What Anti-Gay Comments Are Too Anti-Gay for the GOP?

Conservative politicians have hoisted Phil Robertson onto their shoulders, leveraging the still-swelling outcry over his comments into accolades from the far right. Whether or not Robertson crossed an uncrossable line, though, still isn't clear.

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Conservative politicians have hoisted Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson onto their shoulders, leveraging the still-swelling outcry over his comments into accolades from the far right. Whether or not Robertson crossed an uncrossable line, though, still isn't clear.

Support for Robertson – who was suspended on Wednesday from the taping of his family's popular show by its network, A&E — is still growing among (mostly religious) conservatives. The Washington Post delineates the possible 2016 candidates who've jumped in: Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz. It's a no-brainer position at this point. A petition in support of Robertson has 70,000 signatories. #IStandWithPhil was a hot topic on Twitter last night; there's a website, IStandWithPhil.com, at which you can offer your support.

The Post explains why Robertson's comments, suspension, and defense strike a nerve.

As the same-sex marriage movement has gained steam, many evangelicals and conservative Catholics feel as if they are being asked to give up deeply held beliefs — an effort they perceived in the quick suspension of the “Duck Dynasty” star after his comments were denounced by gay rights groups.

That's Robertson's defense. In a statement posted to their website, the family said:

While some of Phil’s unfiltered comments to the reporter were coarse, his beliefs are grounded in the teachings of the Bible. … We are disappointed that Phil has been placed on hiatus for expressing his faith, which is his constitutionally protected right.

Comparing the relative merits of sexual engagement with differing orifices, as Robertson did in the interview with GQ that kicked all of this off, seems like a weird sort of religious expression, but this is the argument: Robertson spoke about his religious beliefs and, as a result, his First Amendment rights were curtailed. See also, the always politics-savvy Ted Cruz, who dropped by Facebook to offer his take: "If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson."

We'll set aside the fallacious argument that the A&E suspension had anything to do with the First Amendment. (Time's James Poniewozik is good on this.) The question that's worth raising is: When is free speech, especially free speech that derives from religious belief, too offensive to defend? And if you're a candidate in 2016: At what point do Robertson's comments, past and future, move him over that line?

The Post spoke with Ralph Reed, founder of the once-influential Christian Coalition.

Conservative Christians “feel like they’re under siege in a culture that is increasingly intolerant and discriminatory toward their views, and they don’t feel represented,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, who noted that Robertson paraphrased from the Bible’s Book of Corinthians in his interview. “I did not get any impression at all that there was animus expressed,” Reed said.

Ralph Reed didn't get the impression that Robertson offered gays any hard feelings. But, then, Ralph Reed wouldn't be likely to. And if that's the line that is important — when and if someone intends to be mean — who's the judge of it?

Robertson's comments to GQ were too far past the line for Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, for example, who last night said Robertson made "a mistake" in suggesting that gays were condemned by God. "It's singling out a group, it could be anyone," O'Reilly said, "and saying to that group, ‘Hey, you’re not worthy in the eyes of the Lord… because of who you are.'" Reed disagrees.

So, how about these comments, via the Huffington Post, from a 2010 sermon Robertson gave in Pennsylvania. His voice rising as he speaks, Robertson inveighs against homosexuals.

Women with women, men with men, they committed indecent acts with one another, and they received in themselves the due penalty for their perversions. They're full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil.

"What're you gonna do, Pennsylvania?," he then asks. "Just run with 'em?"

Is that sufficient animus for Reed? Sufficiently over the line for Cruz, Jindal, and Palin? The Post compares the fight over Robertson to last year's teapot-tempest over Chik-fil-A, who owner was against gay marriage. In that case, the company's president said that he supported traditional marriage — and that's it. No more comments, nothing more aggressive. The company stopped talking.

Conservatives are encouraging Robertson not to. Which seems like a risky proposition — particularly for those who might want to run for national office.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.