The Phil Robertson Controversy: No More Ducking the Issue


Apart from a radio interview with Bible Answer Man I’ve been ducking the Phil Robertson/Duck Dynasty controversy for over a week now, first because I didn’t want to get into it on the brink of Christmas, and second, because so many others were blogging on it. But now that Robertson has been reinstated following a suspension during a period when no filming took place (sorta like suspending a student during Spring break) and the whole episode seems to be winding down, there are aspects of the story I’d like to look at.

To recap what you already know: Robertson, the patriarch of A and E’s popular Duck Dynasty reality show clan, was interviewed for this month’s issue of GQ magazine. When discussing race and morality, he made statements that went screeching through every available media outlet.

On homosexuality and morality: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

On gay sex: (GRAPHIC LANGUAGE AHEAD) “It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. I mean, come on, dudes! But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

On race relations: (describing African Americans he knew in the Jim Crow South) “They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!. . . Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

And off we went. A and E quickly trumpeted their disapproval by condemning Robertson’s remarks and putting him on indefinite suspension from further tapings of the show.  GLAAD (The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) cheered A and E, claiming Phil’s views were clearly “unacceptable to viewers and networks alike.”  The Cracker Barrel restaurant chain announced it’s removal of Duck Dynasty product from its shelves, got an outpouring of protest from Dynasty supporters, and within 24 hours offered an apology and replaced the items. Voices from the Right supporting Robertson included Governors Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee .; criticism from the Left was provided by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who claimed Phil’s comments were more offensive than the bus driver who consigned Rosa Parks to the back  and actor Charlie Sheen who, with the intelligence and restraint we’ve come to expect of him, referred to Robertson as a “mallard brained shower-dodger” and threatened him with a “MaSheen style media beat down.” Neither Robertson nor his family apologized for his positions ; public support for him reached levels neither A and E nor GLAAD seemed to expect (GLAAD, in fact, admitted the backlash against them in this case was unprecedented) and as of yesterday, A and E has reinstated Phil, claiming their decision is based on his show’s broader themes of family and love.

Whew. So OK, this is where I landed: I agree with most of what Phil said about homosexuality, and his positions match my own, though his statements on body parts seemed naïve and unhelpful (more on that later). The comments on race relations also came off a bit clumsy (ditto) but without malice. His remarks on both topics were, in fairness, responses to direct questions, so it wasn’t inappropriate for him to make them. I say it was wrong to suspend him, I do see this as a freedom of speech issue, and I believe A and E deserved the outcry it had to deal with. So I’m glad he’s reinstated, and I hope the takeaway lesson will be that Americans remain divided on sexual issues, that these are legitimate topics of discussion, and that citizens in the secular workplace should be free to express their position on homosexuality, pro or con, without having their livelihood threatened. On this point even the LA Times, hardly a bastion of conservatism, seems to agree by noting that “ideological purity tests have no place in that (television) medium or any other.”

That said, a few points could still be made.

First, the “vagina/anus” remarks. I’m confident Phil meant no offence when he referred to genitals and logic during his interview and, in fact, he had a point: our bodily design speaks to created intent. Yet a person could easily assume, wrongfully I think, that he thereby implied homosexual people need only look at the function of  genitals to see their error and turn from their ways. But the object of our desires –same sex or opposite sex – doesn’t spring from an analysis of what makes sense, but from something deeper and involuntary. Heterosexual boys, for example, surely don’t compare anus and vagina, conclude the purpose of each, and as a result develop attractions to girls. And the same can be said of homosexuals. Attractions come on their own, immune to arguments over what does or doesn’t make sense. Accordingly, had I read these comments when I myself was involved in homosexuality, I’d have figured Phil hadn’t a clue what he was talking about and would have found his views easy to dismiss.

Then there’s the general happiness of African Americans he knew under Jim Crow. I believe Phil was telling the truth – he claims those he interacted with were happy, singing, joyful. Yet again, like his comments on body parts, one could wrongfully but logically conclude he was legitimizing segregation. Singing under injustice does nothing to mitigate the injustice itself, so if pre-Civil Rights minorities were happy, it only proves they were nobly making the best of their lives under an immoral system. It hardly justifies the system itself.

But this is nit-picking on my part. I admire Robertson not just for his stand but for the way he’s taken the high ground. Throughout the firestorm the man has shown calm, humble dignity – no lashing out, pouting or grandstanding – which puts to shame some of his metropolitan critics who could learn a lot about gentlemanly behavior from this bearded country boy. He’s exemplified what Peter instructed: “Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.” –I Peter 2:12

Which brings me to a final point. American has largely gone pro-gay; same sex marriage will no doubt be legitimized in every state, and the population is either OK with this, or sluggish about resisting it. But we’re anything but sluggish when it comes to free speech, which I think accounts for the uproar in Phil’s support, an uproar reminiscent of last year’s Chic-Fi-Le incident. When that business’ owner publicly criticized gay marriage and people disagreed with him, few of us cared. But when people began threatening to keep him from doing business in their cities, we got mad, and thousands of us turned out publicly to say so. I really think the same dynamic’s at play here. If A and E had simply responded critically to Phil’s remarks I doubt we’d have even noticed. But when he was suspended, we took note. Many of us, in fact, said to ourselves, “That could be me. I could be fired or suspended from work for simply stating my views on a moral issue, and that’s just too much.” Granted, the freedom of speech we’re Constitutionally guaranteed has more to do with government intrusion than employer interference. But if you’re unable to voice your opinions publicly without risking job security, then your freedom of speech is surely restricted, whether the limitation comes from the federal government or the private sector.

