Dynasty defenders: Religion no excuse for bigotry

Duck DynastyLast Christmas, it seemed like everyone in my family and my husband's family was talking about Duck Dynasty. We are all from the Midwest, which may be why the hunting, back-woods feel of the show held a certain charm. And there really were some funny parts. It seemed like mere mention of the show incited laughter from one corner or another. This Christmas, the families are still talking about Duck Dynasty. But this time no one is laughing.

In case you've been in a coma for the last week, here's a brief recap: Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the millionaire family featured on the A&E show, caused a shitstorm when he made homophobic remarks publicly. In an interview with GQ Magazine, he said the following:

It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.

Later, he added:

Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. 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.

And if all that wasn't bad enough, a 2010 sermon conducted by Phil Robertson surfaced, in which he said:

Women with women, men with men, they committed indecent acts with one another, and they received in themselves the due penalty for their perversions. They're full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil. That's what you have 235 years, roughly, after your forefathers founded the country. So what are you gonna do Pennsylvania? Just run with them? You're doing to die. Don't forget that.

Oh, boy.

The reaction to all this was about what you'd expect. A lot of people went apeshit. A&E television suspended Robertson from the show for an undisclosed period. Then a lot of other people went apeshit, accusing A&E of unfairly reprimanding the man for his religious beliefs.

How many times do we need to say it? Religion may be a reason for a person's bigotry — but it's not an excuse. There is no excuse for bigotry. Just as infanticide is not an acceptable behavior — even though God did it in the Bible — so it goes for bigotry. Hate and prejudice are not luxuries afforded by religion, or by anything else for that matter. You don't get to be a dick just because you belong to a certain church or because you're old, or because you're from Louisiana, or because you just don't know any better.

Now, let's be clear: Thoughts are not behavior. If Phil Robertson thinks bigoted things because he thinks God wants him to think bigoted things, that's none of our business. But when those thoughts become behaviors (and, yes, speech is a behavior), then it's his responsibility — and his employer's — to answer for that behavior.

Now, some might say, "Fine. Phil Robertson's comments weren't 'protected' by his religion. And, fine, his speech is behavior. But what about free speech? What's the point of the First Amendment if we're not going to let people express their thoughts in a public forum without fear of reprisal?"

Well, the point of the First Amendment is to ensure that no one in this country is censored or arrested or prosecuted or executed by the goverment of the United States for anything they say. Of course there are some exceptions — incendiary speech that implies or incites certain behavior, for example. But, without question, Phil Robertson's remarks are protected by the First Amendment. Government shouldn't take action, and it hasn't.

But if you believe that the First Amendment protects Robertson from being publicly chastised, or from losing a job on a TV network, you are cheapening the freedom of speech. You are insulting all those people who are or have been imprisoned for stating their beliefs openly.  Free speech is one of our most important rights, as citizen of this country, and it's nothing less than terrifying to think about countries, such as North Korea, that offer no such freedoms.

No one is putting Robertson in jail for saying homosexuals are evil, just like no one put comedian Daniel Tosh in jail for making jokes about gang raping an audience member at one of his gigs, and just like no one put MSNBC's Martin Bashir in jail after he told his viewers that someone should urinate and defecate in Sarah Palin's mouth.

Our country gives us the right to say some truly terrible things without fear of reprisal.

But A&E is not the government.

If I'm a public figure who says on the radio that black people are the source of evil because my Bible tells me so, I might very well lose fans, or get nasty mail, or be fired from my job. Why? Because I'm a racist, and because, just as I have the right to state my beliefs, my fellow citizens have a right to speak out against my racism.

And what kind of a precedent would my employers be setting if they allowed that sort of hateful speech to go unchecked? It would be like saying, "Yes, our employee stated her racist views publicly, and we're fine with that. So, hey, all you other racists out there, have at it! Say all the hateful comments you want! And to hell with all those men, women and children who hear your remarks and go home feeling demoralized, frustrated, saddened and tormented at the end of the day.

Any responsible company isn't going to let that behavior go. The company is going to reprimand me, at the very least. "Hey, no more of that, okay?" And that's what A&E did. They suspended Phil Robertson. A good hard slap on the hand to say, "No, we don't tolerate hate."

How we react as a society to celebrities who behave badly matters. We don't have to hate the celebrities, of course. We can understand that they come from different backgrounds or cultures or religions. We can understand their bigotry is rooted in ignorance. We can even forgive them and move on. But we mustn't respect that behavior, or excuse it, or let it go.

The government doesn't punish bigotry. But that's precisely what makes it so important that we do.

What Happens When You Don't Tell Your Kid About Religion? Only Really Terrible Things, That's All.

Church of Scientology

Let's say you're a secular parent who doesn't feel the need to talk about religion with your kid. Maybe you don't like religion, or understand it, or even care about it very much. Maybe you tried once to broach the subject with your kid, and it was pretty awkward and confusing and you were sure you screwed stuff up. Maybe you decided, after careful consideration, to table the whole thing for another time. And by "another time," you mean in, like, 20 years.

