The decision by A&E to suspend Duck Dynasty paterfamilias Phil Robertson for his comments on homosexuality resulted in an immediate backlash. The Robertson family quickly found themselves supported by prominent evangelicals, some of whom have never watched the show. 

For sociologists, the reaction by evangelicals should be completely expected–evangelicalism needs this controversy to survive and even thrive.

Source: Big Idea Productions. ‪pic.twitter.com/3PE3gXC6OX‬

Source: Big Idea Productions. ‪pic.twitter.com/3PE3gXC6OX‬ (Image source)


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If you took a college course in sociology, chances are that religion wasn’t discussed much. When religion was brought up, it was probably to say that religion was doomed to eventually disappear. Up until about 1990, sociologists who did study religion, like James Davison Hunter, saw conservative religious groups as poorly equipped to survive in modern culture. Fights with the larger, pluralistic culture were bound to lead to accommodation and a decline in orthodoxy.

The problem, of course, is that evangelicals and other religious groups seemed to be doing just fine. They seemed to be finding a way to grow even as their levels of wealth, education, and status were on the rise.

Christian Smith, a sociologist who is now at Notre Dame, worked with a team of researchers to find out why. They conducted a large national survey and many in-depth interviews with evangelicals and other Christians. Smith concluded that evangelicalism was “embattled and thriving” because it simultaneously engaged with the broader culture while finding ways to create and protect its religious identity.

Smith found that instead of chipping away at evangelicalism, pluralism can actually help it grow. Evangelicals engage in the culture as a way to keep current members and attract new ones. Engagement is also risky. The trick is to figure out how to engage while maintaining meaningful religious identities, to reach out beyond one’s religion without losing one’s faith.

Smith found that evangelicals do this by setting up “symbolic boundaries” that help them define who they are. These are markers that help them sort out who they are vis-a-vis other groups in society. Evangelicals can thus learn, work, and play just like everyone else so long as they keep within these boundaries.

Duck Dynasty is “embattled and thriving” evangelicalism par excellence.

The A&E show features an evangelical family that is successful in American life. They are millionaire entrepreneurs who receive record ratings on TV.  Their show features strong families who are devoted to their faith, ending every show with a prayer around the family dinner table. They are the evangelical ideal success story.

GQ’s interview, however, shows that this success comes with boundaries. Phil Robertson’s comments–while certainly not phrased in genteel theological language–kept inside the symbolic boundaries of evangelicalism. The reaction by A&E and the ensuing brouhaha is necessary for evangelical survival. They can be rich and famous, but they keep their identity by sticking to a set of core beliefs that mark them as distinct from the broader culture.

If Smith is right, then evangelicals would have reacted differently to the current controversy if A&E had made its decision to suspend Robertson because of his remarks on race and segregated life in Louisiana. These remarks are just as inflammatory. The difference is that they do not touch one of the symbolic boundaries of evangelicalism. They are indefensible. But A&E focused on his statements on homosexuality, and this meant–in the thinking of many evangelicals–that they had to choose between defending their beliefs or acquiescing to culture.

Controversies like this are necessary for evangelicals. They want to be normal Americans with all the benefits of contemporary life.  At the same time, they also need to keep their religious identity. Fights like this one over Robertson’s comments are how they set up the boundaries between themselves and others. They embrace Duck Dynasty, with all its American success, and they also need to defend the show’s stars when it runs up against norms in American society.  This controversy is not an aberration. It is how evangelicals thrive.

26 Comments

  1. Anyone who is actually a follower of Jesus will always be against popular culture and all its immoral trappings. Worldliness is just not comparable with Christianity.

    • Comment marked as low quality by the editors. Show comment

      Please. If you have something constructive to say, then say it. Otherwise, don’t be another internet troll degenerate who can’t verbalize a thought beyond some long-retired meme.

    • Plant your flag on a better hilltop

      1. Reality shows are garbage
      2. They are a cheap way to generate programming
      3 They are needed to sell other garbage

      That said, the only slice of heaven that is in tears right now are those who would canonize a fired bigot solely for his being fired as a bigot

      • Richard Maloney

        “Plant your flag on a better hilltop…” No kidding! Why did Mr. Grant ignore Robertson’s comments in the same interview about black people?

