Suck Dynasty: The Religious Freedom Defense is Nonsense

I want to say first that I hated Duck Dynasty long before the present controversy arose, and I could never get through a full episode before switching the channel.  In fact, I have a general abiding dislike for pretty much the entire range of so-called “reality television” which, on the whole, is neither realistic nor good television.  I do like reality shows that are somewhat educational in nature: Antiques Road Show, Pawn Stars, and so on (not because I’m a snob or anything but because I genuinely enjoy learning about antiques and collectibles–kinda hard for someone as poor as I am to be a snob anyway).

When the controversy over Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s anti-gay remarks arose I more or less ignored it at first, assuming it was a non-issue that would pass quickly out of public spectacle territory anyway.  But apparently a lot of people on either side of this debate are determined to milk this lame controversy of every last drop of its currency, and so I now find myself having an opinion on this despite my better judgment.

Although I agree with those who think Phil Robertson is an ignorant, hateful redneck who is using religion as a crutch to express his homophobic views, I don’t think he should be fired for having and speaking them.  In fact, I wish he’d done so earlier than he had.  Think of it this way: you go to the market to buy some melon and find that the melon is in a package, effectively disallowing you to inspect it in the round as customers are wont to do.  But the fruit looks healthy enough from what you can see and you purchase it and take it home, only to find upon opening the package that on the side you couldn’t see the melon is badly bruised and rotting.  If only you could’ve seen that this was the case while you were in the store, you wouldn’t have bought the crappy rotten melon and wouldn’t be stuck with it now (I know, I know, but consider the store to have a no return policy, okay?)

My point is this: I think it’s better to know where people stand at the outset so as to avoid investing time, money and/or emotions in them only to discover later that you wish you hadn’t bothered.  If every relationship could be entered into with that kind of honesty we would all be better off.  Of course, having been raised in the rural South and spending most of my life here, I pretty much knew what the Duck Dynasty folks were all about long before this came up.  Platitudes are just platitudes and often judging a book by its cover won’t result in any shocking revelations.  I find that that’s especially the case with the staunchly religious types.

As for Robertson’s defenders, I think too many of them are mistaking a privately-owned media company’s ability to fire their employees with a First Amendment issue, which concerns the federal government’s ability to censor the speech of private citizens or entities.  The great irony–or perhaps the great hypocrisy–here is that the people screaming about the First Amendment in this case are the same ones who ordinarily gripe about government interference of business in any way.  Well, what the hell do you guys think A&E is?  It’s a corporation, a business, and its owners and operators made a decision about their bottom line and their ethical stance.  Now, there is a limit to that.  For example, our federal government has rightly determined that a company cannot reject people for who or what they are at their core; hence, there are laws against firing people with regard to their race, sex, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.  It isn’t foolproof and I have my own experience with being fired from a major company over things admitted (outside of work, no less) about my own sexuality.  Did I deserve to be fired?  Clearly not.  But I didn’t put up a fight, even though in retrospect I probably I should have.

Anyway, where I differ from the state’s advancement of free speech protections is with regard to religion, which is exactly the issue being cited by Robertson and his supporters.  The difference to me between all of the other qualities I mentioned above and religion is this: unlike the other things, religious belief is not an innate quality.  If it was, it wouldn’t need to be taught to children, much less reinforced on a daily basis by parents and church elders.  H. P. Lovecraft has a thoroughly awesome quote about that:

“If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences.”

In essence, Lovecraft is saying that if religion was true, we would not need to teach it to kids because its truth would be inherent and obvious to them.

{{{Spoiler Alert }}}

In Jill Paton Walsh’s excellent novel Knowledge of Angels this very issue becomes the crux of a life or death decision for the story’s major protagonist.  The story is set on a European island during the Medieval era and concerns Palinor, a nobleman from an unspecified nation who had been shipwrecked and washed ashore on this island.  Though he could not prove he was a citizen of his claimed nation in any official capacity without sending off correspondence to his homeland, he was clearly civilized and was treated as such by the deeply religious people of the island for the time being.  However, the nobleman was a confessed agnostic, and moreover, he claimed that in his country not only were there a variety of legally protected religions, there were also a great many atheists and agnostics, also legally protected.

