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For Bucks and Ducks: The Brilliant Cynicism of A&E Network Regarding Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson

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Less than two weeks ago the A&E Network put Phil Robertson, the 67 year old “Patriarch” of the Robertson Clan of Duck Dynasty and Duck Commander on an indefinite suspension. When it occurred I waited to comment because I had suspicions that things were not entirely as they seemed.

The controversy was born in reaction to an interview in GQ magazine where Robertson made comments which equated homosexuality with bestiality. The interview was much more far ranging than that and if you want you can check it out here http://www.gq.com/entertainment/television/201401/duck-dynasty-phil-robertson?currentPage=1

Unlike Sarah Palin I actually decided to read it before making any comments and you should too. The fact is whether you agree or disagree with Robertson you owe it to him and more importantly your principles whatever they may be, to read it.  To be fair Robertson’s beliefs are not out of the Evangelical mainstream, especially the traditional Fundamentalist, the activist culture warrior and Christian Dominion crowd. Honestly I don’t think that Phil Robertson meant any harm to anyone in making those comments, it is just a big part of what he believes and he is not ashamed about what he believes. That is his right. From what I read about Robertson and his family they are generous and contribute much to an otherwise poor community.  As far as Robertson’s comments I don’t agree with them, in fact I strongly disagree with them from a theological and social standpoint as a Christian.

That being said Robertson has the right to his beliefs including the right to speak about them publicly in whatever forum he desires. Everyone has that right. However employers can restrict those rights. All of us if we work for someone else have constraints on our free speech rights in the workplace, either implicitly by contract or even the unwritten expectations of our employers. Likewise people have the right to watch or not to watch his show or buy or not to buy his company’s products. That is the free market. So if A&E wanted to suspend Robertson or to cancel the show based on his actions that would be their right and not be a violation of his rights. If the government did it that would be another matter.

When the controversy erupted and LGBT and other progressive and liberal advocacy groups protested the comments, A&E quickly announced Robertson’s suspension. That was on December 18th. In fact the suspension came so quickly that it surprised me. There was none of the usual hand-wringing that often accompanies media controversy around the star of a hit program and that puzzled me.

The first thing that triggered my suspicion was that Duck Dynasty had already finished filming for the season. Thus any suspension, unless it was a permanent cancellation of the show was only until the next season began. In other words it was a suspension of the off season. So in other words Robertson was not harmed in any way by the suspension. A&E did not fine him or take any money from him. The suspension appeared to me to be a ruse.

However, within moments of the announcement Evangelical Christian pastors, pundits and preachers went into action. Robertson was the “victim” of demonically inspired homosexuals, liberals and secularists. Even those that never read what Robertson said like “Governor half-term” Sarah Palin came to his defense.

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The outcry was amazing. Facebook and Twitter groups rallied to Robertson’s defense threatening A&E with boycotts and calling for his restoration. Likewise politicians introduced legislation to anoint him an “American hero.” Pundits and cable television commentators covered the story more heavily than they would actual issues dealing with the economy, unemployment, national security or events overseas that could harm the country. Preachers rallied their flocks to the cause and many used the controversy to condemn those who were the real victims of Robertson’s actual remarks.

The cry that Robertson’s Constitutional “free speech rights” were being violated and that he was being “persecuted” for his beliefs were oft repeated. The fact of the matter was that A&E never  penalized Robertson, never took any money from him and still allowed him to continue to speak, and even double down on what he said even after the suspension without penalty. In fact A&E aired a Duck Dynasty Christmas marathon on Christmas Day in which Robertson was in every show. How that qualifies as persecution or restricted Robertson’s free speech rights is beyond me.

Conservative media, especially Fox News jumped to Robertson’s defense, proving what Susan Jacoby said in her book The Age of American Unreason: 

“If enough money is involved and enough people believe that two plus two equals five the media will report the story with a straight face always adding a qualifying paragraph noting that mathematicians however say that two plus two still equals four.”

The nine days of unremitting media hysteria came to an end today when A&E announced that Robertson would return for the next season, without penalty and without missing a show.

I was not surprised by today’s announcement. What it showed me was that A&E which had dealt with a similar situation with “Dog the Bounty Hunter” a couple of years ago used the controversy for its own benefit and bottom line. It quickly acted to “suspend” Robertson ensuring that during the so called “War on Christmas” that conservative media that media coverage would provide more free publicity than they could ever spend  on a reality television show. They used the suspension to work up Evangelicals who reacted to fully support Robertson ensuring renewed interest in the Duck Dynasty series and product lines offered by many major retailers.

