Quite a brouhaha erupted this week over homophobic comments made by Phil Robertson, head of the family that stars on A&E’s hit reality show “Duck Dynasty.” Now several politicians looking to court Religious Right voters are diving into the fray – in support of Robertson’s “religious liberty.”
In case you don’t watch “Duck Dynasty,” it’s about a family in rural Louisiana that owns a thriving duck call business. The reality series showcases the family’s antics, which usually revolve around hunting, fishing and other daily amusements. The Robertsons proudly identify as “rednecks,” and each show includes a sprinkling of down-home charm – as well as a little religion. Every week the program ends with the entire family gathered around the dinner table as Robertson leads them in prayer.
Life was good for the Robertsons, who have one of the most popular reality shows in television history. But that success took a serious hit when Robertson shot from the hip in a recent interview with GQ magazine, saying that homosexuality is basically the root of all sins.
When asked “What, in your mind, is sinful?” Robertson responded:
“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.”
The rest of his thoughts are a little graphic, and you can read them elsewhere.
For those comments, Robertson was suspended indefinitely from “Duck Dynasty.”
Almost immediately, political allies of the Religious Right jumped to Robertson’s defense. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is among the leading GOP presidential candidates for 2016, said in a statement, “The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a hero to the Tea Party and another 2016 contender, also came out in support of Robertson.
“If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson,” Cruz said on Facebook.
Even Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who often makes controversial statements herself, said on her Facebook page: “those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”
These comments are indicative of two things. First, the Religious Right and its allies don’t understand the First Amendment. Robertson has the right to say what he said. But freedom of speech doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want whenever you want without consequences. Robertson spoke his mind; A&E has the right to suspend him as a result.
Second, this incident shows the ongoing power of the Religious Right as a voting bloc. Cruz and Jindal each have a reasonable chance at being presidential nominees in 2016, and they clearly both think evangelical voters will be necessary for them to win in Republican primaries. They’re right.
Unfortunately Robertson has made similar comments in the past, but for whatever reason they garnered little attention then. (See this sermon from 2010). Religion News Service reported that Robertson, 67, is an elder at Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La. That church is part of the Churches of Christ, which takes the position that “God remains consistent in His condemnation of homosexuality as He does for all other sins.” Given that viewpoint, and Robertson’s clearly unreserved nature, in hindsight it was only a matter of time before “Duck Dynasty” ended up in hot water.
Lost in the current kerfuffle, however, are Robertson’s comments about race. He suggested in the GQ interview that black people didn’t mind living in the South under Jim Crow.
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person,” Robertson said. “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.”
Those comments are every bit as deplorable as what Robertson said about homosexuality but have been overlooked. Do Jindal, Cruz and Palin agree with them?
Americans have tremendous freedoms in this country, but that knife cuts both ways. When you say something offensive, people have the right to respond, and you may be held accountable for what you say. If Americans didn’t have the right to push back against controversial speech, that would be tyranny.
The Religious Right, of course, doesn’t mind tyranny so much. Its activists are always trying to tell the entire country how to think and act. Maybe that’s why they’re so upset with the backlash against Robertson. It’s just another reminder that their viewpoint isn’t the only one, and that those who oppose their hateful dogma are prepared (and free) to fight back.