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.
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.