Duck Dynasty, Defrockings, and Free Speech

December 19th, 2013

There are two big stories blowing up on social media right now, both related to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The most widely discussed one involves the star of the popular A&E reality show Duck Dynasty, Phil Robertson. In an interview with GQ, Phil made some controversial remarks about homosexuality and was suspended indefinitely by the network after complaints from GLAAD and related groups.

Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor in Pennsylvania, was defrocked this morning by his conference Board of Ordained Ministry for performing a same sex marriage ceremony for his son. Schaefer was convicted in a church trial last month and had one month to decide whether he’d surrender his clergy credentials or agree to abide by United Methodist church law in its entirety. Schaeffer refused to do either one, so his credentials were stripped by the board.

Two guys are out of a job today for two totally different reasons. But it all comes back to the intense discussion around human sexuality in this country right now.

I’ve been watching the conversation on social media and on news websites since yesterday evening, and I’d like to offer a few observations:

• Lots of people are defending Phil Robertson with the claim that his First Amendment right to free speech has been violated. That technically isn’t true. As far as we know, the government hasn’t censored him, and that’s what the First Amendment is all about: government suppression of free speech. We don’t know the details of Phil Robertson’s contract with A&E, but he’s considered a face of the network, and if A&E feels he’s damaging their brand with his public remarks, they’re probably within their rights to suspend or terminate him, however ill-advised that may be.

• The essence of what Robertson said about homosexuality is not a fringe viewpoint within Christianity. It is mainstream. Many of us wouldn’t have chosen the words that Phil used, but his view that homosexual practice is unscriptural is not an archaic opinion from somewhere in right field. My own denomination, The United Methodist Church, hardly an ultra-conservative institution, officially teaches that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” but it also acknowledges that “all persons are of sacred worth.” This is the position of many Christians, not just United Methodists.

• Frank Schaefer performed a same sex marriage ceremony with the clear understanding that this is a chargeable offense in The United Methodist Church, and he knew he could be defrocked because of it. That’s a risk he took. I get that he was following his conscience, and I understand the rationale of those who disagree with the UMC’s position on this issue. But rightly or wrongly, when someone stands up for their beliefs or violates a law or rule in the spirit of civil disobedience, accepting the consequences is part of the package they sign up for. Schaefer could have been defrocked on the spot after the guilty verdict last month, but the jury generously offered him the opportunity to keep his credentials by agreeing not to violate the United Methodist Book of Discipline in the future. Schaefer refused, and now he is no longer an elder in full connection. No one should be outraged or surprised at this development.

• As for Robertson, he had the right to say what he said, and the A&E Network had a right to suspend him for it. And the show’s viewers ultimately have the right to fire A&E if they want. That’s the way America works. It’s sad that so many special interest groups are using bullying tactics to silence opposing viewpoints, but ultimately the consumer decides whether or not to reward or punish companies and individuals who give in to such pressure. Unfortunately, our hypersensitive culture has created an atmosphere where many are afraid to speak freely about anything that might offend someone else. Essentially, the government hasn’t abridged our right to free speech—we have. Shame on us if we keep doing it.

Homosexuality will continue to be a controversial topic, especially within mainline Christianity. But if it’s going to be a real conversation, people who hold to the traditional Christian view of human sexuality are going to have get more involved in the discussion. Whether it’s from a fear of being perceived as mean and intolerant, or from a noble desire to avoid controversy and focus on positive things like spreading the Gospel, many of us have allowed one side of the debate to control the narrative. As a result, the dividing lines between personal identity and sexual practice have become largely nonexistent in many people’s minds.

If the church is going to say that something is wrong, we need to be ready to show people a better way. But if our words aren’t full of love and backed up by the power of God, we’re not offering hope to those who consider themselves part of the gay community, we’re offering condemnation and despair. And that's not what the Gospel is about.

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