’t get to the point of an ultimate decision. That would only have occurred after my C.O. application had been denied. Only then would I have been required to either accept the orders and deny my conscientious objection, or refuse the orders and submit to being a criminal (under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, I most assuredly would have been court-martialed) and face the full force of the sanctions that would have been my sentence.
It was, to put it mildly, a very tense period in my young life, one from which I emerged badly shaken, both in terms of my shattered idealism and my sense that, after all was said and done, I would have lacked the moral courage to see it through. To this day, I have felt myself lacking in that moral courage, sanctimonious though I know I can sound when others share similar decisions of conscience with me. Hypocrisy, I have learned, is an easy label to assign to others; it fits less comfortably, but no less accurately, on oneself.
All of which brings me to the case of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was sent to jail last week for refusing to issue marriage certificates to gay couples in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. Hers is, in essence, a case of conscientious objection that is, theoretically, at least, indistinguishable from mine. Of course, any similarity disappears if we compare the actual results of the two. I was fortuitously able to avoid my conscience crisis; Ms. Davis was not able to avoid hers.
I find it all too easy to condemn Ms. Davis as many on the left have been quick to do. Yes, she took an oath that she is violating in refusing to issue the marriage certificates. A decision by the Supreme Court in a case like Obergefell is binding on the states (through the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment). A lowly county clerk in one of the fifty states is not empowered to overrule such a decision, any more than I would have been empowered to declare illegal the orders assigning me to Vietnam back in 1970.
But Ms. Davis isn’t claiming that the decision of the Court is unconstitutional or otherwise illegal; she’s claiming that it is immoral. And she makes that claim as a matter of conscience, born of her religious faith.
Now, as a non-believer, I should be the last person to offer sympathy for Ms. Davis, doubly so if I add my strong support for and agreement with the Court’s decision in Obergefell. But I am not addressing the legality of Ms. Davis’s position. In that regard, she is rightly jailed for her civic disobedience. She is clearly in contempt of court and should be so found if her appeal is taken and heard.
But in a different court, one perhaps not of this world, she may be entitled to a different verdict.
The classic example of the kind of case Ms. Davis’s represents is that of Sir Thomas More, as his tale was immortalized in Robert Bolt’s great play, “A Man for All Seasons.” More was the Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, when the King sought to divorce his wife so he could marry the sister of his former mistress. More believed the divorce violated his church’s law and that the ensuing marriage was, therefore, illegal. Thus he refused to acknowledge its legality, was tried for treason, and was beheaded after his conviction.
At one point in the play, on being urged by a friend to deny his belief in favor of practical reality, More says, “What matters is not that it’s true, but that I believe it; or no, not that I believe it, but that I believe it.” That line expresses clearly the moralist’s dilemma in matters of conscience. It isn’t that the matter may be lawful, as in Ms. Davis’s case. It is that she believes it to be sinful, which, for her, is the immorality.
In a society of laws, morality can be imposed by the state through criminal sanctions and the like, but the true sense of morality that an individual has cannot be dictated by a court order. Ms. Davis’ case is more basic. Hers is a claim for moral integrity. And in that regard, she is a woman for all seasons.