As the drama surrounding cable network A&E’s suspension of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson enters its second week without losing steam, our analysis of the incident becomes more refined by critical thought. Where emotional reactions at first prevailed, we now see thoughtful consideration of why this episode matters so much to so many people.
Caring about Phil Robertson and his ordeal says something about those who stand with him. It reveals a solidarity informed by shared values, and similar experiences. For Christians in today’s increasingly secularized culture, there exists a persistent subversion of our religious expression. While it often takes the form of private censure, as it has in Robertson’s case, the influence of the state can be sensed bearing down on private decisions.
Perhaps that is why figures like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck have mistakenly represented the suspension as a violation of Robertson’s free speech rights. As reported in City Pages, the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU sought to set the record straight in a blog post last week:
The Constitution protects you from the government violating your rights. Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty, has not been arrested or charged with a crime for his comments about gays (nor should he be), he has been [indefinitely suspended] by a private employer for making these comments.
Phil Robertson has the right to make whatever homophobic or racist comments he wants without fear of going to prison for it, however he does not have the right to have his own TV show, or to say what he wants without negative reactions from his employer or people in the community.
While this interpretation proves correct, we need not look far to see how unequally it is applied. What if, instead of Phil Robertson expressing his Christian view of homosexuality, A&E had suspended a gay reality show star for coming out of the closet and advocating for gay marriage? Would the ACLU and City Pages and their allies on the Left be so eagerly reminding us of the cable network’s freedom of association?
We know the answer. We know it because the unequal recognition of the freedom of association lies naked in the various public accommodation and anti-discrimination laws strewn throughout various levels of government. Indeed, mere days before the Duck Dynasty controversy erupted, a judge in Colorado ordered a Christian baker to serve cake for a gay wedding or face fines. Where’s the ACLU on that one? Naturally, they represented the gay couple and stood against the baker’s freedom of association. “No one should fear being turned away from a public business because of who they are,” they said in a statement.
How is A&E’s decision to deny a business relationship with Phil Robertson because of who he is fundamentally different than that Christian baker’s decision to deny a business relationship with a gay couple because of who they are?
As we ponder that, the allure and longevity of the Duck Dynasty story becomes clear. While no rights were violated, they undoubtedly would have been in reversed circumstances. That proves just as outrageous as if Robertson’s rights were violated.
Let’s not pretend that private actions are not profoundly influenced by the legal climate in which they are taken. Would A&E have been as quick to suspend Robertson were it not for the protected legal status of sexual orientation in various public accommodation and anti-discrimination laws? Would they have been as quick to suspend the star of their most lucrative property if there were not such a well-financed, trigger-happy, and litigious homosexual coalition? How might this situation be different if the free association right which the ACLU correctly describes was universally protected without regard to political correctness?
So long as the public accommodation aspect of civil rights law persists, and particular classes are singled out for special treatment, equality under the law will prove elusive. From there emerges an importance which transcends celebrity gossip. This was never about a reality show.