Biblical Illiteracy Rears Its Head in Phil Robertson Flap

Biblical Illiteracy Rears Its Head in Phil Robertson Flap

As a teacher of religious studies, one thing that has stuck out to me during the recent Phil Robertson (the patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” clan) controversy is the seeming ignorance regarding the source of several of the quotes attributed to Robertson. This article, for example, purports to compare “some of Pope Francis’ remarks about gay people and Robertson’s quotes,” putting three quotes from each side-by-side along with a picture of each figure, including the one below:

The problem, of course, is that the quote on the left is not Robertson’s at all. It is a quotation of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. Remarkably, two of the three quotes attributed to Robertson in the HuffPo piece are not Robertson’s words at all but rather direct quotes from the New Testament (the other coming from Rom 1:24–32). There is, of course, no mention of that fact in the piece, which leads me to wonder whether the authors are ignorant of that fact or whether they have simply chosen not to mention it.

The same is true of TMZ’s supposedly shocking exposé of a video of Robertson purportedly calling “gay people shameful, perverse, heartless, faithless, senseless God haters … destined for the burning pits of hell.” The controversial words of that video (which are included in one of the three pictures mentioned above) are not in fact Robertson’s own but come from Romans 1:24–32. TMZ conveniently (or ignorantly) ignores this fact, as did numerous media outlets, again including HuffPo, which simply reported:

TMZ posted a video Thursday of Robertson unleashing an anti-gay sermon on a crowd at Pennsylvania’s Berean Bible Church’s Wild Game Supper in 2010. In the video, the Duck Commander king can be seen dressed in camouflage, thumping a Bible, talking about sexual deviants and the lack of morality in America.

Again, no mention that Robertson was reading or quoting Romans 1 throughout the clip, interrupting his reading with the occasional comment about how relevant this passage seems to be to modern America in his view.

It’s also worth noting that Pope Francis presumably agrees with these quotes from the apostle Paul, which have long guided Catholic tradition in this area; he has simply changed the rhetoric surrounding the issue to emphasize that the Church does not and (at least in terms of doctrine) has never reduced people to behavior or desires but rather holds that a person is more than his/her sexual preferences or choices. Robertson, of course, said much the same thing, though far less eloquently than the philosophically-trained Pope, in his GQ interview.

How exactly the Pope interprets these passages is unclear, and that’s the discussion that would be more valuable here. Instead of ripping Robertson for quoting these passages, the more worthwhile discussion concerns Robertson’s interpretation and application of these passages in the modern day. But instead, numerous media outlets have irresponsibly misattributed these quotations with the presumed aim of demonizing Robertson without such a discussion. The way many have latched onto Pope Francis’ rhetorically attractive but still firmly traditional quotations without acknowledging that he continues to uphold traditional church teaching (the “only” in the above quote is significant) is similarly problematic.

It’s also worth noting that A&E has known Robertson’s views on these matters from the beginning (especially interesting given the background of the creator of the Duck Dynasty show) and is almost certainly thrilled about all this extra publicity. Robertson is “suspended indefinitely,” but will surely rejoin the show—which will experience a ratings spike—before too long. As with the Chick-Fil-A controversy of 2012, such manufactured controversies only serve to enrich those involved in the controversy. Thus, even in such serious matters, consumerism and big business are the true winners.

5 Comments
  • Eric
    Posted at 21:36h, 22 December Reply

    “Robertson, of course, said much the same thing, though far less eloquently than the philosophically-trained Pope, in his GQ interview.”

    No, he went far beyond anything the Pope has said. Robertson didn’t merely lack eloquence; he lacked the humane compassion Francis I has exhibited in word and deed. And Robertson didn’t just paraphrase NT texts; he repeated common conservative rhetoric linking homosexuality and bestiality, and that was after he reduced the identity of gay men to sex acts and body parts. No one in the media denies that the Pope remains a traditionalist, but he’s been widely (if not universally) praised for stepping away from the demonization of gays and lesbians.

    If Robertson is being called out for his views, it isn’t just because the media lack biblical literacy and thus fail to recognize biblical quotes when they here them. It is because the language and assumptions embedded in texts like 1 Cor. 6 or Rom. 1 are themselves increasingly seen as incompatible with contemporary understandings of sexuality.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 00:59h, 23 December Reply

      I didn’t see where Robertson reduced the identity of gay men to sex acts. I only saw where he talked about specific sex acts. But I may have missed something.

      Without question the passages Robertson quoted are increasingly seen as out of step with modern notions of sexuality, but that is precisely the discussion that should be had. Misattributing those words to Robertson is counterproductive.

  • dlpaal
    Posted at 08:32h, 10 January Reply

    Maybe the easier response that should have been made by both Robertson and Francis was, “What part of Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 6 do you not understand?”

  • Richard
    Posted at 08:15h, 26 May Reply

    The real question is why does any of this need to be mentioned to begin with? Christians are commanded to love. We are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God. Who are we to point out the specific sins of others? We need to point to the love that God has for everyone. He loves everyone unconditionally. Are we preaching condemnation or Calvary? Are we passing judgement or grace? It’s really quite simple, the way it was received is the fruit that was produced.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 12:27h, 28 May Reply

      I’m afraid Jesus himself rather frequently pointed out specific sins, and the New Testament epistles tend to do the same.

      Similarly, “grace” is a concept from the ancient Mediterranean world that requires reciprocity and is understood in the New Testament as the means to freedom from sin. So judgment and grace very much go together in early Christianity. There are obviously those today who don’t hold to that, but Robertson’s views are quite understandable here in the context of historical Christianity.

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