This presents a huge problem to the superstitious islanders.  By law, with no legal standing on the island until his citizenship could be proven, Palinor was to be executed.  Meanwhile, the agnostic was polite, well-spoken and highly  intelligent (he even built a small aqueduct system to serve the manor where he was staying while on the island), and the island’s church representatives try to convince Palinor of Christianity’s truth by presenting every philosophical argument available to them.  In the end, however, Palinor’s sounder reason prevails and he remains unconvinced.  Still, the island’s church leaders have another trick up their sleeves, for housed at a nearby convent is a young girl who had been raised in the wild by wolves and only recently captured, and she appears to hold the key to whether the knowledge of God is innate in humans.  Of course, as the girl becomes more civilized and learns to communicate, she inevitably disappoints the church’s agents by failing to give them the answers they seek and eventually flees back into the forest, effectively renouncing civilization and religion altogether.  Meanwhile, with no one to come to his defense, tragedy befalls Palinor and, it is suggested, ultimately to the island itself as his countrymen have come with a massive fleet of well-armed ships to retrieve him . . . too late.

{{{Spoiler Alert Ended}}}

Unsurprisingly, then, Walsh’s novel comes down on the side of humanism, and no doubt if the situations in the novel had been real events, the story she presents is pretty likely how things would’ve played out.  The fact is, religious beliefs are a far different matter than is sex, race, skin color or sexual orientation.  These things are all either genetically inherited or in some way picked up inadvertently in childhood, or both.  I suppose the latter could happen with religion too, but how often is it?  Virtually never.  Some scholars even claim that our brains evolved the spiritual instinct, and maybe that’s true, but let’s be clear here: spirituality and religion are not the same thing.  I consider myself a spiritual person, but I do not belong or adhere to any particular religious system.  My beliefs are suitably vague because I do not believe that the spiritual world–if it exists at all–can be quantified or understood in any meaningful way, and therein lies the problem with religion.  It has surpassed spiritual instincts or tendencies and has, almost by definition, quantified (standardized) a set of beliefs about the spiritual realm.

Now let’s compare the other qualities that offer their typologies protection by law.  First, race, sex, nationality, and so on are all clearly genetically determined and cannot be said to be a choice of those so affected in any capacity whatsoever.  Sexuality is a tricky one though.  We do not yet know to what degree divergent sexual orientations are instigated by genes, congenital abnormalities, or by environment.  My suspicion is that all three of those factors likely play a part, though to varying degrees in individuals.  What I absolutely do know is that those of us with divergent sexualities did not choose them.  We are not gluttons for punishment or martyrs at the outset (what children are?), but sometimes we learn to be later in life, because we must deal with our highly unpopular sexualities any way we can and society often leaves us few other choices.  In fact, in my experience those of us who aren’t blessed with plain vanilla heterosexuality often tend to realize our sexual differences gradually.  There is no singular moment where you say to yourself, “Aha!  I am queer and that’s that.”  Indeed, there is often resistance at first because no child wants to be seen as so utterly abnormal, not to mention repulsive to a great many people, simply for who they are.

In my case I started to understand that I wasn’t like the other boys in my fifth grade class when they all agreed that the prematurely developed girl in class was hot and I failed to see her appeal; in fact, I found her to be downright unattractive.  I could say more here but I’ll leave it there in the interest of good taste.  Which leads me to my next point: in free speech terms, if we were to set Phil Robertson’s statements against matters of sexual orientation, the only legitimate comparison would be if a gay man went on TV and said something to the effect of, “My sexuality compels me to find straight people to be demented and evil.”  One’s sexuality does no such thing.  It is the choice to be hateful and exclusionary that compels that, whether set down in a book or not, and the only thing that one’s sexuality does compel is finding a certain group of people attractive.

Likewise, having an instinct for spirituality does not compel one towards thinking or believing anything beyond that vague notion of something (possibly) existing beyond consensus reality (and it certainly doesn’t compel one to go proclaim his hateful views in a popular public venue!)  Anything else obviously goes beyond instinct and moves into the realm of selective beliefs.  People have been trying to prove conclusively that their particular brand of spirituality is the right one since time immemorial and by any means possible, only to meet with failure every time.  That said, it’s all fine and good for people to believe whatever they like, but when their beliefs do not accord with those of their employers, especially when those beliefs are a) highly public and b) inherently disparaging of another group that is legitimately protected by the government, I think the offending employee’s bosses certainly have a right to shitcan him or her.

And let’s be honest: most of those who claim this is a religious speech issue are being disingenuous anyway.  What this is really about is their right to vocally attack a group they dislike while hiding behind their religion.  That way it doesn’t look like it’s just their own homophobia or whatnot because, after all, [their] God condemns it and you can’t very well argue with him, can you?

Well, like I said, I don’t think Robertson should be fired anyway.  Let him be rejected the natural way until his show’s audience dwindles and he and his whole ignorant clan are ousted for poor ratings.  That would be far more fitting.  And if the show remains popular in spite of Robertson’s holy dumbassery, well then it just shows that we need to do a better job of counteracting bigotry at home and in schools, eh?


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