In June 2015, in the wake of Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, legislators gathered to debate removing the Confederate flag from the state capitol. Meanwhile, Bree Newsome, a young African American woman, was taking the matter into her own hands, scaling the flagpole and snatching the flag herself. Though she was promptly arrested, her action attracted media attention, and many hailed it as a victory for racial justice.
Newsome had been arrested two years earlier for protesting North Carolina’s voter ID law. As such, she was anything but reticent about her motives. Ordered by police to come down, she replied, “In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down. You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” As officers handcuffed her and led her away, she recited Psalm 23.
As the Confederate flag controversy died down, another controversy was heating up in rural Rowan County, Kentucky. Another woman of unbending Christian conviction—albeit very different politics—quickly gained notoriety for her own defiant stand. Kim Davis, the county clerk, ceased issuing marriage licenses after the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. Davis, a recent convert, framed her refusal as a defense of her religious freedom. Jailed briefly for contempt of court, she continued fighting several legal actions launched against her, styling herself a “soldier for Christ.”
But where Newsome was celebrated for her courage, Davis was mostly scorned as a religious fanatic and a bigot. Although a handful of conservative Christian politicians and activists rallied to her side, the consensus alternated between mockery and outrage.
Davis’s gambit may well have been ill-advised, especially coming from a government official sworn to uphold the law of the land. Certainly, a number of thoughtful Christian commentators have questioned the wisdom of her approach. But taken together, these two episodes reveal a deep-seated ambivalence about civil disobedience—peacefully refusing to obey a law or decree that one believes is unjust, and accepting the consequences (including imprisonment and death). Why are some forms of resistance inspiring, while others leave us feeling uneasy?
Blaming bias against conservative Christian culture-warring only goes so far. After all, most people instinctively realize that society can’t function if everyone feels free to ignore laws they oppose. Replacing the rule of law with the rule of private conscience is a recipe for anarchy.
Recent history is another important factor. Americans are not so far removed, generationally, from the civil rights movement, which made lunch-counter sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience a strategic centerpiece. Although the movement and its methods were viciously opposed at the time, today they bask in near-universal reverence. Understandably, acts of civil disobedience that strike blows against racism and the legacy of segregation—like tearing down a Confederate flag—win easy applause. But acts that don’t map so neatly onto the civil-rights playbook—like standing athwart the same-sex marriage revolution—seem suspicious if not dangerously radical.