It was sort of inevitable really. Any successful Christian who happens to gain the public’s fancy will eventually face the question. For political candidates it’s a given. For business owners like those of Chik-fil-A and Hobby-Lobby it seems less relevant, but the media eventually finds a way to exploit it as though it were a hidden weakness. For celebrities, it can often be the death of careers. Which is why I am honestly surprised it took so long for the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty to be faced with the inevitable question of their stance on homosexuality. Their faith has been a large part of their public persona from the very beginning. They close each episode with family gathered in prayer, they successfully and famously battled their network over including their faith so prominently in the show, and contributed touching personal testimonies to the I Am Second video campaign. Unlike most reality TV, the Robertsons seem real and raw. You sense they are hiding nothing and are genuine down to earth people Their television show doesn’t seem designed for the purpose of furthering their own money or fame as they already have more than they can use. They truly seem to be a family that is just working and enjoying life together.
It is due to this sincerity that they have captured the hearts of so many. Their television show has become one of the highest rated on TV, and because of them, millions of people have seen a family bound together by work and faith living their lives out as a shining example and witness. Just by living they presented a simple and wonderful example of the power of the gospel. I must confess I despise most reality TV and see it as nothing more than a competition between epicureans vying for their spot in our new aristocracy, but I love Duck Dynasty and the Robertsons. They remind my much of my own distant family, most of whom are from the mountains of North Carolina. I’m one generation removed from having a beard and making moonshine in my own backyard. I probably would be there now if my grandfather hadn’t had a conversion story similar to that of Phil Robertsons’.
All of which is why when I first read Phil’s interview in GQ I was angry, but not for the same reasons as most of my conservative colleagues. I was angry at Phil. Here is a Christian who is loved by the nation, has a platform to speak to 14 million people every week, has fostered a genuinely positive image of Christianity, and he had to compare a vagina to an anus to make his point about homosexuality? Really Phil?
And of course, most of the Robertsons defenders are just as nonsensical. There has been the obligatory offer from Glen Beck to join him at the isle of misfits, and the usual cries for respecting freedom of speech. The conservative right that has been the adamant defenders of large corporations now seems appalled to discover that large powerful corporations are not bound to respect freedom of speech. The first amendment only restricts the actions of the government and you may as well appeal to the Code of Hammurabi before you cite your rights to A&E. The fact that Phil Robertson was fired in the name of toleration is amusing, but at least A&E recognized they are caught in a clash of cosmological orders that demands you choose a side.
Many have rhetorically asked what A&E expected from rural Southern Christians who they made famous for being rural Southern Christians, and I suppose, I shouldn’t be surprised either. Nevertheless, after reading the interview and the inevitable backlash, I couldn’t help but think of the “affirm and avoid” approach to orthodox teaching on homosexuality taken by such prominent Evangelicals like Tim Keller, and the “gracious to a fault” approach taken by Pope Francis, both of which I’ve been skeptical of, but wonder now if perhaps those approaches have some merit after all.
Most of the concerns involving the recent remarks of Pope Francis don’t arise because his statements were doctrinally incorrect. In fact, he has said nothing out of line with the teaching of the Church. The bulk of the concern from conservative Catholics and others is the worry that such remarks from a figure as authoritative as the Pope will undermine the Church’s stance on traditional teachings. The Robertsons, who have no such authority, should have made Pope Francis their model for discussing the issue. It wouldn’t be a compromise of their beliefs or their raw genuine nature to avoid using the words anus and vagina when discussing the most controversial issue of our time. (There are also serious questions about the theological correctness of Phil’s statements.)
The simple fact is that all of this could have been avoided. Both Pope Francis and the Robertsons have been lauded for their ability to stand in the public eye and remain absolutely genuine and raw. For the authoritative leader of the Church this may not always be an asset, as the church needs both its saints and its soldiers. But the Robertsons could have done so much for the Kingdom of God just by living out their witness. All the world needed to see from them was their prayers, their testimony, their love of God and each other, and they could have made all the difference. Later in the interview Phil said that he “never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”
Those remarks sound an awful lot like Pope Francis’ famous “who am I to judge?”, and if that had been the end of it, the story would have passed by with barely a whimper. The Robertsons would still be loved, and the truth would still have been heard.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t lament living in a culture where a Christian may be fired for holding to the teaching of his faith. Nor am I suggesting that the Robertsons should tone down their faith or views on relevant issues. If Phil’s testimony in I Am Second didn’t bring tears to your eyes I don’t know what will. I still pray they are allowed to continue being such a powerful witness in a country that needs desperately needs an example of the Christian life. However, all I suggest is that if you find yourself with a strong personal witness and are able to relate and converse with people, consider the example of Pope Francis. He may be on to something after all.
And for the love of all that is good and holy, please recognize that crassness has no place in our public discourse.