When A&E suspended Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the hit reality show Duck Dynasty, following his criticism of homosexual conduct in a magazine interview, the ensuing firestorm forced the cable television channel to conduct a reality check.
For starters, an online petition that demanded Robertson’s reinstatement quickly drew more than 200,000 signers. Apparently, many Americans shared his "unacceptable" beliefs, or at least defended his right to express them. Even more problematic was the fact that Robertson’s family had vowed not to return to the top-rated show without him, dooming the future of Duck Dynasty.
A&E backed down. As one New York Times article put it: "The indefinite suspension of Phil Robertson … became definite Friday — at zero episodes. The network announced he would not be suspended after all."
Advocates of conscience rights and free speech have applauded the network’s reversal, though some expressed regret for Robertson’s crude language in passages of the Gentleman’s Quarterly interview. Further, the outcome was viewed as a striking defeat for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a leading homosexual-rights group that had described Robertson’s comments as "some of the vilest and most extreme statements uttered against LGBT people in a mainstream publication" and called for A&E to take action. Among other comments quoted in the GQ article, the patriarch asserted that homosexual activity was a "sin," distasteful to most men and a sign of cultural decadence, along with nonmarital heterosexual relationships and bestiality.
It is unlikely that the latest skirmish in the culture wars will mark a decisive turning point. After all, Phil Robertson’s celebrity status places him in a stronger position than ordinary Christians who have been attacked as bigots for refusing to equate same-sex "marriage" with a union between a man and a woman. And it’s not yet clear what lessons A&E executives and the entertainment industry have learned from the dustup.
Skeptics need only consider the very different outcome of another GLAAD campaign to stigmatize Christian sexual ethics. Last month, GLAAD succeeded in pressuring comedian Bob Newhart to cancel his scheduled appearance at a conference hosted by Legatus, an organization for Catholic business leaders who uphold Church teaching.
After GLAAD learned that Newhart would provide the keynote address at Legatus’ February 2014 "Summit," Jeremy Hooper, GLAAD’s special-projects coordinator, wrote Dec. 12 on his blog, "GLAAD is reaching out to Mr. Newhart’s representatives to let them know how, exactly, an appearance at this event will come across to LGBT people and allied voices. ... Mr. Newhart doesn’t want to go down that path. He can still express his Catholic faith in a way more consistent with the rest of American Catholics." Hooper was angry about Legatus’ opposition to "marriage equality," and he cited passages in past newsletters published by the Catholic organization that described same-sex attraction as a "disorder." Within a week, Newhart had canceled his appearance.
GLAAD’s case against Legatus is striking because it points to another front in the campaign for homosexual rights, with activists seeking to intervene in the internal affairs of private faith-based organizations.
"We have gone from the days when the plea from some activists was ‘All we want is to live our lives in peace’ to ‘You shall not have the right to present your teaching,’" stated Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York in a November 2013 op-ed. He made that observation after a Catholic high school was pressured to cancel a talk for parents by a priest from Courage, an international Catholic apostolate that helps persons with same-sex attraction abide by Church teaching.
Activists who seek to suppress and stigmatize Christian teaching on marriage and sexual relations often present their target as an outlier whose personal "opinions" transgress the more compassionate position of Scripture or Pope Francis or the U.S. bishops or even public opinion polls. This strategy is designed to isolate and thus justify coercion — while reassuring co-religionists that their own rights are not threatened. The ploy didn’t work in Phil Robertson’s case, perhaps because Duck Dynasty provided evidence contradicting the allegations or at least offering a more nuanced portrait of the man.
There is a silver lining to the furor generated by Robertson’s suspension-reinstatement: Americans have received an unexpected civics lesson. They have learned that threats to conscience rights come in many forms. They come from laws and government edicts that force religious individuals and institutions to violate deeply held moral beliefs and also from unspoken but strictly enforced cultural norms that increasingly dismiss Christian moral teaching as extreme.
"Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate," Rick Warren, an evangelical Protestant pastor and the author of The Purpose Driven Life, has observed. Though his comment had nothing to do with Duck Dynasty headlines, it speaks to the need for stronger spiritual, moral and intellectual formation in U.S. society.
Last month, after the New Mexico Supreme Court and the federal court in Utah ruled in favor of same-sex "marriage," Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, the U.S. bishops’ point man on marriage, recalled these trenchant words of Blessed John Paul II during his visit to our shores: "Vast sectors of society are confused about what is right and what is wrong and are at the mercy of those with the power to ‘create’ opinion and impose it on others."
Culture is ultimately more powerful than politics. John Paul witnessed that truth in his homeland, where a nation reclaimed its Christian cultural roots in the face of an aggressive and alien ideology. Here, in the United States of America, we must challenge, engage and contribute to mainstream culture. The world hungers for Christ, who is not anti anything, but for the dignity of the human person made in God’s image.