A Duck Dynasty Solution for A&E: Phil Robertson Should Debate Dan Savage

The shortcomings of stigma in gay advocacy

D H Wright/Flickr

In America, society stigmatizes open racism. A public figure who uses a racial slur or declares a racial group inferior can expect to be jeered, mocked, even summarily fired. Private individuals might alienate acquaintances, ruin friendships, or lose romantic partners by revealing their racism—or might not, depending on the subculture they belong to.

Should remarks made against homosexuality be stigmatized in the same way? America is unsure.

Anti-gay slurs are now widely frowned upon. Cultural pressure to favor equal marriage rights for gays is increasing, but Americans tolerate opposition to gay marriage in a way they don't tolerate opposition to interracial marriage.

And what of Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin that transgresses against God's will and consigns those who practice it to an eternity burning in hell? Is polite society going to tolerate those sorts of beliefs toward gays and lesbians?

At bottom, that is the question raised by the controversy surrounding Phil Robertson, the star of the A&E reality television series Duck Dynasty, who found himself suspended after telling a profiler from GQ, "It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

He also said:

Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine. 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. 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.

So that you know my biases, I find these remarks to be wrongheaded. To be more specific: I am a theist who believes that some behavior is immoral, but I don't think homosexual behavior is immoral at all, and insofar as the Bible says otherwise, I believe it to be in error.

As for how I would've responded, as an A&E executive, if the star of a very profitable reality show I aired suddenly made a remark guaranteed to upset many regular A&E viewers? I'd have explained why remarks made by the talent off-the-air don't ever represent the views of A&E, extolled the value of openly airing disagreements on matters of controversy in a free society, and insisted that Mr. Robertson participate in a televised A&E debate with Jonathan Rauch or Dan Savage or Andrew Sullivan or Ted Olsen on homosexuality. In so doing, I'd hope to avoid the evasiveness Larry Alex Taunton described last week in his piece on this controversy:

Missing in the controversy over A&E’s handling of its golden goose—or duck, rather—is the fact that the real conflict here is not between Robertson and A&E; it is between gay activists and a solid majority of Christians who believe homosexual acts are wrong. Again, Robertson’s views are hardly anomalous. Christians may disagree on the details, but the Bible strongly condemns homosexuality in both the Old and New Testaments; the marriage model of one man and one woman is first given by God in Genesis 2 and reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 19; and in Romans 1 the Apostle Paul denounces homosexuality as a hallmark of a degenerate culture. The point here isn’t that you have to believe any of this, but many Christians do believe it and feel morally bound to believe it.

Instead of acknowledging this tension, however, A&E, GLAAD, and their supporters have responded with disingenuous expressions of shock and horror.  And it matters that it's disingenuous, because if they actually acknowledged that there is a genuine conflict between orthodox Christianity and homosexual sex (along with several forms of heterosexual sex) they would have to confront head-on the fact that calling for a boycott or pressuring for Robertson's suspension tells orthodox Christians that their religion is no longer acceptable, and that’s not a very politically correct thing to do. Right now, they are trying to weasel out of it by characterizing Robertson as a backwoods bigot who takes his moral cues from Deliverance rather than from a straightforward reading of the Bible and the historic teachings of the Christian religion. 

What if, rather than trying to defeat orthodox  Christian views about the sinfulness of homosexuality with stigma, champions of gay dignity and equality—and I count myself among them—insisted that the matter be debated on its merits? That's the approach that caused gay marriage to go from an obscure proposal to a nationwide phenomenon, and as a general matter, public discourse is the best way to strengthen a society's ideas. In this particular, I believe the argument that homosexuality is sinful and contrary to God's will would not prevail were its advocates regularly forced to spar with eloquent gay people who have loved. It is no accident that once gays began living openly, the stigma against them started to fade faster.

The alternative is to force occasional kabuki apologies from public figures, and to gradually silence those who think homosexuality is sinful without changing their minds—an approach that substitutes coercion for dialogue, and that betrays insufficient confidence in the success gay advocates are likely to enjoy arguing on the merits.