Edit: See a followup post here
Public discourse is becoming steadily more ridiculous. More energy is spent on question-begging polemics, lynch-mob ad hominem attacks, and tirades against strawmen than actually discussing the real issues at hand. Even well-meaning individuals get basic facts or concepts wrong and completely derail conversation. The efforts of the educated and reasoned commentators are turned away from the issue itself and towards futile efforts at silencing the craziest of the crazies.
This is why I prefer to write mostly at the level of theory and abstraction; writing my own commentary on mainstream commentary would be the intellectual equivalent of pulling weeds. Now, I recently made a case on the virtues of weed-pulling, so let me be clear: one weeds a productive and domesticated garden; one does not weed the wilderness.
So this article stems not from a burning desire to comment on an issue that seems to have come and gone, but rather to think through and write out what I learned from it.
I’m talking about the recent Duck Dynasty flap. (Hah! See what I did there?)
What Happened: an GQ journalist asked Phil Robertson his opinions on homosexuality, and the whole media exploded in shock over the opinions of a religious backwoods redneck regarding homosexuality.
It is important to point out that he didn’t call for any violence, intimidation, murder, etc (as supposedly- tolerant progressive commentators tend to do.) He just said he didn’t understand the appeal of gay sex, and that it was a sin on par with gambling and a few other things. Absent the remark on sin, he might as well have been commenting on why he prefers beer over wine or trucks over cars. He was using LGBT’s own language of “preference!”
Nevertheless, GLAAD declared a fatwa on Phil Robertson, A&E acquiesced and banned him from future participation in the show, grassroots support for him surprised the entire mainstream media, and then he was reinstated by A&E.
Lessons Learned: One meme went around at the time, and I can’t believe my Google skills can’t locate it now, but the gist was, “You have the right to say stupid things with impunity from the government. And your employer has the right to fire you for saying stupid things with impunity from the government.”
At first I instinctively agreed with the message. Saying in a way that represents your employer poorly can certainly be grounds for termination. This also isn’t really a First Amendment issue either, because no government agency was restricting what he could say or punishing him after the fact. Of course, the progressive media was sure to make sure we all knew this wasn’t a First Amendment issue. CNN made sure. Time made sure.
But something still seemed wrong about his hiatus/firing. While the First Amendment may not apply, I decided to look up the text of something I was fairly certain did apply: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its statements on Unlawful Employment Practices:
UNLAWFUL EMPLOYMENT PRACTICES
SEC. 2000e-2. [Section 703]
(a) Employer practices
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer
(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
Where the idea conveyed in the meme clearly falls short is that it fails to account for the fact that religion is a protected category under the law. A&E can legally fire Phil Robertson for a lot of reasons, but being Christian isn’t one of them.
So really, the discussion that needs to take place is a Clinton-esque one of language and meaning: what does it means to “be” Christian?
1) First, it’s worth noting that race, color, religion, sex, and national origin can all be described as identities…as states of being. They are adjectives, not verbs; they are descriptors that all seem to belong alongside one another on demographic information reports or dog tags. It is clear that A&E did not target Phil Robertson as a matter of religion-as-identity, so let’s move on.
2) Next, one could choose to define “religion” as a subculture or subcommunity. While a phrase on a dog-tag is near invisible, physical churches/mosques/synagogues are noticeable, as are the weekly gatherings of worshipers, and it is on this ground that religious persecution usually takes place. Considering the openness of the Robertson family concerning their faith, it is also clear that A&E was not motivated by fear of or desire to extinguish an active community. So…
3) Finally, “religion” can be defined as an individual’s beliefs and the actions he takes based upon them.* In this instance, and ones like it, there is a sort of Schroedinger’s Christianity** created that links beliefs and actions. As a Christian, it was probable, but not confirmed, that Phil Robertson opposed PC pro-homosexual ideas and policies. However, once his words confirmed his beliefs, he was then subject to vilification. He turned out to be the wrong kind of Christian…a more orthodox one than, say a nice, agreeable Unitarian. (Comments about selectively following Biblical guidance are noted, and valid criticisms of his beliefs, but also totally irrelevant to the Civil Rights Act issue I’m discussing.)
3a) This needs teased apart carefully. It needs to be clear he is being vilified for his beliefs; his words were only instrumental in confirming what it was he believed. He wasn’t guilty of “hate speech,” nor inciting anyone to violence. He wasn’t being a nuisance to anyone…say…aggressively proselytizing in a neighborhood or the lobby of a business. Because if his crime was being a nuisance, loitering, trespassing, soliciting, etc, his beliefs wouldn’t have mattered. A guy trying to stand in the lobby of a restaurant and sell knives is removed not because of objections to the knife company, or knives in general, but rather the fact that it’s not appropriate to stand in a lobby trying to sell anything at all. The ban on his action is belief-neutral. On the contrary, to say that a Christian TV personality was somehow inappropriate to respond predictably when asked his opinions on the matter seems a stretch.
