So the Duck Dynasty situation has come to a predictable close: Phil Robertson is back on the show, and A&E and GQ are laughing all the way to the bank. Bobby Jindal and the folks over at Erick Erickson’s platform Red State are celebrating, and the good people of the USA are again well reminded of what rides under the banner of Christianity.
At least for the moment, Robertson is enjoying new status as a kind of Evangelical role model, praised for his boldness and courage, as well as for his commitment to Biblical values. That Robertson has refused to roll back anything he said is another cause for celebration among the Evangelical righties who support him, as it signals a spark of resistance in the long slog of the culture wars.
And what a pyrrhic victory it is for Christians. Because support from the Evangelical right has been leveled at Robertson as a person — thus the “I Stand with Phil” sloganeering — there’s been little to no effort from supporters to decry his despicably racist commentary on the Jim Crow era south. One might disagree with the Evangelical read on homosexuality, but they’re at least drawing upon a Biblical theme there. But the support effort hasn’t been aimed at supporting general expression of anti-homosexuality sentiments, it’s been aimed at supporting the man himself, which advances a certain ‘warts and all’ dedication. And that’s a big problem, because Robertson had some pretty terrible things to say about black people. Here it is, in full:
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
What Robertson and his primarily white Evangelical support base may not be aware of is that black folks, who one might conclude are now less
godly, are actually a uniquely Christian subset of the population. This is not to say that the reason one shouldn’t be a racist is because black people are the most thoroughly Christian race group in the US, but only to point out that it’s especially bizarre for such an intensely dedicated Christian to express suspicion of the godliness of the most thoroughly Christian race group in the US. Let the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life explain, excerpted from their 2008 religious landscape study
Of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., blacks are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation. Even among black adults who are unaffiliated (12%), more than two-thirds (70%) say that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives and, thus, are classified in the “religious unaffiliated” group; only 1% of blacks identify as atheist or agnostic. About six-in-ten (59%) black adults are affiliated with historically black Protestant churches; however, only about two-in-ten are members of predominantly white evangelical (15%) and mainline (4%) Protestant churches.
85% of black people, in other words, polled as Christian, compared to 78% of whites. While only roughly 1% of black people polled as atheist or agnostic, 5% of whites did. To indict black people as a whole is therefore to indict the greatest concentration of Christians in any race group.
Along with being factually inaccurate, Robertson’s remarks on black people are insulting and deeply divisive, jamming a wedge between white and black Christians we’d be much better off trying to dissolve. So why on earth is anyone defending him as a Christian? If the mission of the church on earth is to band together as a unified body of Christ, why make emblematic of that mission a man who so comfortably insults one of the most demonstrably Christian subsets of our population? When I ask myself whether a person concerned with Christianity and its mission of unity, solidarity, and fellowship would rally behind someone who takes potshots at black Christians, the answer is no. So why are so many Evangelicals willing to defend Robertson as a Christian role model?
If you guessed that what’s going on here isn’t exactly about Christianity, I’m in agreement with you. What rather appears to be at hand is a defense of a particular kind of culture that imagines itself to be deeply entwined with Christianity, while it is in reality deeply antithetical to it. This culture is expressed in the symbolic elements of Phil Robertson’s persona: the woodsy, outdoorsy, off-the-grid, self-made, rugged, and most importantly anti-progressive aspects that appeal to his right wing Evangelical supporters. It’s this culture that produces and nurtures the kind of racism Robertson advances, and it’s because racism is part of the culture that his supporters are willing to tacitly encourage it. Were this seriously about Christianity and defending the furthering of its goals, surely more Christians drawn to Robertson’s bold expression of doctrine regarding homosexuality would be nonetheless repulsed — openly, vocally repulsed — by the divisiveness he’s willing to engender in the church via racism.
But as Brittney Cooper
points out at Salon, Evangelicals have a racism problem to sort out. And in my mind, this is a theological issue. It’s a matter of letting go of toxic elements of a culture that is entirely and easily separable from Christianity itself, if that were what adherents really wanted. That can start when Evangelicals stop defending aggrieved racists with otherwise potentially Christian messages as exemplars of the faith, and thereby furthering the image of Christianity itself as a harbor for racism. Everyone wants to be the persecuted, reviled righteous person from Matthew 5:11
, who is blessed by virtue of their persecution; in this case, those most sure of their persecution are, in fact, the persecutors, and their victim is the hope of unity.