All in all the controversy and suspension was a successful enterprise for the A&E network and the Robertson clan. There was massive free publicity for the show and no penalties for Robertson. Even better the suspension was cloaked behind the veneer of a network acting like it was doing something to penalize a man for saying things that offended a minority that the viewers of the show despise and then after a carefully scripted “apology” reinstating him. In the statement announcing Robertson’s reinstatement A&E promised to “launch a national public service campaign (PSA) promoting unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people…” It was cynical as hell but brilliant from a business standpoint. You see for A&E it really isn’t about ideology it is about profit. If Duck Dynasty was a failing show they would have cancelled it without questions and tossed show’s Evangelical viewers in the ditch. But there is too much money to be made. In the first 9 months of 2013 the show made $80 million in advertising revenues and merchandise sales have added another $400 million, about half of which went to Wal-Mart. It would be hard for a niche cable network to make up those kind of losses.

I resisted writing anything about this when the controversy erupted because I sensed something fishy. It seemed that given the circumstances that this was a carefully orchestrated event on the part of A&E. When they announced that he would return so soon after suspending him after milking the controversy for all it was worth I realized that my initial gut reaction was right. 

Liberals and the LGBT community who protested actually fell into the A&E trap. Their protest was used as fodder for the network and for the Right Wing media for two different purposes that became a perfect storm: First the controversy fulfilled A&E’s need to bolster the show going into the next season by providing free publicity and reenergizing the viewers. Second it gave the Right Wing media and politically minded preachers the chance to demonize gays and their supporters as being intolerant and hateful, for simply reacting to words that can only from an LGBT point of view be seen as prejudicial, unfair and harmful.

It also gave A&E and the right wing media the chance to avoid Robertson’s other equally repugnant comments about pre-civil rights era black share-croppers which he had made previously.

All in all it was a cynical and brilliant scheme that worked all too well. Machiavelli and Goebbels would have been proud of the PR folks at A&E and Fox News who used Robertson’s unfortunate comments to create a controversy that enriched them and inflamed their supporters.

Progressives, liberals, activists and political moderates like me as well as the LGBT community have to learn to step back from our immediate emotional response to situations like this in the future. We have to be smarter at strategy and look at the big picture. Things like this do not happen in a vacuum. A&E probably assumed that at some point one of the Robertson’s would say something like this and that there would be a backlash. That is why they were able to react so quickly and carefully scripted their response culminating in today’s announcement. Likewise the right wing media sees this kind of controversy as grist for their political and ideological mill.

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Tony Perkins the KKK supporting head of the American Family Association demonstrated this in his press release tonight:

“The attacks on Phil Robertson revealed to the American people that the push to redefine marriage is less about the marriage altar than it is fundamentally altering America’s moral, political and cultural landscape. A&E Network’s reversal in the face of backlash is quite telling to the American people who are growing tired of GLAAD and cultural elites who want to silence people and remove God and His word from every aspect of public life….”

When a situation like this occurs we need to be suspicious and ask “why this? why me? why now?” If we ask those question we can keep from being suckered into no-win situations that those who want to take away our rights to dissent use to set us up and demonize us. In the cyber age of instantaneous communication this is hard to do and we do have to get better at doing it.

If you don’t believe me just look at Perkins. He took this as a way to propagandize his prejudice and hatred of the LGBT community and progressives, for that matter all who disagree with his theocrat machinations including other Christians.

The A&E network and people like Perkins have different goals. For A&E it is profit, for Perkins it is the use of religion and the state to persecute and discriminate against easily demonized minority groups, appealing to the worst aspects of human nature. In this case those often conflicting goals coalesced into the perfect storm.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Religious Freedom and Religious Hypocrisy the New Improved 2012 Model

In the last few days there has been a uproar regarding the Department of Health and Human Services decision to require employers, including church related service institutions including schools, universities and hospitals to provide FDA approved contraception in their health insurance benefits.  Such benefits are already law in over half of the States of the United States. While many provide some exemptions for churches in eight States churches and related religious institutions receive no exemption in the State laws from contraception mandates.

The Roman Catholic Church as well as some Evangelicals such as Richard Land the President of the Southern Baptist Church have called this an assault on religious liberty.  They have been joined by numerous politicians who with the exception of Rick Santorum seem more intent on using it as a rallying cry against President Obama because for years under Republican administrations they did not complain a bit about about this. It just seems disingenuous and I just have to wonder why now and not then?