So, yes, this issue is not a First Amendment one. But it is absolutely a Civil Rights, non-discrimination law issue, and it seems clear that A&E fired him as the result of him being Christian. Progressives, ever-happy to see their opponents slandered, cynically focused on the First Amendment’s non-applicability and tried to gloss right over the letter and spirit of the Civil Rights Act.
Now that we’ve thoroughly analyzed what happened, here’s where I put on my tin foil hat and predict where this leads.
One of the issues I founded my blog upon was the number of contradictions among the progressives and the inevitable reckoning when those issues are brought to light by current events. Although some people have complimented me on a degree of ability to predict how things turn out, it has nothing to do with a sixth sense or a crystal ball; one only needs to determine the logical conclusions of the policies and climate already in place. For example, a while ago I wrote about how the legalization of same-sex marriage represented not a loosening of social standards in America but rather a complete restructuring in how sexual orientation was understood and dealt with. As part of this, I pointed out that the logical consequences of this would be to pave the way for further legalization of other sexual orientations. A quick Google search will confirm recent hemming and hawing from sociologists, criminal apologists, etc about just that.
Similarly, there is a conflict contained in the text of the Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act protects people based on the categories of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Most non-discrimination statements by companies and universities tend to add “creed and sexual orientation” in there somewhere, though I wasn’t able to find that in the laws. The problem is obvious: one of these things is not like the other; therefore, one of these things just doesn’t belong. That thing, of course, is religion. Race, color, sex, and national origin are conditions one is born into, and do not prescribe or require any actions or beliefs. Religion, is, of course, nothing but a set of beliefs and actions based upon them. Religion, therefore, has attributes that the other categories do not; it is like a case of comparing trucks, vans, cars, and, say, fish. The first three categories conveniently fit into a larger category (vehicles, in this case), where fish is clearly not in the same category-of-categories.
Further examination yields a pretty ironic twist. As mentioned, all other categories are neutral. A white guy in the office can’t be too white, or not white enough. No one is going to ask him to get more or less of a tan in order to fit in with company policy. But religion, as a behavior, has degrees. Perhaps the company is OK with small religious mementos on an employee’s desk, perhaps not. Perhaps ads for a prayer group or casual one-on-one invitations between co-workers to church functions are considered appropriate, perhaps not.
The default resolution for these disputes in our society has been a sort of “keep it to yourself” mentality. That worked pretty well for a while. It seemed like a gentleman’s agreement.
Enter the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the military under President Clinton regarding sexual orientation. This was the “keep it to yourself” mentality codified into four words. Yet, like I linked before in my discussion of same-sex marriage, DADT fell as a policy as American society came to accept sexual orientation as a genetic condition/inborn state-of-being alongside “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Homosexual servicemembers fought for the right to post pictures of their spouses on their desks, and talk about their families at the office. After all, the heterosexuals weren’t keeping those things to themselves. Evidence of their heterosexual lifestyle, complete with photos of spouses and evidence of unprotected sex…children!, litters desks all across America. The hypocrisy and contradiction of the “keep it to yourself” mentality regarding homosexuality became apparent, and the policy fell; people should be allowed to be who they are.
Except, as we just saw, in matters of religion, “keep it to yourself,” has long been the policy. It still is the policy. And while DADT minimized workplace conflicts essentially by picking sides in the conflict between orthodox religious views and homosexuality, the repeal of DADT didn’t end the conflict…the repeal has just meant the government and the corporate world are now on the other side. The irony is that that the fall of the “keep it to yourself” mentality with regard to sexual orientation now leaves us without a credible guideline for religious behavior in the workplace either. Advocates of religion will attempt to use the exact same arguments their opponents just successfully utilized. The fence which kept an uneasy peace has been torn down, the gentleman’s agreements are over, and (in a world that didn’t default to progressive policy,) it would seem that passive-aggressive competition between opposing parties are now fair game; one crucifix on Religious Ron’s wall for every photo of Gay Gary’s husband.
But it won’t turn out that way. What the past several years of discussion have made abundantly clear is that Americans are ascribing ever-more conditions and characteristics to genetics and believe that discrimination based upon inborn characteristics should be outlawed. In contrast, religion stands alone in civil rights legislation and non-discrimination policies as a voluntary affiliation based on beliefs and actions. While I don’t believe that the letter of the law will ever be changed to remove “religion” as a protected category (hell, just look at the fury raised each year regarding the “War on Christmas,”) I suspect that case law will continue to grow in such a way that effectively pens religious expression firmly in the “keep it to yourself,” “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” closet that sexual orientation was in not so long ago.
*I recognize I’m blending beliefs and actions. For the purpose of this analysis I don’t believe it is a meaningful distinction
**Gotta give credit to GirlWritesWhat, where I first heard the concept of Schroedinger’s Rapist articulated. Can’t find the original video though.