A new bad argument has emerged from the Phil Robertson controversy

December 26, 2013

phil_robertsonIn my sermon last Sunday I made reference to the controversy surrounding Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson. How could I not? I’ve never seen the show, but many people in my congregation watch it. I asked, “Did anything happen in the news last week?” and there was much laughter. I said:

Unless you were living under a rock, you heard that the A&E Network suspended Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan, for the interview he gave to GQ. While I wouldn’t have said it the way Phil said it—and even the family admitted that his comments were “unfiltered” and “coarse”—I strongly agree with the point he was making regarding marriage and intimacy. They reflect the doctrine of our United Methodist Church. I’ve blogged about this issue, and I’d be happy to talk with you if you have concerns. But when I was ordained a few years ago, I stood up and told the bishop, the annual conference, and God that I agreed with the doctrines of our church. And I wasn’t kidding.

My point is, I don’t believe that Phil Robertson has been treated fairly… [And then I found a way to tie it into the scripture I was preaching.]

While I was saying this, I posted this note onscreen: “United Methodist doctrine on this subject agrees with most of the universal church, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, as well as evangelicals and Pentecostals.”

If you were anywhere around social media last week, I’d forgive you for being surprised that Phil Robertson’s opinion regarding homosexuality doesn’t represent some redneck fringe, but is in keeping with the teaching of about 95 percent of the universal church. (Let’s remember what a tiny percentage of global Christendom that mainline Protestants now represent.) Among my social media “friends” and followers who are fellow clergy, no one who commented on the topic voiced support for Robertson. How is that possible?

One fellow pastor even characterized Robertson’s comments as “vile—literally vile… They were nearly pornographic.”

Really? Robertson even used the correct anatomical names! Regardless, I wish I didn’t know that if he thought Robertson’s words were nearly pornographic, he doesn’t know what pornography is! Good for him, I guess.

The best commentary I read about the controversy came from this sympathetic piece in The Atlantic:

Or maybe they want to avoid an uncomfortable truth: that Robertson wasn’t expressing “his personal views,” but principles that are intrinsic to his religion.  You see, Robertson didn’t simply attack and disparage the sexual preferences of a minority… No, Robertson’s opinion—couched as it was in scriptural references that suggest he not only owns a Bible, but also reads it—reflects the teaching and practice of historic Christianity and, by extension, the opinion of a sizable portion of the American public. Indeed, according to a June 2013 Pew Research Center survey, roughly half (45 percent) of Americans polled said they believe homosexual actions are a “sin.”

In an apparent effort to convince this demographic that homosexual actions are not sinful, GLAAD spokesperson Wilson Cruz said Robertson’s views are not Christian. The strategy here seems to be “divide and conquer”—separate Robertson from his religion and let public opinion do the rest. The theologians at GLAAD will have to do better, because what Robertson said is not inconsistent with a Christianity that sees the Bible as a source of Divine authority and inspiration—and Louisiana gun-toting evangelicals are not the only ones who embrace that Christianity. On the contrary, Cruz’s statement appears naive when one considers that Pope Francis, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013, has previously called gay marriage the work of the devil and “a total rejection of God’s law engraved on our hearts.” Judging by Thursday’s precedent, A&E would fire the pope. And if his public statements on the subject are to be believed, the President of the United States would also receive a pink slip prior to his change of heart in May of last year…

One difference is that Dan Cathy, like Phil Robertson, is from the South. I discern an anti-southern bias—these people are from the South, so they must be bigots. Please!

Meanwhile, I sense that another bad argument is catching on among my colleagues who support changing church doctrine on this issue. At least a few of them linked to or “liked” this blog post, in which the blogger, a United Methodist youth pastor, said that he no longer has patience for theological arguments on the topic of homosexuality:

The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter whether or not you think homosexuality is a sin. Let me say that again. It does not matter if you think homosexuality is a sin, or if you think it is simply another expression of human love. It doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter? Because people are dying. Kids are literally killing themselves because they are so tired of being rejected and dehumanized that they feel their only option left is to end their life. As a Youth Pastor, this makes me physically ill. And as a human, it should make you feel the same way. So, I’m through with the debate.