However my purpose today is not to argue the particular merits of this case. I really don’t see it as a case of religious liberty but rather employment rights under the law which apply to all employers which religious institutions receive numerous exemptions that no secular employers receive in kind. Religious institutions receive tremendous amounts of tax exemptions, exemptions regarding employment rights and other benefits  that secular institutions or employers do not. That is a product of our continued religious liberty and the place of privilege of religious institutions, particularly Christian ones in this country.

We Christians can cry out that we are being persecuted but we do so from a position of privilege that Christians in other countries where persecution is real and often involves prison and death. I find it hard to take seriously the cries of persecution on this issue by Bishops who preside over diocese which have universities and hospitals that already provide the contraceptive coverage to employees that is being mandated now. Likewise I have a hard time reconciling a claim of persecution by many who have been complicit in the cover up of massive numbers of sexual abuse crimes by clergy and religious and who have used the courts to try to deny the redress if these issues by the victims of these crimes.

The point I want to make is that it seems to me that Christians in the United States generally only rally to the cause of religious freedom when it benefits them economically, socially and legally. I seldom see conservative Christians be they Catholic or Protestant come to the defense of religious rights of minority religions.  In fact more often than not it seems that they are all in favor of restricting the practices of those that don’t agree with them.

I respect the right of the Roman Catholic Church to its beliefs and practice. However it is hypocritical for it or other churches accept and lobby for special exemptions and privileges that no one else receives from the government and then cry that it is being persecuted when required to provide benefits that all other employers are required to provide. It is simply a matter of fairness.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to Horatio Spafford in March 1814 that “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” It seems to me that this is the case now.

I do think that the choice of Catholic bishops as well as the denominational leaders of churches which have no opposition to contraception to make this a major fight is a mistake. I believe that will harm the witness of the church and further increase the perception that American Christians care more about themselves and their rights than they do about those of others. Truthfully this kind of action is the opposite of the early church which in spite of real persecution never stopped loving or caring about those that persecuted them. But then those Christians didn’t have to worry about running the church like a business, political party or government.  I guess that must make a difference.

I do expect some hate mail on this post but oh well, such it life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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More Thoughts on Religious Freedom: By Job I think that Christians might actually be Under Attack, but not like Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity say that they are

Once again I the defender of religious liberty find that even in the elucidation of my thoughts of said subject that I remain a woefully misunderstood man.  Religious freedom is a sticky wicket, everyone wants it, everyone claims it but few want to give it to those that they disagree with or find to be against whatever their particular creed is. Now I am basically a moderate Anglo-Catholic which means that I am a Catholic with Anglican tendencies or Catholic slightly more independent and Anglican tendencies.  My faith is found in the Holy Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils of the Church, it comes from 2000 years of Christian experience, the good and the bad, the positive and the negative the human and the Divine.  I stand firmly in the tradition of the Christian faith certainly not a heretic or unbeliever but when I question actions of fellow Christians I am viewed with suspicion. In fact a lady from my denomination told me to “don’t watch it if I don’t agree with it” when I asked hard questions about something she said on a social networking site.  Now I know that this woman is both sincere and passionate in her beliefs, but her beliefs while firmly within the mainstream of modern American Evangelical Christian thought actually have little to do with the Christian faith but rather a defense of beliefs that many Christians in the United States as well as the world would find distinctly un-Christian.

You see my friend is symptomatic of the myopia typical of modern American Evangelicals, or for that matter many “conservative” Christians regardless of their tradition proclaim.  You see many American Christians do have legitimate and compelling reasons to be concerned, the society is becoming much more secular, much more religiously and culturally diverse and in many places individual Christians and even churches seem to be the targets of a plethora of lawsuits, attacks on the symbols of their faith as well as many of the values that they hold dear from groups on the left.  Likewise there are Christians from more liberal or “social Gospel” minded traditions that would likewise see their faith under attack from conservative secularists, those in positions of great financial advantage and Libertarians and others that believe the their faith should not be allowed a place in the public forum, especially when they champion the rights of those that are economically disadvantaged or that are not in the mainstream of American life.    Seems that no matter what your point of view that being a Christian is not a particularly popular thing to be in the United States now days, my goodness well how can it not be?  First there were the televangelists, and then the pedophile priests, and then the financial and political scandals involving various clergymen of both the left and the right, and clergymen and churches that demand special status and privilege from government agencies simply because they are “religious” who would blame the secularists and even believers from being skeptical?

