Without much fanfare, a modestly dressed and unceremoniously coiffed woman emerged from behind closed doors, where TV cameramen had stood for much of an hour Friday afternoon waiting to get their shot. Slowly, but surely, the attendees of the Values Voter Summit here in Washington recognized her: Kim Davis, the conservative everywoman who has become an inspiration for Christians across the country.
The Rowan County, Ky., clerk — who sparked a national conversation about religious freedom after she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — has become a star without truly embracing stardom. Though she consented to interviews in the days when America was learning her name, she grew more selective after the conservative Liberty Counsel took her case.
And she appeared to shrink smaller and smaller as the noise around her grew to a deafening level.
When she was freed from a Grayson, Ky., detention center earlier this month, she stood nearly silent at a rally just outside the jailhouse, where hundreds gathered in her honor as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) praised her. Supporters had elevated her to the status of religious martyr in the days after a judge had jailed her for contempt. Meanwhile, critics pointed to her three divorces as a sign of hypocrisy. Overwhelmed and overcome, she gave a short speech as her parents handled questions.
She was, by her own admission, an unlikely person to start such a potent, vitriolic conversation about the Supreme Court case in June that upheld same-sex couples' constitutional right to marry. Her political start began just last year, when the incumbent county clerk — her mother — headed for retirement. Davis, who'd been the unelected deputy clerk for most of her working life, ran as a standard-bearer, and won by just 23 votes over Democratic activist Elwood Caudill Jr. Rowan was one of the relatively few counties that rejected the re-election of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) in favor of Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.
In an interview with Reuters Friday, Davis announced that she would become a Republican after "the Democratic Party left me." Reached at home, Caudill said he had not heard of the party switch. "It doesn't surprise me," he said. "It's up to her what party she joins. I haven't ruled out running again."
Davis looked similarly meek in Washington Friday — where the Family Research Council honored her with the "Cost of Discipleship Award" at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. This week she invited ABC News in for an interview, showing the "at least 20,000" pieces of supportive mail sent since her ordeal. "I'm here for a short while in preparation for an eternity," she said. "And by eternity, I mean, that's what we're here for. It's a heaven or hell issue for me."
“This is going to be the highlight, I think, of the weekend for me," said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins as he introduced Davis, who couldn't hold back tears as she moved toward the podium.
She took a deep breath as she looked into the crowd. The audience stood and enthusiastically cheered. In that moment, she looked out and began to cry, taking slow measured breaths with her hand over her heart.
“Thank you all,” she mouthed to the crowd, finally smiling as the cheers rose. Then just as fast she shrank again, this time behind Perkins. He read the text of the award, which included comparisons to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.
It was her turn to speak: “I feel so very undeserving,” she said, between tears, tissue at the ready. “I want to start by thanking my Lord and my savior Jesus Christ, because without him none of this would have ever been possible, for he is my strength that carries me."
Her tears subsided. And then, finally, an exaltation.
“I am only one, but we are many!”
Then she was gone, as quickly as she took the stage.