I have to say I’m befuddled by the firing of Phil Robertson, he of the amazing paterfamilias beard on Duck Dynasty (which I mainly see via The Soup). A&E has a reality show that depends on the hoariest stereotypes – and yet features hilariously captivating human beings – located in the deep South. It’s a show riddled with humor and charm and redneck silliness. The point of it, so far as I can tell, is a kind of celebration of a culture where duck hunting is the primary religion, but where fundamentalist Christianity is also completely pervasive. (Too pervasive for the producers, apparently, because they edited out the saying of grace to make it non-denominational and actually edited in fake beeps to make it seem like the bearded clan swore a lot, even though they don’t.)
Now I seriously don’t know what A&E were expecting when the patriarch Phil Robertson was interviewed by GQ. But surely the same set of expectations that one might have of an ostensibly liberal host of a political show would not be extended to someone whose political incorrectness was the whole point of his stardom. He’s a reality show character, for Pete’s sake. Not an A&E spokesman. So here’s what he said – which has now led to his indefinite suspension (but he’ll be in the fourth season, apparently, which has already wrapped):
“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong … Sin becomes fine. 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 … “
This is a fascinating glimpse into the fundamentalist mind. You’ll notice that, for the fundamentalist, all sin – when it comes down to it – starts with sex. This sexual obsession, as the Pope has rightly diagnosed it, is a mark of neurotic fundamentalism in Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity. And if all sin is rooted in sex, then the homosexual becomes the most depraved and evil individual in the cosmos. So you get this classic statement about sin: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there.”
This emphasis is absolutely not orthodox Christianity. There is nothing primary about sexual sin as such in Christian doctrine. It sure can be powerfully sinful – but it’s not where sin starts. And to posit gay people as the true source of all moral corruption is to use eliminationist rhetoric and demonizing logic to soften up a small minority of people for exclusion, marginalization and, at some point, violence.
If you think I’m hyperventilating, ask yourself what the response would be if in talking about sin, Phil Robertson had said, “Start with Jewish behavior …” The argument would be totally recognizable, once very widespread, and deeply disturbing. What we’re seeing here – and it’s very much worth debating – is how fundamentalist religion seizes on recognizable, immoral minorities to shore up its own sense of righteousness. You can gussy it up – but it’s right there in front of our nose.
Then Robertson says something that tells us nothing except he has never had an honest conversation with a gay person about what it is to be gay.
He simply assumes that all men must be heterosexual, and that making themselves have sex with another man must be so horrifying it mystifies him:
“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.”
No, it isn’t logical if it were a choice for a straight guy. But it isn’t. All we’re seeing here is the effect of cultural isolation. The only thing I find objectionable about it – and it is objectionable – is the reduction of gay people and our relationships to sex acts. Mr Robertson would not be happy – indeed, rightly be extremely offended – if I reduced his entire family life and marriage to sex with a vagina.
But look: I come back to what I said at the beginning. Robertson is a character in a reality show. He’s not a spokesman for A&E any more than some soul-sucking social x-ray from the Real Housewives series is a spokeswoman for Bravo. Is he being fired for being out of character? Nah. He’s being fired for staying in character – a character A&E have nurtured and promoted and benefited from. Turning around and demanding a Duck Dynasty star suddenly become the equivalent of a Rachel Maddow guest is preposterous and unfair.
What Phil Robertson has given A&E is a dose of redneck reality. Why on earth would they fire him for giving some more?
(Photo: Phil Robertson of ‘Duck Dynasty’ as a guest on ‘Good Morning America,’ 5/7/13, airing on the ABC Television Network. By Fred Lee/ABC via Getty Images.)