"So what?" you ask. "She'll get the information she needs eventually, right? And if she's really interested in religion, she'll ask. Plus, what's the worst that could happen? Is discussing religion with my kid really such a big deal?"

Yes, dingbat, it is.

Now if you asked me whether postponing or avoiding the topic of religion is the worst thing you could do, I would say: Of course not! There are far worse things you could do! But since when is your goal to do "better than the worst" when it comes to your child? Aren't you the same person who obsesses about which school would best suit your son's personality? Worries about whether new media will kill his ability to be creative? Feels guilty when you're forced to hit the McDonald's drive-through three times in the same week?

But, hey, let's say for the sake of argument that your gut tells you to just let sleeping dogs lie — and by dogs, of course, you mean gods. Let's say you want to know, specifically, what will happen if you keep your trap shut and let your kids figure it out for themselves.

By my count, there are exactly five possibilities.

Possibility No. 1: Your kid will feel like an idiot

Maybe it's a public sort of humiliation — the kind that occurs when other kids tease your child for not knowing something uber-basic, like what a Bible looks like or what was in Noah's Ark. Or maybe it's the private sort, wherein your kid realizes she's not as "smart" as other kids and is afraid to ask questions that might embarrass her. Either way, she internalizes her ignorance, and her self-esteem plummets. Well done.

Possibility No.2: Your kid will offend people.

When a child doesn't have a foundation of religious understanding, the likelihood that he'll accidentally offend a friend or family member is extremely high. Now, to be fair, you might not care if your kid offends your holier-than-thou, Jesus-freak brother-in-law. You might even secretly enjoy it. (He's such an intolerant jerk. It would serve him right!) But how much do you think your child will enjoy offending her uncle? Or best friend? Or teacher? And how much worse is it that your little snickerdoodle won't even understand what she has said that's so offensive? Sorry, but saddling your kid with confusion and shame makes you pretty much the worst parent on the planet — no matter how limited her exposure to Happy Meals.

Possibility No. 3: Your kid will assume you have "issues" with religion.

KJ Del'Antonia wrote on yesterday's Motherlode blog about the responsibility that white parents have to talk to their kids about race. Many parents think that not talking about race sends the message that race doesn't matter. "But," Del'Antonia said, "research suggests the opposite: that when we don’t talk about race, our children continue to think about it — and what they think is that it matters too much to talk about." Avoiding God talks can send the message that you consider the entire subject to be scary, wrong or bad. And even if your child doesn't see why religion is taboo in your household, he'll learn quickly to respect your silence and ask no questions. That may seem fine, until years from now when your son meets and falls in love with a deeply religious girl — and you are literally the last to know.

Possibility No. 4: Your kid will join the Taliban.

Okay, probably not, but it could happen. Greg Brown has a fantastic song called "If You Don't Get it At Home," whose refrain is: "If you don't get it at home, you're gonna go lookin'...." It's so very applicable here. If you don't encourage your kid to explore the ins and outs of religion at home, she'll find it elsewhere. Fundamentalist Christian groups gain a good number of followers from families who have all but banned religious talk from their households, according to Parenting Beyond Belief guy Dale McGowan. And let's not forget teenage rebellion. When she's 15, your daughter might very well be hunting for ways to piss you off. And, dude, how pissed would you be if she up and joined the Taliban? Or, worse, the Church of Scientology? [Scientologists: It's a joke. Please don't start stalking me or threatening me with your crazy lawsuits. Thanks.]

Possibility No. 5: Your kid will become that intolerant jerk.

So let's say your kid is way too smart to join the Taliban, or any other fringe religion. Let's say, at 8, he's got atheist written all over him. But how — if you don't talk about religion — is your child supposed to learn that religious people deserve your kindness as much as anyone else? If all your kids observes in his house are subtle eye-rolls, sighs of exasperation and occasional disparaging remarks about "fundies," won't he start mimicking that? It's inevitable, isn't it? Unfortunately, he may not know enough about religion himself to do be selective about his negativity. He'll simply lump all religious people together, and treat the lot of them with eye-rolling and signs of exasperation. Goodbye, Tolerance. Hello, Bigotry.

I'm not trying to say there's one perfect way to discuss religion in your home — just as I'm not judging any parent who hits McDonald's on the way home. We are human, and we're all doing the best we can. How you approach the subject will depend entirely on your experiences, your personality, and your beliefs. All I'm asking is that you start the talk while your child is still young enough to want to listen, and seize opportunities to talk these things through. Find websites. Check out books. Read this blog. Whatever gets you started. Define some basic words: God, for instance, and HeavenReligion and Prayer. Remember, you need not know everything there is about Buddhism to say the word Buddhist. Or everything about Islam to say the word Muslim. Simply saying the words out loud and trying your best to answer any questions that arise can be incredibly helpful to your child— and surprisingly empowering for you.