But I would argue that many good Christians from various traditions in all sincerity and devotion to their beliefs as well as the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and with no malice whatsoever feel attacked.  And why should they not feel attacked?  Their faith is mocked in the media, their symbols protested or outlawed, their beliefs ridiculed and the values that they want and earnestly seek to teach their children thrown back at them at every chance.  You see whether the issue is the rights of the unborn, the sanctity of marriage for conservatives or the right to same sex marriage espoused by liberals or the rights of illegal or undocumented workers, the needs of the poor and destitute there is always someone in power that wants to shut these people down and most always the issue is power and money where corporations, local and state governments and even individuals use the law to squash out dissent by churches or other religious bodies and individuals at every turn. Who can blame these people from feeling attacked?  Who can blame them for rallying to the cry of those that would take up their cause even if those people have ulterior motivations from religious or secular groups from the right or from the left?

This brings me back on point, I do not condemn men and women of faith that live their life with virtue and seek to serve both God and their neighbor in love.  In fact I would dare say that many Christian and Churches in good conscience believe that they are attempting to do well and see their efforts maligned in the press and in the media and attacked by politicians with something to gain from attacking various Christian Churches and their activities which quite often are grounded in nothing more than the mandate to love Goad and love their neighbor.  No matter if it is a Church that holds prolife or anti-abortion beliefs or those that give sanctuary to undocumented workers or those that care for others that are the cast offs of American society it seems that there is no shortage of those willing to file lawsuits or initiate criminal proceedings for even the most preposterous of offenses be it holding a Bible study in a residential area, operating a soup kitchen from the back of a truck or simply displaying the symbol of their faith in a public place or even upon their bodies.

Now I am not one of those going about screaming that Christians are being systematically persecuted but what reasonable person would not feel attacked if the very signs, symbols, sacraments and actions that were central to their faith were ridiculed day in and day out? Nor am I one that proclaims that the United States has some manifold destiny wrought by God or that the Founding Fathers were great believers in the Christian religion, not by far.  I am a defender of religious liberty and firm advocate for the separation of Church, or Mosque or Synagogue or even Wiccan bonfire and State. This is something that this robustly moderate Anglo-Catholic learned in a Southern Baptist seminary, before the Fundamentalist takeover, that our religious freedom is to be guarded and the rights of all religions safeguarded against the designs of a predominately secular and materialist state and corporate culture if there is to be any religious freedom for anyone.

In response there are extremist who take legitimate fear and turn it into anger and paranoia even as they collect vast amounts of money from people desperate for someone to take their side.  But despite all of the “herculean” efforts of these worldly “saviors” nothing ever changes even as they grow rich at the expense of the people the purport to serve all the while accomplishing nothing and further alienating their charges from the rest of society.  Yes persecuted Christian send your $20, $50, $200 or $1000 gift to our ministry and by God our lawyers will eventual defeat those that persecute you. By God give our candidates money so they can go to Washington and make things right again and protect your values even while they engage in marital infidelity at taxpayer expense, Governor Sanford thank you for the ammunition, ditto to you Senator Ensign and my goodness how can I forget you Vice President Gore? You see I am an equal opportunity pundit when politicians and preachers fleece the flock of God and then convince them that they need to give more for their efforts.  I love America.

That’s what they all say isn’t it? “Give me your money and or your vote and I will get results for you.”  But they don’t despite the hundreds of millions, maybe even the billions of dollars that have been donated to fill their coffers. Mass marketing mailings and e-mails targeted by groups that play upon the worst fears of believers which keep these people on edge and anxious about everything when I think it was the Lord that told his disciples to “be anxious for nothing” or maybe it was Saint Paul, but whoever it was it’s in the Bible, you can look it up.

I think I will continue this series as I believe that religious liberty is under threat in a thousand different ways, well maybe not a thousand I haven’t counted lately but at least I am sure in a number of ways some more insidious than others.  I do not believe that this threat should only alarm Christians but that people of any faith that take it serious should be concerned.  I am not asking or desirous of governmental favors for religious groups because that only leads to tyranny as religious people and groups prostitute their faith for special status. That is the nature of the beast, maybe even like the Beast in the Book of Revelation which had a political, religious and economic nature.  However I do think that it is high time that people of good intent and real faith regardless of what it is start looking out for each other otherwise no one’s faith will be safe.

To be continued….

Peace

Padre Steve+

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