9 Responses to “A new bad argument has emerged from the Phil Robertson controversy”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Totally agree with all of this. Further, even aside from the religious issues, we have a freedom of speech concern. People in America have a right to express views that others may find “offensve.” That is part of the “marketplace of ideas” that the founders and authors of the First Amendment touted. It seems that the only statements which many in our society consider to be outside of this protection are those saying homosexuality is a sin. Political correctness run amuck!

    • brentwhite Says:

      I like what the “Atlantic” writer said: A&E would have to fire the pope while they’re at it.

    • Morbert Says:

      I don’t think freedom of speech is a major concern in this case. What happened to Robertson was a consequence of the “marketplace of ideas” in a very literal sense. He was fired because his employers thought he would lose them money by voicing his ideas on homosexuality, as America is increasingly sympathetic to homosexual rights, and Robertson was being paid to get people to watch him.

      I don’t believe Robertson deserved to be “punished” for speaking his mind, but I think A&E are within their rights to let people go if they feel those people act in a way that is contrary to their standards.

      Do you, for example, believe the firing of senior pastor Ryan Bell by the Adventist Church (he voiced support for gay marriage) was a violation of the first amendment?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Morbert, you make a fair point. Actually, the First Amendment is not directly controlling because it limits governmental controls as opposed to private employers (although its restraints may be implemented in part as to employers undert Title VII, I believe). I maintain my point, however, that the gist of what we want protected, which gave rise to the First Amendment, is that people have a right to “speak their minds.”

        Now, as to a comparison between Robertson and Bell (I don’t know anything about the Bell situation, but will accept your representation for purposes of argument), in Bell’s case he was employed specifically to administer and direct a church. Obviously if he was taking positions directly contrary to that which he was employed to teach and enforce, then clearly his employer would have a right to fire him for doing so. With Robertson, A&E did not “hire” Robertson to take any particular position–they liked the story line of his family and company and decided to make a reality show about that. What they have done now is decide that they don’t like the “fallout” from his taking a private position (not on the show) in an interview because they don ‘t find his position to be “politically correct.” To go with your illustration, if Bell was on some reality show which did not have anything to do with his position on “gay rights” or the contrary thereof, and he voiced a “gay rights” position, then I think it would be problematic for the show to take him off the air on that basis alone. Does that answer your question?

      • Morbert Says:

        I suppose the trouble is that, while Robertson was not hired to espouse or teach any particular viewpoint, he was hired to pull in ratings. Publicly voicing a polarising and controversial opinion would affect ratings, whether or not it should.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Morbert, one very cynical reading of this situation that I’ve read is that A&E “put the fix in”: they arranged the interview (through a friend of a friend of a friend) for the express purpose of eliciting the controversy. The interviewer would push Phil on these questions knowing in advance how he would respond—everyone knew how he would respond. Everyone knew how GLAAD would respond, etc.

        The public outrage would create overwhelming sympathy for the Robertsons even among people (like me) who’ve never seen the show. Ratings will go through the roof. Then when the network reverses course and brings Phil back, which of course they will, the show will be bigger than ever.

        In other words, A&E is following the “New Coke” strategy.

        I’m skeptical because I don’t think business execs are that smart (even in the case of New Coke). But it’s an intriguing thought.

  2. shanyns Says:

    The very thing that seems to be missed in almost all commentary about what Phil said either from the free speech folks or from the faith corners is that he also stated that he was not passing judgement and that God commanded us to love one another as the greatest commandment. If you read Phil’s books you know he dislikes and distrusts urbanites, nerds, yuppies, vegetarians and other social trends. The trends, NOT the people. The way they change or move people, but not the people. When you see the episode where Willie buys them a portrait, their interaction with the photographer is fair, honest and loving. The thing to remember about rednecks and country folk is you don’t ask them what they think if you don’t really want to know! They will tell you. They won’t make it pretty. But if they are people of strong faith they will come back to ‘Love One Another;. At least the ones I know do.


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