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.