It’s Christmas and a strange white-bearded fellow uttering quack-quack-quack has streaked across the continent, dumping a large sack of something on America’s hearth.
Phil Robertson — millionaire star of “Duck Dynasty” — seems an unlikely antagonist as 2013 wraps up. As all sentient beings know by now, he was suspended from the wildly popular A&E program for comments he made about gays during a recent GQ interview.
Suddenly our nation is consumed anew with impassioned debate about nearly every foundational principle — freedom of speech, religious freedom, civil rights and same-sex marriage.
The last is relatively uncontroversial in some states and most urban areas, but not in rural America where hunters convene — or among fundamentalist Christians, for whom biblical literalism is a virtue — and certainly not among millions of “Duck Dynasty” fans. Needless to say, these three groups overlap considerably.
Robertson isn’t just a megastar in waterfowl world, he is the composite character so loathed by liberals and certain elites who would nigh perish at the thought of close contact with his sort — a white, fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, duck-killing yahoo who somehow missed the civil rights movement, not to mention the New England Enlightenment.
Distilled, Robertson said two things in particular that provoked protests outside the bayou. One, that homosexual acts are sins, which is hardly news among recipients of the Gospel (hate the sin, love the sinner). Two, he said that African Americans he worked with during the Jim Crow era were just fine. “They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues,” he said.
Except, of course, many blacks were singing the blues and had been since about the 19th century when plantation slaves invented the genre while toiling in the Mississippi Delta not far from Robertson’s haunts.
Robertson’s words released an onslaught of fire and brimstone not seen since God unleashed his fury on Sodom. Speaking of which, it is tempting to note that God was rather selective in his outrage back then. Furious with homosexuals, he seemed to have no problem with Lot, whom he saved, when Lot offered his virgin daughters to townsmen who were demanding to “know” the angels hanging with Lot that God had sent to destroy Sodom.
Similarly, sort of, Robertson’s fans didn’t seem to care much about the vile, X-rated imagery he used to make his point to GQ concerning the relative merits of human apertures for sexual gratification. Granted, GQ is read mostly by old teenagers and young adults, but is this really the fellow Christians want instructing America’s camouflaged kiddos?
Robertson’s blunt talk caused a stir not because he was delivering tablets from the burning bush but because he was clearly speaking outside his wheelhouse to the detriment of people whose equal rights — even their very lives — are endangered by such talk. Robertson may “love the sinner,” but you sure can’t tell.
Executives at A&E clearly were banking on hicks acting like hicks, not expressing what they actually think. But then, what did they expect from a Louisiana duck-call whittlin’, part-time preacher, for Pete’s sake?
“Aw, shucks, the more love in the world the better is what I always say” ?
To the greater point, the fact that a healthy, if dwindling, percentage of the country feels helplessly opposed to redefining marriage reveals an existential divide that won’t easily be bridged. Robertson didn’t create it; he exposed it.
He also helped illuminate our persistent confusion about gay rights. South Carolina’s largest newspaper, the State, recently featured two stories back to back — one dealing with “Duck Dynasty” fans protesting Robertson’s indefinite hiatus, the other about Methodists defrocking Frank Schaefer for performing his gay son’s marriage.
One is damned for being anti-gay marriage and the other for being pro — both in the name of the same deity, presumably. So which is it? The Christian, as well as the constitutional, way seems to me the latter. But fundamentalism, regardless of religion, finds refuge in the toxic swamp of moral certitude.
In other near-certainties, Robertson reportedly will be back on the show when it returns in January. With shelves emptied of “Duck Dynasty” paraphernalia by loyal consumers, and A&E facing boycott threats, there’s too much money at stake.
Profit, not equal rights or freedom of religion or any of the other high-minded principles we seize to bolster our selective outrage, is the real coin of the realm. And, as if you didn’t know, it quacks like a duck.