I know, I know, lots of commentary on Duck Dynasty, but something worth reading here at Patheos, part One of Two. Part Two will be posted there tomorrow.
And for good measure, and quite complementary to the above, I am posting this second piece on the underlying issue.
‘I Stand With Phil’: Religions Old and New
Stephen Richard Turley, Ph.D.
Fans of the A&E television show, Duck Dynasty, were dealt a blow. After making rather disparaging remarks toward homosexual behavior, the patriarch of the show, Phil Robertson, was suspended by the network, which affirmed their support for the ‘LGBT community.’ In response to the suspension, cyberspace lit up with a firestorm of online petitions inviting supporters to ‘stand with Phil Robertson.’
The current debate, however, betrays the complexity surrounding the emergence of gender communities and so-called ‘same-sex marriage,’ precisely because such an emergence draws into itself several points of reference, such as theology, cosmology, gender, sexuality, love, society, history, politics, and law. It would thus seem that a mature and insightful conversation would seek to disambiguate the historical and cultural contingencies in which this controversy is situated.
I am, however, under no illusions that such a conversation will or even can take place. This is because the issue surrounding the fallout over the Robertson interview is not ultimately one of free speech, intolerance, or bigotry; rather, it involves the clash between two fundamentally different embodiments of religious fidelity.
If a century of cultural anthropological research has taught us anything, it is that ‘religion’ is not merely a private or personal set of values or beliefs in gods or spirit beings. Rather, anthropologists see religion as constituting the rules, understandings, and goals that govern any social order. All social orders operate according to communally shared presuppositions that are considered absolutely true and unquestionable and thereby provide the foundation for a collective sense of the common good. If I get pulled over by a police officer for speeding and I voice my displeasure at that law, he may say, “That’s all fine and dandy, but you still broke it.” In this case, the law is absolute, it is unquestionable; I don’t define it, it defines me. I may want to have the law changed, but if I do, then there is a procedure to do so that is itself absolute and unquestionable. There is no social order that can operate without basic rules, understandings, and goals that define the common good for society in ways that are considered absolute and unquestionable.
What this means then is that there is simply no such thing as a social order that is organized and governed apart from religion. All social orders are by definition religious; all social orders are organized and governed according to some vision of the sacred: rules, understandings, and goals considered absolute and unquestionable. It is therefore not a question of whether our society is going to be organized by a religion, but rather which religion is going to organize our society.
For lack of a better term, the religion that dominates our modern Western age is what we might term ‘secular statism,’ which is characterized by a unique monopolization of the state over the public square, such that everything we now associate with the term ‘public’ is under the aegis of the state. This has not always been the case. For hundreds of years prior to the eighteenth-century, the state was merely one of a plurality of mediating institutions that organized and governed social life, chief among which was the church. And it was in such a pluralistic context that gender, marriage, and sexuality were interpreted and practiced socially in the biblical terms of a cosmic marriage between Christ the bridegroom and his church the bride. Marriage was thus considered a foretaste of resurrection life, the coming together of heaven and earth (which are hetero, not homo) in a grand cosmic banquet, where every square inch of the cosmos will be completely rid of evil.
But no more; over the course of the last couple of hundred years, there has been a dramatic recalibration of social and economic life around the state, which has expelled progressively the plurality of institutions that once constituted Western public life. This is where, of course, secularization comes in. Secularization represents a nexus of social strategies that maintain the state’s monopolization over the public square by marginalizing the church into the private sphere of life. Hence, Christians are no longer the church but merely ‘people of faith’; that is, people of private and personal beliefs.
And with such a permutation, a new set of public values emerges. What we have to understand is that social orders are like biological organisms in that they have immune systems. Social orders, if they are going to survive, have to maintain an equilibrium of power relations between the various institutions and structures in the social nexus. And part of maintaining that equilibrium is spotting perturbations or disturbances to that social equilibrium. And this is precisely where the sacred comes in: the rules, understandings, and goals that establish social normalcy by virtue of their assumed givenness, in turn also identify and correct threats to social stability. This is the essence, the nature, of modern values such as tolerance, multiculturalism, inclusivity, and moral relativism. These values only appear to be givens; they are in actuality radically contingent, in that they exist to perpetuate the recalibration of social and economic life around the state.
Having repositioned the church into the private sphere of life, the state has replaced the church’s cosmic vision of creation mediated by clergy with impersonal nature mediated by scientists. And having been amputated from the church’s cosmic vision, marriage, gender, and sexuality in the West have become whatever sovereign individuals, completely devoid of any objective divine obligation, want them to be. Today, romantic relationships are interpreted by pop-artists, not pastors; by movies rather than ministers.
And we can of course expect to see, not merely an absence, but indeed a hostility toward the classical Christian values that once defined marriage, gender, and sexuality. Christian moral denunciations are fundamentally different from those of secularists. Christians have always recognized a contradiction in the human person: every person is created in the image of God and is thus endowed with the stamp of infinite worth and dignity, while every human person defiles that divine image because of their fallen nature. Rooted in the Hebraic prophetic tradition, Christian discourse is characterized by a mercy-entailed judgment: moral denunciations are pronounced in light of the salvation freely offered in the sacrificial death of Christ. Sins are thus denounced by fellow prisoners, the apostle Paul designating himself as chief among them.
However, this is simply not the case with the new religion. It, too, morally denounces, but it has no savior, no cross, and no sacrificial basis for mercy. And thus proponents of secular values morally denounce others, not as fellow prisoners to sin and death, but as those wholly removed from the sins they are denouncing. They denounce bigots while considering themselves untainted by bigotry; they renounce the intolerant while purporting to be guardians of tolerance. They thus appear as the ones who could legitimately cast the first stone.
Thus, as it turns out, this new religion is actually a very old one: the religion of self-righteousness. And like all religions of self-righteousness, its faithful justify themselves at the expense of others. Today there are those who are intolerant of the intolerant, hateful toward the hateful, discriminatory against discrimators, and excluding of exculsivists. This is what it means to be faithful to the new religion; hostility is fidelity.
And standing over against this religion of self-righteousness is the one represented by Phil Robertson, the one that over the course of 1,500 years shaped every aspect of social, economic, political, and cultural life in the West. Unlike secular statism, this is a religion that is in but not of this world; it is a religion that in fact believes that there is not one square inch of the cosmos that can save us. It is a religion that dawned with the first Christmas, as a gift. In the midst of a world characterized by murderous states such as those of Herod and Caesar, a true king entered our cosmos, one who came to serve rather than to be served, who bore our sins upon the cross, who rose into newness of life unto God, shattering the tripartite tyranny of sin, death, and the devil, and thus incorporates the totality of the cosmos into his transformative life, death, and resurrection. And it is this religion that calls all religions of self-righteousness to drop their fads and fashions and collapse into the eternal embrace of nail-marked hands.
This is the religion for which Phil Robertson stood. And I stand with Phil.
Stephen Richard Turley (Ph.D., Durham University) is a faculty member at Tall Oaks Classical School in New Castle, DE, where he teaches Theology, Greek, and Rhetoric, and Professor of Fine Arts at Eastern University. He lectures at universities, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad, on such topics as classical Christian education and modern secular education, liturgy and ritual, aesthetics and beauty, and the historic relationship between church and state. His research and writings have appeared in such journals as Christianity and Literature, Calvin Theological Journal, First Things, Touchstone, and The Chesterton Review.