Article Dec 20, 2013

What Phil Robertson got wrong … and right

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have no doubt heard by now about the Duck Dynasty dust-up. Yesterday, GQ magazine released an interview with one of the stars of the show, Phil Robertson, the “Duck Commander.” The interview was wide-ranging, but the bottom line is that Robertson revealed in no uncertain terms his views on sexual morality. He framed his remarks in terms of his Christian conviction with an explicit reference to 1 Corinthians 6:9, which identifies homosexuality as a sin.

As you can imagine, gay rights groups were immediately up in arms about Robertson’s remarks. A spokesman from GLAAD said the remarks were “vile and extreme” and out of step with what “true Christians believe.” He also called on Duck Dynasty’s sponsors to back away from the program.

The reaction from the A&E network was swift. Within hours of the release of the GQ article, they banned Robertson indefinitely from future episodes of the program saying,

We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty. His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely.

The Robertson family has since released a statement saying that they cannot imagine the show going forward without their “patriarch.”

After news broke that Robertson had been let go, the issue exploded online. Spilling into today, there has been non-stop coverage on the cable news channels. As is typical, the networks invite guests who are quickly shoehorned into Manichean oppositions and who are hardly allowed any opportunity for nuance.

But in this instance, we need some space for nuance. So let me tell you what I think Robertson got right and what he got wrong in his interview with GQ. First, what he got wrong:

1. Robertson’s remarks were unhelpfully graphic. His explicit and anatomically precise depiction of same-sex attraction is off-putting to say the very least. So much so that I would not even quote his words here. A winsome case for Christian conviction requires care and precision, not crudeness and obscenity. I take it as a good sign that the official statement from the Robertsons confesses that his manner of speaking was in fact “coarse.”

2. Related to this, Robertson seems not to understand the nature of same-sex attraction. As Wesley Hill has noted, same-sex attraction does not derive from a failure to concentrate on the body parts of the opposite sex. The attractions that gay people report are spontaneous and uninvited. They are not something that can be cured by a more active pornographic imagination. Christians would do well to note that this tack is not a model of pastoral sensitivity.

3. Robertson’s remarks raise real questions about his understanding of historic racism in the South. On a side bar, Robertson talked about his upbringing in rural Louisiana during the Jim Crow era,

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... 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.

I cannot gainsay what Robertson describes as his own experience. Maybe he was indeed so poor that he did not perceive the differences between his own impoverished state and that of the black people that he knew and grew up with. But if he means to generalize that black people by and large were just fine under the realities of Jim Crow, I think that is preposterous, and we should say so. I am more inclined, however, to think that the generous interpretations of Rod Dreher and Joe Carter are nearer the mark on this matter.

So while we need to acknowledge the things Robertson got wrong, we do not need to pretend that his dismissal from A&E had mainly to do with any of those three things. The A&E network does not have a track record of concern about remarks that are sexually explicit or pastorally insensitive. And I suspect that A&E would not have pulled the plug if this were merely a matter of his remarks about growing up in Louisiana. None of these by themselves caused the offense that has led to the current uproar.

A&E says that Robertson was released because of his “personal beliefs” which do not square with the network’s commitment to being “supporters and champions of the LGBT community.” That means that Robertson was released because of his expressed Christian conviction about the moral status of homosexuality. And this is the part that he got right. On this point, his views are merely a reflection of the entire 2,000-year consensus of the Christian church. To miss this is to miss the point of this controversy entirely, no matter what our quibbles are with the other things he said.

To be sure, Robertson’s manner of expression was unhelpfully crude and explicit. But that’s not why the secular left is on the warpath right now against Duck Dynasty. They are on the warpath because Robertson affirms what Christians have always believed about sexual morality—chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage. The Bible teaches that any transgression of those two norms is sin. That Christian conviction is what is on trial in the court of public opinion. It is that conviction that is now considered heretical by the spirit of the age—tantamount to bigotry and hate speech.

I have written elsewhere that the current furor will not end with Phil Robertson’s suspension. In spite of the large amounts of money that A&E is making from this program, this will not end until Duck Dynasty disappears from television. There will be a firestorm of controversy, but the demise of the Duck Dynasty program is the inevitable endgame. I hope I’m wrong.

What does this mean? It means that A&E is yet another sector of popular culture in which Christian views about sexual norms are not allowed. The cultural space for our views is shrinking rapidly, and there are people committed to shrinking that space until there’s no space left at all.