Martyrs for Fundamentalism: Signaling High Costs for Religious Mobilization

By now Kim Davis is old news. She’s had her 15 minutes of fame, but several questions still linger on. Mostly the debate is settled; she broke the law and paid a very public price for it. Most of the attention has been on her faith. That is, she was motivated to break the law based on her religious teachings. But this is too easy an answer, and there are several other analytical tools we have at our disposal to further explain her actions. Here, I am employing a signaling game (in easy-to-understand language) to make a parsimonious explanation.

In signaling games there is an equilibrium where high risk players will always choose the costly action (in this case, break the law [risk] and go to jail [cost]) in order to reveal information to a target audience. And low risk players will not want to deviate from the low cost action (blogging, for example). But what does this mean in the broader context?

Well, let’s assume there’s two players here. For the sake of helping you understand, I will frame it Kim Davis’ actions. The first player is Kim Davis. The second player is fundamentalist Christians. Many of the Christians* support using religious freedom to actively prevent same-sex couples from marrying, but they do not know the extent to which the other Christians agree with them. Individually, each Christian wants to do something, but doing something is costly. Speaking out against homosexuality harms their reputations, so they keep quiet. So before they do anything, they want to know that they have support from other Christians. Kim Davis, on the other hand, wants these Christians to speak out and to actively prevent same-sex couples from marrying. How can she convince them to do this?

*For the purpose of this post, Christians means Christians who oppose same-sex marriage. Obviously many—if not most—do not oppose it, so I’m only referring to those that do.

Well, if she’s a low risk player, she will write blog posts or distribute literature, or maybe she’ll join the Westboro Baptist Church. But the payouts from this are low. It’s difficult to reveal information about the state of the world using low stakes actions. Even when she can communicate this information to an audience, the information isn’t worth much because her costs producing the literature or blog post (or whatever) are low and insignificant, and the audience knows this.

On the other hand, if she’s a high risk player, she will purposely martyr herself by breaking the law and defying court orders. This action sends a very powerful message to her audience. She’s saying, “We all agree that same-sex marriage is an awful thing.” Furthermore, she’s revealing new information about the extent to which they believe it’s an awful thing. It’s so awful, they feel, that it is better to go to jail than to submit to the new status quo. Therefore, we can say Kim Davis attempted to change the actions of the entire population of fundamentalist Christians by sending them a costly signal about the state of the world.

With this information revelation, the second player (fundamentalist Christians) can then mobilize and coordinate their responses easier. I think we saw this at Mike Huckabee’s “#ImWithKim Liberty Rally.” If not for Kim Davis’ actions, it’s unlikely the attendees of the rally would have been able to mobilize and coordinate an anti-LGBT event. [Note: If you’re interested in how this mobilization and coordination is possible, which is slightly beyond the scope of this post, read up on information cascades.]

Thankfully, Kim Davis was wrong about the state of the world. She believed the majority of Americans supported her and silently felt justified in using religious freedom to usurp the rights of others. The majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, and, by extension, they oppose efforts to curtail it. And even if that weren’t the case, it’s still unlikely Kim Davis would have succeeded because most fundamentalist Christians—even those who feel the same way Kim Davis does—are not high risk actors. Kim Davis overestimated the value of her actions.

Post Script: I’m almost certain these ideas aren’t mine; someone else has certainly thought of them before, but I’m not familiar with anyone else who has written about it from this perspective. If previous literature exists, feel free to send it my way.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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