Duck Dynasty and the Power of Speech

Good grief. What a week.

While I'm nearing the end of my Advent project, I'm afraid a pressing issue necessitates that I put the series on hold for a day to address something which has so captured the public attention.

I'm talking, of course, about the scandal surrounding Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, who was quoted in GQ magazine making controversial claims about homosexuality (and race, lest we forget).

There are several troubling issues at play here which I feel warrant addressing. One is this bizarre discussion surrounding "rights" and "freedoms" which has popped up since the scandal arose. Some claim Robertson ought not be punished for exercising his freedom of speech, for voicing his personal, religiously-founded beliefs and opinions.

I have no qualm here. From a democratic, political standpoint, Robertson certainly had the right to say what he did. No one is arguing he had no right to make disparaging comments against gays. We do, after all, live in America, where even the most despicable opinions are protected under the umbrella of free speech. He will not be arrested for what he said.

Still, some argue he oughtn't have been disciplined in such a public way for his opinions. And this is where I disagree. Just like Robertson had the private right to speak ignorantly, A&E, as a corporate body, possesses the right to distance itself from his controversial speech. No one has the right to a TV show. Alec Baldwin, for instance, was also recently fired (from MSNBC no less!) for using derogatory, anti-gay language.

Further, anyone, in any job could face similar consequences for making public remarks like these. Even I, as an employee at a church, know I'm accountable to what I say publicly, and try to behave accordingly. This is not a rights issue, nor a freedom of speech issue. It is an issue of personal responsibility and the consequences associated with making inappropriate comments in the public sphere.

Additionally, and going along with the "rights" conversation, I personally take issue with those who have justified Robertson's remarks for their "Christian" inspiration. In fact, to all those who laud Robertson for his defense of "Biblical" principles, I urge you to take a closer look at what he actually said. He wasn't just talking about homosexuality in terms of abstract theology, or even the spiritual or political implications of gay marriage, he was using graphic examples in order to induce a yuck factor, to paint homosexuality as disgusting (not unlike another controversial Christian figure in recent history). He also lumped homosexual sin in with others like bestiality and terrorism (terrorism!).

He also astoundingly painted a revisionist picture of a pre-civil-rights-era South in which blacks were perfectly content with the status quo and racism was not a major issue. That alone, independent of any other remarks, warrants reprimand.

It amazes me how often I hear American Christians cite legal rights as justification for certain behaviors. It's as if they believe American law to be as divinely inspired as the Word of God. The logic seems to follow that so long as one is legally permitted to behave a certain way, it is a perfectly moral way to behave. For a Christian to be so insistent upon his or her own rights, however, does not gel particularly well with the Apostle Paul's admonition in 1 Corinthians chapter 8 that Christians be willing to surrender and lay down their rights out of love for others. Even if we have the right to say what we want, to do so without concern for the thoughts and feelings of others is patently un-Christian.

In siding with Robertson we offer tacit (or not so tacit) endorsement of his bigotry, and that's not what Christians need to be doing right now. Not when the Westboro Baptist Church is one of the most public faces of Christianity in this country. Not when Uganda just passed legislation outlawing homosexuality. At a time like this we Christians must be uncompromising in our commitment to loving without judgment.

I became a Christian because in the church I encountered a community of embrace unlike anything else I'd ever experienced, and since then I have always believed the Christian story to be the most loving story available. It has consequently been a source of extreme discomfort for me to see the church behave the way it has toward our gay brothers and sisters. We are failing them, in God's name no less, and there is no excuse. It is one thing that we might be on the wrong side of history, but it would be inexcusable for us to wind up on the wrong side of love and compassion. So instead of siding with the bully because he belongs to our tribe, let us side with the bullied. Let us reach out with a heart of reconciliation. Let us not erect arbitrary "us versus them" boundaries, because we are all alike in our common need for the grace of God.

I conclude with the concession that Phil Robertson may well be a delightful, compassionate person. I don't claim to know otherwise. He may just be the product of a different time and a different culture. His interviews even let on that he's generally a nice guy who holds no vehement grudge against gays. Still, that is no reason to condone his statements, when what he said hurt a lot of people. As Christians we have to be cognizant of that, because our job is to be light and salt in the world and to let God be judge.

The Scriptures remind us time and again to watch what we say lest we make fools of ourselves. I believe the Duck Dynasty star may be learning this lesson now, and my prayers are with him, but no more so than they are with those who are regularly compared to terrorists and animal-lovers for feelings they seldom if ever choose. They have my prayers because they are mistreated, and God is with the mistreated. I know that much. There is much I don't know, but I know that much. 

"Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity."

Proverbs 21:23


  1. Thanks for taking this assignment on. You said exactly what I wanted to say, so now I don't have to write it up. Personally, I felt like his revisionist history of the Civil Rights Era showed more ignorance than the gay remarks, which were merely middle-schoolish. Should we be surprised, though? You put people on television without strong (or much) educational background, and then they say dumb stuff. OUTLANDISH! A&E had to know this was coming.


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