Recently, there was a high-profile example of religion being used as a bludgeon against a group of people. Or should I say, another example, since such occurrences are about as common as having a Pope who's Catholic. And some folks are even suspicious of that nowadays.
The words of "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson, taken from a feature story in the January issue of GQ magazine, are now probably more famous than anything that's actually occurred on the show itself. Being that I've never watched a minute of it, I can't be sure, though I don't recall hearing anything about the show or the Robertsons making national headlines before. He wouldn't be the first television personality named Robertson to say something ugly wrapped in biblical verse.
I've no special prejudice against "Duck Dynasty," by the way. I don't watch any reality television at all, and make it a point to avoid shows involving pawn shops, wedding shops and car dealerships, cake bosses and undercover bosses, people who think they can dance (or sing or cook), survivors, truckers or real housewives, redneck families, rich families, fat families or Kardashians, apprentices (celebrity and otherwise), or anybody else willing to make fools of themselves when a camera is pointed at them.
That pretty much limits my viewing choices to PBS and Turner Classic Movies, but I survive.
At any rate, the Robertson quote is merely the latest instance of someone using words from the Bible as dehumanizing slander against a minority group. Those who defend his words point out that he was merely espousing the biblical principals that he lives by.
I have no argument with that statement. But let's be clear about one thing: Whenever someone says that they live according to biblical principals, what they really mean is that they follow the parts of the Bible that suit them and disregard those parts that don't.
Critics refer to this as "cafeteria-style" Christianity, the practice of picking those parts of scripture that we like and passing up those that we're less fond of. Some call it hypocritical; I call it being religious.
This tendency is hardly limited to Christians. The Quran explicitly outlaws both the taking of innocent life and the taking of one's own life. The most extreme example is the radical Islamist suicide bomber who walks into a crowded building with explosives strapped to himself. When he presses the detonator, he has not only committed a heinous crime: He has also been deluded in the most tragic manner possible.
Phil Robertson did not error when he paraphrased the sixth chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians on the matter of sexual morality. Most people prefer to cite Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, where homosexuality is declared to be full-on "detestable."
However, that same word is used to describe shellfish in Leviticus 11:19. Banned elsewhere in that book are eating pork, working on the sabbath day, having tattoos, wearing clothes made from blended fabrics, consulting horoscopes, and the buying and selling of real estate.
I count myself among the many Christians out there who enjoy eating pork and shrimp, have lots of cotton/polyester blends in the closet and regularly work on Sundays. I've even gone so far as to buy a house, though I did not commemorate that occasion (or any other) with a tattoo.
I'm also not a homosexual, so why do I care what Mr. Robertson or anyone else has to say about it? Because I'm a big believer in treating everyone with kindness, dignity and respect.
It's something that I learned from reading the Bible.
Jesus suggests that we not bother people about the speck of dust in one of their eyes when we have a two-by-four sticking out of our own eye. He also directs us to treat others the way we'd like to be treated. Comparing the relationship between two loving, committed adults to people who have sex with animals doesn't bespeak much in the way of kindness or respect.
There isn't enough room here to address all the contradictions found within the Bible, or in the ways people choose what within it to uphold and what to ignore. All I can say is that as a Catholic, I realize the Bible is a work of literature. This means that it was written down by someone - or rather, lots of someones - over the course of thousands of years. At no point did a lightning bolt strike the ground, and in the smoldering crater appeared a leather-bound King James edition.
Before that, what would eventually become the Bible was passed along in the oral traditions of storytelling, song and by other spoken means. Then it was written and translated several times over, and then it was edited, both within the various books themselves and in the decisions of which books to include and which to exclude.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
So, should Mr. Robertson have been suspended from "Duck Dynasty" by A&E for his comments about homosexuality, or for his equally insulting comments about blacks? As many critics of the network have stated, the Constitution doesn't protect us from being offended by what people say. What the First Amendment does promise is freedom of speech.
But it doesn't guarantee freedom from the consequences of that speech. Personally, I am no fan of the outrage industry that goes looking for things to be disgusted by and then demands a public flogging for the guilty party. There are those that do, however, on both sides of the political divide.
It was not ideology but the fear of a costly boycott that prompted A&E to suspend Robertson. The fans spoke out en masse, however, and the fear of lost viewership tipped the scales in Robertson's favor.
The irony of the phrase "reality television" comes into very sharp focus through incidents like this one. Anytime a reality show star says something unsavory on camera, it can be edited out so that the "reality" we see is sanitized for our viewing pleasure. In the actual real world, however, there's no telling what that star might say or do, leaving a network to awkwardly handle the resulting messes when they occur.
It's an ongoing mess I shall gladly continue to avoid, thanks to the new season of "Downton Abbey" on PBS.
(Richard Sberna is a reporter for The Review. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)