I grew up in a world at war. Signs of that war were everywhere. Evidence of battles won and lost could be found in the daily newspaper and on the nightly television broadcasts. Lives were being lost and the world hung in the balance. Everyone, everywhere was in constant danger.
I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois. Wheaton is a quiet, upper middle class suburb of Chicago and home to one of the most prominent institutions in American Christianity. There were no tanks in the street. There were no gutted homes. There were no running gun battles through downtown.
Still, we knew we were in the middle of a war. Seeing that war required what we called “discernment.” That notion of discernment came from a cobbled together collection of Bible verses that said there were powers and principalities beyond human understanding constantly acting on the world as part of the eternal war between good and evil, between God and Satan.
The funny thing about all of that is I came of age in the 1990s. The ’90s were, for anyone living in the bucolic splendor of American suburbia, a quiet time. The tech boom had brought prosperity to the nation, there were no major wars to be fought, cussing and cleavage weren’t allowed on the television, and things were pretty great for your average white, male Christian.
There’s a reason the Republicans endlessly chased Bill Clinton’s penis throughout the ’90s. The Cold War was over. 9/11 was still in the future. America was an impregnable force, sitting atop the world as its sole superpower. The great social upheavals of the following decade were little more than a murmur in the national conversation.
We needed an enemy. The serial philanderer in the White House seemed like a good choice. To the obvious charges of infidelity we added dark whispers of the Clintons killing Vince Foster and conspiracies to give American military technology to the Chinese. We got Left Behind and the usual dark warnings of the United Nations as a One World Government on its way to take away our freedoms.
Those with the gift of discernment read the signs in the newspapers and saw all the places the followers of Jesus were losing their fight against the world. Everything was either a win for Jesus or for the world. See, Jesus once told his followers that the world hated him, so obviously the world would hate them. Since that comment made it into the Bible we knew that Jesus meant to tell us the same thing. That message was to be taken exactly the same in Wheaton, Illinois in 1996 as it was to be taken by a small sub-sect of Jews living under the thumb of the Roman Empire during a time of unrest that would ultimately lead to the Great Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Temple. The spiritual gift of discernment, it would seem, did not include the understanding of context.
I say this with the caveat that I graduated from high school in 1999. I was pretty young for most of the events I recall in the 1990s and it was only much, much later that I began to unpack the world as it was during that decade and separate it from the world as I saw it. I was convinced at that time that I was in training to be a soldier on the front line of a spiritual war. I decided in high school that I was going to be a missionary or maybe go to seminary to become a pastor. I saw the wreckage of the world all around me. I wanted to fight against the Devil himself.
Fast forward fifteen years or so. We lived through the horror of 9/11 and found a new enemy to replace the Soviet Union. The economy collapsed. America no longer feels invincible. We are the proud statue with clay feet from Daniel’s prophecies of Babylon.
I left the church a long time ago. I spent years unpacking how I saw the ’90s and re-learning much of the history of the world from my youth, this time not shaded by the proper levels of spiritual discernment. I came to understand the notion of privilege and see how my bucolic, suburban upbringing was a far different experience from so many in America.
The me of 15 years ago would not have been prepared to handle the America of 2015. Social justice movements have swept across the country with breathtaking speed. Gay marriage took far too long to arrive, but when it got here it got here extremely fast.
That’s how we get to Kim Davis and what the fight over Kim Davis actually represents. To those outside of that subculture it should be a non-story. She’s not doing her job, so she should be removed, replaced, or circumvented, marriage licenses should be handed out and we should all go to lunch.
I highly doubt that Kim Davis expected this to go as far as it did. The circus surrounding her should be squarely blamed on the absurdity of the 24 hour news cycle and the grandstanding of assholes like Mike Huckabee. Her decision to retain Mat Staver as her lawyer does not reflect well on her intentions, but I’ve seen the video of her walking out of the police station to “Eye of the Tiger” with a dazed, confused look on her face. I don’t think she intended to become this week’s celebrity news target.
There’s a larger discussion to be had here about the nature of celebrity in America in 2015. We talk endlessly about the Kardashians. We get needlessly worked up over the Duggars and Octomom. Twitter and YouTube are legitimate paths to fame and fortune for those who understand how to use them.
I don’t think that in those first days of her fight against gay marriage Kim Davis realized that she was stepping into the American celebrity machine. I believe that she thought she was standing up to the Devil. To the Christian subculture I grew up in homosexuality was a sin and god would have no part of anyone who engaged in such wicked acts. Legalizing gay marriage, then, means that the state is sanctioning sin and in the metrics of us-v-them Christianity that’s a firm win for them, “them,” in this case being Satan.
The sort of thinking with which I was indoctrinated in my youth has not gone away. If anything I suspect it’s gotten worse, as the Internet has risen as the great equalizer of speech and movements for social justice finally got a platform that allowed them equal time. There used to be signs of the impending apocalypse once or twice a day in the newspaper and the 10 o’clock news. Now every hashtag has the potential to signal Satan’s impending conquest of the world.
Prepare for more Kim Davises in the coming days. The only thing we can do is understand that these issues which are, to most, obvious stops along the universe’s trail to justice are signs of Satan’s victory to those like Kim Davis. Wherever there’s a Kim Davis playing the role of true believer there will be a Mat Staver and Mike Huckabee willing to turn the whole thing into a circus for their own ends.