In a statement issued late Thursday, the Robertson clan at the center of the show said they may not be able to go on after A&E suspended Phil Robertson for his blunt scriptural interpretations.
“We have had a successful working relationship with A&E, but, as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm,” the Robertson family said in a prepared statement. “We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of Duck Dynasty.”
Robertson’s commentary, where he compares homosexuality to sins like “bestiality,” sparked a wildfire debate in the blogosphere about free speech, civil rights, and religious values. The flap also has come to epitomize what some academics have identified as a cultural gulf separating America’s coastal urban power centers and a rural America that remains steeped in hunting, fishing, and churchgoing.
“This moment definitely says something about where we are as Americans,” says Rob Weiner, a pop culture expert at Texas Tech University. “For so long … the more traditional sort of down-home Christian good ol’ boy, living off the land, hasn’t been seen. Now that he has, he’s touched a nerve. A lot of people find the show entertaining, but equal numbers of people find it offensive – the killing of animals and things like that.”
Gay rights advocates, for one, applauded the decision by A&E to suspend Phil.
“What’s clear is that such hateful anti-gay comments are unacceptable to fans, viewers, and networks alike,” said GLAAD spokesperson Wilson Cruz. “By taking quick action and removing Robertson from future filming, A&E has sent a strong message that discrimination is neither a Christian nor an American value.”
But the backlash caused its own backlash from Duck Dynasty fans, who asked why, in a country founded on Judeo-Christian precepts, is someone being punished for artfully stating scripture? “We all need to be out there promoting and protecting the heart of America,” said Sarah Palin. “We can do that by showing support for ‘Duck Dynasty.’ ”
The stakes around whether Duck Dynasty will continue are huge, as the show has become a merchandising juggernaut, selling everything from T-shirts to chocolate bars. It also earns the family $200,000 per show.
The show chronicles the Louisiana bayou existence of a duck-call entrepreneur and his bearded offspring, all of whom are supported by a cast of country-glam wives who can bake. It’s widely considered wholesome and kid-friendly, and each episode ends with a supper-table prayer.
The debut in August of the new Duck Dynasty season drew nearly 12 million viewers, a cable record.
That popular appeal suggests to some pundits that the backlash against the show runs deeper than allegations of religious intolerance, and touches more on tectonic cultural shifts underway in America.
The attempt by gay rights groups to have Phil Robertson kicked off the show “may be an attack on ‘unsophisticated’ country folks as much as it is an attack on orthodox Christianity,” writes Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist for the Daily Caller. “It has as much to do with class and geography and culture and attitude as it does with religion.”
For fans of the show, hearing Phil Robertson – whose catchphrase is “happy, happy, happy” – voice strong opinions is hardly surprising. So he stepped right into the breach when the GQ writer asked him what he considers sinful.
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there,” Robertson, a former Louisiana Tech football standout, began. “Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”
Then he proceeded straight to Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
”We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell,” he added. “That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ‘em, give ‘em the good news about Jesus – whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ‘em out later, you see what I’m saying?”
Robertson, naturally, did not apologize for his candid comments to the urbane writer. But he did soften his presentation.
“I myself am a product of the '60s,” he explained in a written statement issued after the flap. “I centered my life around sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll until I hit rock bottom and I accepted Jesus as my savior. My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the Bible teaches. And part of that teaching is that men and women are meant to be together. However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We were all created by the Almighty, and like him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and we loved each other."
While many condemned Robertson’s views, some gay commentators decided to engage with his reasoning.
“Why are we cherry-picking what’s a sin in the Bible to elevate this conversation when he gave a disgusting interview to GQ?” said Thomas Roberts, who is openly gay, on MSNBC. “We have to go through Leviticus, for what it’s worth. And then we get into shellfish, we get into tattoos, which the Robertson boys have.”
Meanwhile, Brandon Ambrosino, a professional dancer, wrote in Time: “For the record, I’m undecided on whether or not I think Phil actually is homophobic, although I certainly think his statement was offensive, and not only to the LGBT community. But I also think that if I were to spend a day calling ducks with Phil, I’d probably end up liking him — even in spite of his position on gay men. It’s quite possible to throw one’s political support behind traditional, heterosexual marriage, and yet not be bigoted.”
[Editor's note: The original post incorrectly identified where Phil Robertson attended university. Robertson went to Louisiana Tech University.]