More surprising than “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson’s recent comments to GQ magazine regarding gay men is the fact that anyone felt compelled to defend him after his pursuant suspension from the television show. But Robertson’s suspension is politically convenient for a handful of right-wing Christian pundits who have been developing a narrative of persecution for years, and they were quick to leap to his defense.
Take Erick Erickson, for example, who tweeted voluminously following news of Robertson’s hiatus. Erickson’s tack was typical: he conflated offense over Robertson’s remark with imagined offense over the use of innocuous words (such as “patriarch”) and argued that A&E’s decision to remove him from the show was tantamount to persecution of Robertson as a Christian. This all fits neatly into Erickson’s apocalyptic vision of American discourse, in which any expression of the Christian conception of the “good” is being systematically “silenced” by an anti-Christian media movement.
Of course, Erickson neglected to note that the backlash against Robertson had little to do with the doctrinal content of his statements, such as it was. (It’s also the case that suggesting that disapproval of homosexuality belongs to Christianity writ large says more about Erickson’s construal of Christianity than the actual diversity of opinion within the religion: for the record, not all Christian denominations or congregations object to gay people or relationships, though this article will deal with those that do.) It was rather the decision Robertson made to frame his objection to homosexuality in terms of disgust and revilement that generated the stir. GLAAD spokesperson Wilson Cruz, for instance, characterized Robertson’s remarks as “vile and extreme stereotypes.” Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign noted that Robertson’s remarks failed to treat gay people with the “respect and dignity” that should be extended to all persons.
These objections, and many more like them, are not objections to the vague sexual complementarianism Robertson seems to be proposing in his remarks, nor to the Christian doctrine that underlies that view of human sexuality. Rather, they object to the tone of disrespect and disgust that Robertson advances by his framing of gay people. Robertson claims, for instance, that gay relationships are a mere stepping-stone to sexually abusing animals, and to having unrestrainedly promiscuous sex. He later equated gay people with terrorists, glibly noting that he regards the salvific potential of each category of person to be identical. Rounding out his meditation on sexuality, Robertson declared “vaginas” preferable to “a man’s anus,” concluding that “sin” is “illogical” on those grounds. The notable exclusion of any discussion of lesbian sexuality is typical, and demonstrates that there’s more disgust than doctrine at work here: to fellows like these, lesbians aren’t gross. (See the rumination on vaginas.)
Is there really no other way to express a perceived objection to homosexuality in Christian doctrine than to equate gay people with terrorists, or to conflate gay relationships with the molestation of animals? If it really were the case that one couldn’t explain the conservative Christian position on homosexuality without the language of disgust, then Erickson’s defense of Robertson might have some merit. But of course, the very idea that Christians who object to homosexuality must express that objection in the most hateful terms possible is absurd and abusive, and belies a greater interest in humiliating gay people than in representing Christian doctrine.
Consider, for example, Pope Francis’ recent statement regarding gay priests: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium manages to defend the same doctrine Robertson refers to without ever degenerating into the conflation of gay people with terrorists, rapists of animals, or philanderers. As a result, there have been murmurs of criticism of Francis’ position on homosexuality, but nothing coming close to the level of backlash leveled at Robertson. In fact, Francis has even been praised by The Advocate, a well-established gay rights venue.
Tone and frame, in other words, matter. Right wing pundits like Erickson and his compatriots (Sarah Palin regrettably among them) will argue that the issue at hand is “free speech” – but this is a constitutional matter entirely separate from the so-called persecution of Christianity. What Erickson and his ilk really seem to want is wholesale permission to express their interpretation of Christian doctrine in the most harmful ways possible, which is a distinctly un-Christian aspiration, given the strength of Christianity in political discourse. As Pope Francis notes in his exhortation,
Despite the tide of secularism which has swept our societies, in many countries – even those where Christians are a minority – the Catholic Church is considered a credible institution by public opinion, and trusted for her solidarity and concern for those in greatest need. Again and again, the Church has acted as a mediator in finding solutions to problems affecting peace, social harmony, the land, the defence of life, human and civil rights, and so forth. […] This is a good thing. Yet, we find it difficult to make people see that when we raise other questions less palatable to public opinion, we are doing so out of fidelity to precisely the same convictions about human dignity and the common good.
In other words, Francis acknowledges the power the Christian faith wields globally in terms of moral authority and political influence. It is not toothless, then, when a person claiming to represent the Christian faith makes statements aimed at perpetuating disgust with and disparaging stereotypes of certain categories of persons. Such sentiments could easily incite their hearers to all sorts of maltreatment of people in their communities, which is not what any Christian should desire. As Francis points out, the common good should always be a Christian goal, and it extends to include the wellbeing of gay people.
But Erickson’s persecution narrative allows him and others like him to avoid this kind of accountability. If Christianity is posed as an institution on the defense, persecuted successfully by powers greater than itself, then it need not take stock of the impact of its chosen frames. The fantasy of the persecution of Christianity in America is thus mostly a technique aimed at protecting a particular approach to framing issues in the cruelest, least considerate method possible. Erickson may wish to sneak the disparagement of gay people in under the cover of Christianity, but better exemplars of the religion demonstrate the fallacy in his narrative. It’s right that Robertson should be reprimanded for the things he’s said: Christianity is an extremely powerful cultural force, and when one’s microphone is that loud, every word choice matters.