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Duck Dynasty and the Secular Theocracy

This guest post is by David Theroux, Founder and President of the Independent Institute. This two-part series was originally published on Patheos and is reprinted with David’s permission. Look for Part 2 tomorrow!

With A&E Network facing an avalanche of public protest and in just over one week of its decision to place family-patriarch Phil Robertson on “indefinite hiatus” from its megahit reality series Duck Dynasty, the network caved.

When the PC outrage industry went into high gear with an angry Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) demanding Robertson’s head regarding his comments on homosexuality in an article by Drew Magery in the January 2014 issue of GQ (the magazine commonly viewed as having branded the concept of “metrosexual”), A&E executives promptly suspended Robertson from the enormously popular, cable-TV program, and support for his suspension echoed throughout the conventional media with cries of his being “homophobic” and “antigay.”

In the article, when asked about his religious faith, Robertson noted that his own youthful debauchery was self-destructive and put his marriage on the rocks, and that these were reversed only by his conversion to Christianity. He added that he now considers sexual relations other than those between a man and woman in wedlock to be sinful. In so doing, Robertson did not support bans on homosexual advocacy or relations but instead paraphrased Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

In subsequent comments, he included himself as a “sexual sinner”:

“I myself am a product of the 60s; I centered my life around sex, drugs and rock and roll until I hit rock bottom and accepted Jesus as my Savior. My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the Bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together. However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other.”

In contrast, Doug Ellin, creator of HBO’s Entourage, has actually tweeted a call for gays to shoot Robertson: “I think it would be a better show if gay people got to throw Phil Robertson [sic] up in the air and shoot at him then [sic] him shooting at cute ducks.” So much for tolerance and nonviolence, and will Ellin be booted by “progressives” for advocating a hate crime?  Just imagine if the reverse had happened or if someone on a major network TV program had been suspended indefinitely for making pro-gay comments. The outrage would be deafening.

Some have speculated that all this was just a brilliant and perhaps unprecedented publicity stunt by A&E. Was it?

Even before the show premiered in spring 2012, A&E well knew of Robertson’s views and warned him not to expound them, and it was A&E who arranged and oversaw the GQ interview. While the Robertson family has publicly stated they regret the “unfiltered” and “coarse” language Phil used, they believe that they have been “hung out to dry” by A&E in order to rein him in. The Daily Mail reported on December 21, 2013, that

A source close to the family, who asked not to be named, told MailOnline: “You have to ask yourself, why this interview happened and why it ever became public. Someone from A&E was there and was aware of the kind of answers Phil was giving. But despite that, they didn’t ever try to stop it or control it. Instead, they let it hit the headlines and then released a statement condemning it. It is our belief that they knew what was going to happen and then used the situation to exercise control over Phil. It is our understanding that when the TV executives came up with the concept for the show they wanted it to be a case of people laughing at a bunch of backward rednecks. But when it didn’t turn out like that and people actually started identifying with the way the family behaved and were laughing with them, not at them, they became uncomfortable. It did not sit well with the New York TV types. We believe they were also uncomfortable with the family’s insistence that there would be a strong religious presence in the show. They knew Phil was the driving force behind this and we think they have used this situation to bring him in line so they could steer the show back down the path they originally intended for it. But they may have underestimated how united the family are and how committed they are to their beliefs. They also didn’t realize how much support Phil would get from the public, so things have backfired on them.”

A&E may well have believed that they could manipulate the family that was then under a new contract: season five had already been filmed for 2014 (to premiere January 15), and Duck Dynasty merchandise sales were breaking new records during the Christmas season ($500 million since the show’s first launch). Even after the controversy arose, A&E continued its plans to air a Duck Dynasty marathon on Christmas Day, and there was never any hint that season five would be altered in any way.

As the Los Angeles Times noted on December 20, 2013, “A&E said it was ‘extremely disappointed’ to read the GQ interview. Note, however, that the statement did not say ‘extremely surprised.’ The network knew all along about Robertson’s views, because he’s not shy about sharing them.”

However, disputes between the Robertson family and A&E over the Christian content of the show developed early on. Phil Robertson has pointed out that A&E editors “with no moral compass” initially tried to censor out the words Jesus and Christ from prayers on the show and even routinely manipulated the show’s footage to intensify the language and make the family appear more profane and unruly than they really are. “They inserted fake beeps like somebody had used profanity, but no one had used profanity. If you want that, you can get all of that you want. Just turn the station. There’s plenty of that! And if we’re not using profanity, why make it look like we’re using profanity? What is the point? Why don’t you just run it and say what we say?” Producers eventually gave in, he said, and “quit doing that.”

WND poked fun of A&E officials who were increasingly incensed by the Christian content of the show, even to the point of risking the financial rewards, with this spoof:

“We’re just sick of all this redneck Jesusy stuff,” A&E representative Moe Ronic told reporters. “And besides, making truckloads of money is really overrated,” he added, referencing the show’s No. 1 all-time ranking. “In fact,” he continued, “just the other day I was sharing an Appletini with Bob, our program director, and he was pining for the good ol’ days—back when we had ratings like MSNBC’s ‘Winter Solstice Generic Holiday Special.’ “You know, more money means more work—what, with the bookkeeping and all,” he pointed out. “Most of us at A&E are actually quite excited to get back to the utter irrelevance and obscurity from whence we came.”

As was the case with such earlier TV shows as Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, as well as NPR’s long-running Prairie Home Companion, A&E was seeking an entertainment show portraying Middle America as “hickville” in order to get people to disparage and laugh at those who do not subscribe to “progressive” culture (social liberalism achieved and policed through bullying and government mandates). What A&E was not expecting is that instead of the audience laughing at a self-described “bunch of rednecks from Louisiana,” the 14.6 million who view the program each week have been laughing with the Robertson’s at the hypocrisy, foolishness, and tyranny of “progressive” elites. As CNN’s Ruben Navarrette has duly commented, “The reason that ‘Duck Dynasty’ is on television is to make liberal studio executives at A&E, and parent company Disney, feel superior, while making big profits for the studio.  The Robertson’s are on television so that people in New York and Los Angeles—the kind of folks who refer to anyplace in between as ‘flyover country’—can feel progressive and enlightened by comparing themselves to simple country folks in Louisiana who, according to the elites, are neither. (And can make lots of money doing so.)”