Commentary: Tyranny as close as the county courthouse

By John Krull

INDIANAPOLIS – When John F. Kennedy campaigned for president in 1960, he ran into a problem.

John Krull, publisher,

John Krull, publisher,

Column by John KrullMany clergy members – mostly evangelical Protestants – worried publicly he couldn’t fulfill the duties of the nation’s highest office because he was a Catholic. The conservative ministers argued he would take direction from the pope and thus undermine both our national security and the rule of law.

Kennedy met the challenge by going into the Bible Belt – Texas – to give a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

Kennedy said no one had asked whether his faith would disqualify him for service when he fought in World War II – or when his older brother, also Catholic, died defending this country. No one, Kennedy argued, had told the 40 million Americans who were Catholic in 1960 that the faith into which they were born disqualified them both for high office and the full protection of the law.

He said he believed in an absolute separation of church and state, because that was the only way to protect the human conscience.

The heart of his speech came near the end, when he said:

“I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views – in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

“But if the time should ever come – and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible – when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.”

JFK clearly never met Kim Davis, the clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky.

Davis has become a national figure – and a darling of the religious right – by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that gay unions now are legal. She says God directed her to defy the law.

“To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision,” Davis has said through her lawyers.

“I was elected by the people to serve as the county clerk. I intend to continue to serve the people of Rowan County, but I cannot violate my conscience.”

Davis is ducking the dilemma John F. Kennedy faced squarely. She wants to continue to serve in a public office in which the duties required of her conflict with her faith.

She wants to have it both ways.

She can’t.

As JFK demonstrated more than 50 years ago, the honorable thing to do when the duties of a public office clash with the dictates of a person’s faith or conscience is to resign the office. But one does not have the right to hold both the office and the public hostage to one’s personal religious views.

Kim Davis doubtless wants to see herself as a martyr, but she’s not. Martyrs make sacrifices for their faith and their beliefs. They don’t force others to make the sacrifices.

The fancy name for what Davis is doing is “theocracy,” government established by supposed divine guidance.

The real name is tyranny. A tyrant is someone who uses a position of power that is not answerable to law to deny other citizens their rights within the law.

As John F. Kennedy said more than a half-century ago, he and many other Americans of his generation fought – and many of them died fighting – the forces of tyranny in Europe, Africa and the South Pacific.

Kim Davis’s story demonstrates that we Americans don’t always have to go around the world to find a person who would deny others their liberty.

Sometimes a would-be tyrant is much closer to home – as close, in fact, as the county clerk’s office.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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