The kerfuffle that Phil Robertson stirred up is now over, and as in all such matters it’s hard to avoid the sense that we are all the worse for it. Most everyone I know has reached the point of total exhaustion on the subject, and understandably so. But that’s what happens when rampant curiosity drives our intellectual pursuits: we rush in, plunder, and then move on. But sometimes there are things to be learned only after the crowds leave.
It’s hard to imagine a dispute that encapsulates the hilarious oddities of our age better than that which played out in the middle of the Advent season. In retrospect, the whole thing seems patently bizarre: I sat down to write about it several times, started to type “Duck Dynasty,” and promptly gave up. Athanasasius took on the Arians. Augustine fought Pelagius. Our grandparents defeated the Nazi’s, while our parents grew up in the shadow of Communism. Us, well, we get to parse the words of a reality TV star who makes an awfully effective duck call. I’d try to write a parody, but I’m not a good enough wordsmith for that. Simple description seems ludicrous enough.
The episode’s folly was exacerbated by the drab, joyless atmosphere that pervaded the whole affair. One side responded to his remarks with outrage, while the other defended him in kind. Oh, A&E laughed, for sure, “all the way to the bank” (as they say). And I suspect the family at the center had a good chuckle over the whole business. But few of us did.
We have no one to blame for the media maelstrom but ourselves, and we are all implicated. It does little good to point out (as many evangelicals, conservative or otherwise have) that it’s hard to take Robertson seriously as a “martyr” when there are real Christian martyrs in the world. Against such a backdrop, we ought to be as disturbed that “reality TV” exists at all. If the thing is worth watching, then its stars are doubtlessly worth defending. But the ability to make that point and have it “liked” by others on Facebook is a luxury good as well. This is a dispute that belongs to a decadent age, and taking to our “platforms” to critique those who were distraught about it because there is bodily suffering elsewhere simply will not do. It’s hard to take any of the commentary seriously when compared to those who are dying for the faith, including the commentary that so earnestly points it out.
Still, as irrelevant as it might seem in the context of life and death, there was something at stake in the decision to suspend Robertson for his remarks. American Christians won’t face pyres or lions, but we may nicked away into irrelevance by a thousand paper cuts while we all shout “peace, peace” the whole while. Our culture war may be dominated by trivialities. But it is no less the warfare for it. The despotic tendencies of our bureucratic state may not lead to prison or death, but a soft despotism is despotic nonetheless. I understand why many young evangelicals have little patience for conservative concerns. Paper cuts are easy to ignore, and any aggregate case is easy to object to in the details. But that doesn’t mean the narrative is false—only that it’s difficult to prove.
After all, to cop a line from young evangelicals, if “politics is downstream from culture” than what precisely are conservatives supposed to make of A&E’s initial decision to suspend Robertson? Is it a harbinger of things to come from our political powers? Or if not this, at what point will it be appropriate for conservatives to be concerned? Young evangelicals who have made a business out of distancing ourselves from the political concerns of our parents have every reason to go on thinking that conservative concern about such cultural moments is one giant overreaction. Which is why more evidence that such moments constitute a trend cannot prove the point: the narrative is already set, and each piece of data is simply further evidence that the conservative sound and fury still signifies nothing.
It is true that Robertson’s comments were “crude,” or “coarse” as the family’s statement put it. Yet since I’m in a mischievous mood, I’d point out that Robertson deployed just the sort of anatomical language that young evangelicals have touted as the mark for “real talk” about sex. I’m half inclined to say that Robertson’s comments are a classic reminder that we ought all be more careful what we wish for. As I have never thought that sounding like doctors within the church is a sign of our maturity, I enjoy the freedom to disagree with everyone: I have no interest in defending Robertson’s comments, about sex or on race, but given how GLAAD responded to Louie Giglio it seems reasonably clear that it wouldn’t much matter how he put the point. A smile and a bit of sophisticated theological jargon can't stop your bigotry, after all, or so the talking point goes. Had Robertson quoted the Magesterium would things have turned out much differently from how they did?
Still, it's hard for me to shake the feeling that the whole thing is a farce, and that we are the joke. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings. It is a petty demagoguery that besets us, as laughably impotent as the people it is trying to repress. We have the culture war we deserve.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.