        “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person,” Robertson is quoted in GQ. “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.”

        I don’t know if embracing racism is the best way to ensure that gay people don’t have rights.

  2. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It isn’t just Evangelicals who feel sympathy for the “Duck” Family in the face of their beliefs and freedoms being trashed and attacked by the Gay Steamroller that many believe is part of the moral collapse of our nation and the West. Many, many Catholics are also fed up with the intolerance constantly practiced by those who claim to be tolerant– a tolerance that lasts only as long as you agree with them and are willing to go along with every part of their agenda.
    Maybe it will take some besieged courageous “Rednecks” to start an American turnaround. Their language may not be as sophisticated as that of the educated elite in the media and the world of academe, but they are smart enough to see sin for what it is– something many so-called educated people find it hard to do.

    • What freedoms are being trampled, out of curiosity? A millionaire’s freedom to be on a reality TV show? I don’t recall that being in the Constitution. Oh, wait… you must be one of those people who thinks the first amendment entitles someone to speak without receiving any repercussions or backlash. I’m sorry, but freedom of speech allows one to express themselves without being oppressed by the government. A&E is a company; and like any company, they have the right to employ or fire people based on what sort of image they want to represent them as a company. That’s kind of the whole point of capitalism–businesses being able to make business decisions.

      Of course, for someone using the phrases “Gay Steamroller” and “sin” in his argument, it does not surprise me that you ignore what rights people are actually entitled to, in favor of self-righteous pathos.

  3. There is another interesting wrinkle here. Most denominations have their conservative/fundamentalist wing and they pretty much all set the same boundaries. So right wing Baptist sound much like right wing Catholics in their Biblical interpretation and around the hot button issues. Martin Marty and others have studied how these conservatives have carved out enclaves within their denominations, In some denominations, the Southern Baptists for instance, the enclave is a majority and in others, like the Episcopalians, the enclave represents a tiny minority. Which ever group dominates calls the shots. So Southern Baptists appear to be uniformly conservative and Episcopalians uniformly progressive. Of course, this is just the appearance, underneath there is constant conflict. If they can’t get their way, conservative often leave to form their own denomination, like the Society of St Pius X., Less often it is the progressive who leave. Either way those leaving think of themselves as the only true, pure expression of their denominational ideals, the righteous remnant. In any case, this constant churning and conflict weakens the denominational system of organization, diverts attention away from mission and ministry, presents a hypocritical face to the world, and ultimately hurts the whole Christian Community. .

  4. This is why the church has no business being intertwined with capitalism. The capitalists that own the show are mercilessly persecuting their employees by restricting what they can say. All in search of the almighty dollar. They are worried about their bottom line, and the Robertsons are in the uncomfortable position of being a cash cow and a golden calf at the same time. We should prohibit companies from firing employees for voicing an opinion, but we’ll never do that while our government is controlled by the corporations.

  5. Its funny how nobody wants to talk about Phil’s raging racist remarks in the same interview.

    For all of his supporters here, please give a good excuse why his statements about blacks being better off under Jim Crow can be seen as anything other than offensive nonsense likely to make advertisers run for cover.

  6. 1. Mr. Robertson profiteers from the work of laborers living under a totalitarian government.
    2. Mr. Robertson wears costumes.
    3. Mr. Robertson talks publicly about the relative entertainment value of the body parts of men and women.

    Why does evangelicalism (whatever that might be) need this?

  7. 1. Reality shows are garbage
    2. They are a cheap way to generate programming
    3 They are needed to sell other garbage

    That said, the only slice of heaven that is in tears right now are those who would canonize a fired bigot solely for his being fired as a bigot

  8. RadRevelation

    I agree with the premise that evangelicalism requires controversies, but not for the reasons presented here. Evangelicalism requires controversies because it is, at its heart, an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ community.

    I posted extensively on Twitter how Phil’s remarks were actually just bad doctrine – how he pulled verses meant for the Church and used them to condemn people who are not part of the church – and how this sorry affair shows us more about the state of American Christianity than any TV show.

    I got harsh Tweets from a few people in return, and felt some of the Old Time Hellfire sent my way. Quite a thing.

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