And that, to my thinking, is what this was all about. The gay rights issue is fast becoming one of basic freedoms – freedom of speech, conscience and religion. On one side are those claiming the traditional view is dangerous and harmful, and should thereby be silenced. On the other are those insisting that traditional views harm no one, and expressing them is essential to living out a faith which plainly defines the marital unit as heterosexual. For my part I’d rather count myself among those defending basic freedoms, which is why I’m convinced this whole messy episode was necessary. Plainly put, Phil took a fair, reasonable and Biblically based position. Media and cultural elites demanded his head. Someone had to fight back.

So as the dust settles on the Duck Dynasty controversy the lingering choice seems clearer than ever: forced uniformity or God given freedom? There, finally, is where we land. And stay tuned, because it’s a place many of us, city and country folk alike, are ready to live and die for.


John J Kirkwood | Dec 28, 2013

Another tremendous column - well reasoned and well stated.

Harmony Wheeler | Dec 28, 2013

The first side is the argument I usually encounter and have trouble responding to:

"On one side are those claiming the traditional view is dangerous and harmful, and should thereby be silenced. On the other are those insisting that traditional views harm no one, and expressing them is essential to living out a faith which plainly defines the marital unit as heterosexual. "

Greg Balzer | Dec 28, 2013

Thanks Joe, your analysis helped me think through this issue a bit more. Your point is well taken - that the fireworks here are primarily over "freedom of speech" not gay rights. Regarding the "culture war" over homosexuality, your views align well with a recent post by the counselors over at CCEF.

Kimberly Bowman | Dec 28, 2013

Thank you Joe for your perspective, I happen to feel the same way! Mr. Robertson says it how he sees it and I understand his crude, if you will, remarks about anatomy. Some times people need to here those terms in order to relate to the magnitude of the disgusting acts performed by homosexuals. I get it!

Mark Terry | Dec 28, 2013

I have a feeling this trend of marginalizing those who believe in traditional Biblical morality will only increase. IMO what really turned the tide against A&E's decision is the fact that Duck Dynasty is their most popular show. Suspending the patriarch of the Robertson Clan would have turned thousands, perhaps millions against them. I wonder what will happen to the "little people" who don't have the leverage the Robertson Family or Chic-Fil-A have.

Matt | Dec 28, 2013

Though there is a lot that I agree with in this commentary, I must take notice of the liberal use of the words "free speech." As anyone who has come to the defense of Mr. Robertson and made this a "first amendment issue" such as Fox News, Sarah Palin and others...where were they, and this writer, when students peacefully protesting were pepper-sprayed by a cop? Where were they when Martin Bashir was force to resign from MSNBC for inappropriate comments? Where were they when Alec Baldwin was fired and his show cancelled? Where are they when people use their use of free speech to say they want to say "Happy Holidays" and not "Merry Christmas" and then have the wrath of who-knows-what come down on them for a "war on Christmas?" Are these not all "free speech" first amendment issues? But what I see by this writer and others is that they choose to use the "FA" Card when it suits their argument or when they feel they can relate to the person who they fear is being persecuted while walking by, head held high, when someone they don't agree with has the same, or worse, happen to them. I'm all for fighting for the First Amendment if it, in fact, covers EVERYONE. But when I see it pulled out and thrown around only when it suits someone's argument, I call bullcrap on that.

Mike | Dec 29, 2013

I would like to add something on the subject of race.

A part of Phil's statement on the happiness of African-Americans under Jim Crow seems always to be left out. He identified with them, stating that he was there with them because he was 'white trash'. I think that he was merely voicing unhappiness with how much people complain.

I'm from Canada, so I can't speak to the racial situation in the US, but here we have what seems to be a similar situation with the Native Americans. Were injustices done? Definitely. Great injustices have been done to me in the past, which permanently, extensively, negatively affected me. There comes a point where you have to just make do because you aren't going to be able to completely right those wrongs. Injustices were done to African-Americans, and Native Americans, but there will soon be none alive who remember them, just like I will soon be the only one who remembers what was done to me.

Anyway, I may be taking something from his words that he didn't intend, but I think that having that part of his statement in mind helps contextualize it.

Kathy Arnold Young | Dec 30, 2013

I always like reading what you have to say Joe, Although I love Phil Robertson's testimony and his straight forward style he didn't do us any good by stirring up strife with his tasteless comments about gays. As well in our society we forget that along with some moral decline there is also progress. Sifting through it and being balanced takes understanding.

Randall Slack | Jan 2, 2014

I agree with Joe completely. Like it or not, free speech is a right under the Constitution of the United States. I may not agree with someone who disagrees with my view. But I will defend their right to disagree. It is only in a free society that people can disagree. And that freedom must be defended, or it will be lost. Take away anyone's right to disagree and you've taken away everyone's right to disagree. Remember that when you demand that those who disagree with you be silenced. You'll be next.

Add Comment