When I first started hearing about a show called Duck Dynasty, and then realized how popular it had become, I was very surprised. Outspoken Christians from the Deep South known for their “folksiness” have the most-watched reality show on cable TV? Their pictures are emblazoned on everything from mugs and calendars to boxer shorts and Chia pets? How interesting, I thought, that people so embrace a family that embodies so much of what they often deride as “those conservative Christians.”
And then it all fell apart, as anyone familiar with the traditional views the family holds and the media climate we live in might have guessed it would. Yesterday GQ published a profile of the Robertson family in which the family patriarch, Phil Robertson, made some comments that got him in trouble. And now I get it. It wasn’t until yesterday that, as TIME magazine put it, the subtext became text.
Now the world knows what, exactly, Phil Robertson thinks about homosexuality and black people. And many people do not like it–including the network executives at A&E, who put him on indefinite hiatus from the show.
Now many Christians are taking to the internet to protest this restriction of free speech. As a refresher, here is what the First Amendment actually says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That’s it. As Rachel Held Evans so aptly reminded me yesterday:
Dear Internet: Freedom of speech protects us from being censored by the government, not from the consequences of what we say.
— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) December 19, 2013
As far as I can tell, Congress made no laws yesterday. Phil Robertson was not thrown in jail for his words. He was not tortured for them. The FCC has never censored his professions of faith on the show. And if he feels his rights have been violated, he has every right to try to sue A&E for discrimination. But A&E is a business. They depend on ad revenue generated by the popularity of their TV shows. Companies generally don’t want their ads to run alongside a show they find offensive. (Would a Christian company air an ad during South Park?) He absolutely has a right to say exactly what he thinks about gay people and black people. And he also has a right to bear the consequences of his words.
I pray that those who rush to defend Phil Robertson’s words haven’t actually read them.
Here is what he thinks about gay people:
It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.
And on growing up in the pre-Civil-Rights era South:
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.
This is a man who told GQ he voted for Romney in 2012 because, “If I’m lost at three o’clock in a major metropolitan area…I ask myself: Where would I rather be trying to walk with my wife and children? One of the guys who’s running for president is out of Chicago, Illinois, and the other one is from Salt Lake City, Utah. [Editor’s note: Romney is from Boston, not Salt Lake City.] Where would I rather be turned around at three o’clock in the morning? I opted for Salt Lake City. I think it would be safer.” This is the kind of speech that made him famous, and it’s exactly what people want from him.
So, not knowing him and not having seen the show, I don’t much care what Phil Robertson thinks about gay people, or black people. I do care what other Christians, especially people I know and love, say about his words, and more importantly, how they use his example to talk about God and what it means to be a faithful Christian.
This is not about persecuting Christians. This is the number one cable reality TV show, in a schedule overstuffed with Real Housewives and Pawn Stars and I know not what else. People are okay with Christians, even Christians who hold these views. Pope Francis just got named Person of the Year not just by Time magazine but also by The Advocate, an LGBTQ magazine. It’s the way Robertson communicated those views that got him removed from his own show. There are ways to respect the dignity of others while holding different opinions about what is and is not sin. Telling gay men they are illogical because they just can’t see the beauty of a woman’s vagina is not one of them. Telling black people they were happier before they won their Civil Rights is not one of them.
Would Robertson have faced the same backlash if he had communicated his opinions in a more respectful way? Maybe.We can never know, though, because he didn’t. His outspoken, “folksy” charm is part of his brand, and when that brand no longer sells, A&E has every right to put an end to it.
But there’s a bigger problem: we’re so focused on protesting the perceived infringements on our right to express our beliefs that we make the gospel all about us. We forget that there are people on the other side, people who read these words and are hurt by them, not because they are being convicted by their sin but because they see people who claim to love Jesus but seem much more concerned about their right to say whatever they want without any concern of how these words demonstrate Jesus’ love and extend it to others.
To use the “yuck factor” in the way Robertson has is offensive to gay people. Full stop. And it should be offensive to us. It does not in any way embody the gospel. I have spent hours and hours hearing gay friends describe years of agony spent fervently praying God would make them straight and receiving no such relief. These kinds of comments belittle their struggles, their lives, their realities. This is not what it means to love a person, as Christ loves them. It makes it almost impossible for any other message we might have to be taken seriously.
And Christians seem to have completely buried, or even ignored, what Robertson said about black people, and how happy he feels they were when they spent their days working the cotton fields for their white bosses without legal equality. This, too, is counter to the gospel we preach. This one should be a no-brainer. But we have made homosexuality Public Enemy Number One–when the interviewer asked Robertson the question “What do you think is sin?” his first response was to single out homosexuality–to the point that the only thing that seems to matter anymore is the right to voice this opinion, as loudly and as often as possible. And in exercising the right to voice it, we lose sight of everything but the sound of our own voices. We forget there are people who are hearing these words, people who are looking for Jesus and, I fear, not finding Him. Jesus did not walk around telling anyone who would listen that they were sinning. He loved sinners, and ate with them, and only after this did he tell them to “go and sin no more.”
Love doesn’t mean not having an opinion, and it doesn’t mean ignoring sin. But it does mean thinking, acting, and speaking with the interests of others before our own. So please, before you rush to defend Phil Robertson or protest the persecution of Christians in America, think about how your words communicate Jesus’ love to those who are listening. Because people are listening, and how someone they know and love responds to their pain is much more important to them than the words of a long-bearded, free-speaking Louisiana Bayou millionaire.