Of the half-dozen articles I perused this morning, the most common quote, almost always isolated, is a paragraph right in the middle of the interview. Drew Magary, the GQ correspondent who interviewed Phil, has just been admirably relating Phil’s commentary on America’s moral decline. Phil finishes by saying “Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,… Sin becomes fine.” Which prompts the question from Magary, “What, in your mind, is sinful?” Phil’s quoted response is the big story:
“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,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: ‘Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.’”
Taken out of context, in all of its backwoods simplicity, this quote is being used to imply that Phil is blaming all sin on homosexuality and equating it with bestiality, which is something more aggressively conservative Christians are known to do. But that just doesn’t seem to be what he is saying. He is just saying it is sinful. He isn’t saying that homosexuals are the cause of the downfall of Christian morality in America, or even connecting these two things in any way, though an unfortunately large number of conservative Christians would gladly do just that.
I don’t even want to defend his statement too strongly, because I don’t agree with the interpretation which is being publicized, or even the way I believe he meant it. It represents an interpretation of that passage that I disagree with as well as a broader ethical paradigm that seems problematic and inconsistent with a biblical worldview. But all of that is beside the point, because Phil Robertson was just saying what he believed. And I can’t really fault him for that, even if I would like to have a nice sit-down conversation about it with him.
Lest we be confused, this is not a free speech issue. Free speech is a right guaranteed by the constitution that our government cannot take away. That is totally irrelevant to what is happening here. One person said something, knowing full well it would be published (and probably knowing it would be interpreted and misinterpreted in the course of publication and even more so after publication). These statements resulted in his arrangement on a different platform, A&E’s Duck Dynasty,being indefinitely suspended so has to provide demonstrable distance between his beliefs and those of A&E which directly and indirectly provided him with that platform in GQ magazine. A&E is well within their rights to do this, and I really don’t see any reasonable debate on this point. But I can’t help but wonder, why?
Why did A&E feel they needed to distance themselves from Phil’s statements? I suppose the most obvious answer is that they knew that, while his statements would be very popular with red-state Christians, who are an enormous target audience for Duck Dynasty, they would be enormously problematic and offensive to another large and growing segment of the population, the LGBTQA community, of which I increasingly feel I am a member (since that acronym just keeps getting longer). That is almost certainly a large piece of this issue, but there is another significant influence behind this decision that has been bothering me for a while.
In current American culture, we have the clear perception that people can believe whatever they want, and we should more or less tolerate it. I tend to subscribe to this belief as well, which has probably been one of reasons I have moved toward the more “progressive” end of the social, political, and theological spectrums, though I still consider myself pretty conservative in each of those categories.
Growing up in a conservative family and in a conservative church, I was raised in skepticism of these ideas of tolerance. This skepticism wasn’t because we didn’t believe in tolerance, but it was because we understood ourselves as being tolerant. We didn’t knowingly persecute people who believed differently than we did. I rarely if ever heard my pastor preach on homosexuality or societal ills, and while some conversations I heard growing up would offend people who didn’t understand them, they did not espouse hateful ideas, nor did they predominantly come from hateful people.
So I was confused when I learned that conservatives were being accused of “intolerance.” I thought for sure that this must mean something other than what I understood it to mean. I was still very young at that time, but I remember some pastors and adults in conservative circles came to understand more quickly than I did. They critically made statements about how society is somehow willing to tolerate everything except intolerance. For a long while, I thought these statements were immature and oversimplifications of the truth. In fact, I still think that, but I also think that they convey a true and important idea.
Society readily accepts some beliefs, depending on what it is ready for at that time. If you bring an idea to the table that is brilliant, but too far ahead of its time, it won’t take. If you bring an idea that is associated with an old idea, or a problem recently solved, no one will think it matters. They might even fight you on it because it is seen as a dangerous step backward. So society can only ever move at the pace it is ready to move, and if something valuable gets left behind, it is gone for good.
As society has increasingly accepted homosexuality, those who do not accept it, that is, those who believe that it is wrong, are seen as backward, past-dwelling inhibitors to progress. The same thing can be seen in feminist and racial movements. Joss Whedon spoke at Make Equality Reality, and his speech is a prime example of characterizing oppositions to these movements as something which is behind us – something which is holding us back. I don’t say this to criticize those movements as, to varying degrees, I agree with and support each of these movements.
But each of these movements hold the banner of tolerance, and use it to secure the progressive moral highground. This is as it should be. Tolerance, properly understood, is an enormous and important demonstration of love for those who are hurting, or who have been rejected by others in society. And loving others is the second greatest commandment. This is why I think those adults and pastors got it wrong all those years ago when they were speaking critically of this progressive “tolerance.” Tolerance is laudable and should be praised whether it is preached by a conservative or a liberal. And that is also where progressives seem to get it wrong a lot. Case in point – Phil Robertson.
Because what did he really do? He stated what he believed. He believes that homosexuality is a sin. He believes that the proliferation and acceptance this sin is one observable symptom of a downward trend of morality in American culture. That is okay. Christians should quit getting in a huff about Ellen being the spokesperson for Target, and GLBTQA should quit being hateful toward Phil Robertson because he has an opinion. It is okay to have opinions, and it is okay to disagree. That simple but volatile disagreement shouldn’t be this big of a deal to people who are preaching tolerance. Phil Robertson said nothing bad about homosexuals or homosexuality. He didn’t propose we go round up people with earrings in their left ear, and burn them in the town square, and he didn’t even say anything about gay marriage, which is the absolute minimum I can think for him to have said to get this reaction.
So this is my problem. Against all odds, tolerance has had a formative influence on the way I think. But if homosexuals and feminists and atheists and every other progressive movement want to bear the banner of tolerance, let’s at least be true to that banner, and treat people’s opinions accordingly. If someone’s opinion isn’t causing harm – physical, emotional, or psychological – then let their opinion be their opinion.
For instance, in Joss Whedon’s aforementioned speech at Make Equality Reality, he proposes that we begin using the term “genderist” as we use the word “racist.” That is, use it to deride a belief which is shameful, a horrifyingly outdated idea which has been replaced by newer, better, more enlightened ideas – in this case, feminism. In fact he specifically says that “…to say ‘I don’t believe that [women are people, and should be treated equally to other people]’ is unacceptable.”
It is tough to be totally clear to both sides about this. I completely agree that women are people, and should in all ways be treated equally to other people. I totally agree with that, and I support any ethically sound way to promote that idea. But, I also believe in tolerance. I genuinely believe that as long as someone is not actually oppressing women, they can believe whatever they want, and that is okay.
By the same tolerant token, I believe that homosexuality is a sin, and I love and accept homosexuals. Similarly, I almost entirely disagree with Phil Robertson’s statements, especially the interpreted theological and societal implications of it, but I am totally cool with him as a person, even if all the worst interpretations of his statements were accurate. Because he is entitled to think, do, and say whatever he wants, provided he doesn’t harm anyone else. This is true tolerance, and it is disappointing to see otherwise respectable movements hold this banner while disregarding it’s application when it is inconvenient.
What do you think? Is there true tolerance possible? Is it reasonable to expect movements founded on tolerance to move forward with tolerance for their opposition? Let me know in the comments.
ALL opinions are welcome to comment. However, please feel free to place all your insults, sarcasm, and incivility ELSEWHERE in cyberspace. I implore you to contribute respectfully and intelligently to a discussion that may benefit all involved by mutual education and edification.