Few could have predicted that the story lines of the hit A&E reality show “Duck Dynasty” and the 2016 presidential contest would converge.
But that unexpected mash-up played out Thursday as conservative politicians rushed to defend Phil Robertson, the shaggy-bearded, homespun star of the breakout series, who was suspended by the cable-network show after his published comments about gays stirred controversy.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican and likely White House contender whose state is home to the show about a family that runs a duck-hunting-gear enterprise, called Robertson and his family “great citizens.”
“The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with,” Jindal said in a statement prominently displayed on his website, adding: “I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.”
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Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, another probable 2016 candidate, chimed in on Facebook: “If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson.” And 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook that “those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”
Their embrace of Robertson — who in an interview with GQ magazine described “homosexual behavior” as sinful, compared it to bestiality and infidelity and included a graphic description of which body parts are more desirable — illustrated how gay rights remains a potent political issue for many religious voters on the right.
As the same-sex marriage movement has gained steam, many evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics feel as if they are being asked to give up deeply held beliefs, an effort they perceived in the quick suspension of the “Duck Dynasty” star after his comments were denounced by gay-rights groups.
The furor is reminiscent of the protests and counter-rallies of support that swirled around the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A last year after its president said the company supported “the biblical definition of the family unit.”
Conservative Christians “feel like they’re under siege in a culture that is increasingly intolerant and discriminatory toward their views, and they don’t feel represented,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, who noted that Robertson paraphrased from the Bible’s Book of Corinthians in his interview. “I did not get any impression at all that there was animus expressed,” Reed said.
Fans of the show expressed similar sentiments. Fourteen hours after it was learned that Robertson had been placed on indefinite “hiatus” for telling GQ magazine, among other things, that gays are headed to hell, more than 500,000 people liked an impromptu Facebook page demanding the show be boycotted until he returns.
T-shirts, of course, went on the market with the words “I Don’t Give a Duck About A or E, Bring Back Phil.”
“It’s a show that is promoting clean living and good moral values, and that’s something we need more of today,” one of the program’s many fans, Rick Peter, of Vernon, B.C., told The Associated Press.
It’s also a show that Robertson, 67, who sports a beard that seemingly should qualify him for immediate membership in the rock group ZZ Top, is at the center of.
“Duck Dynasty” is on hiatus until Jan. 15, and a network spokesman said Thursday that nine of next season’s 10 episodes have already been filmed. That means Robertson likely isn’t needed in front of the camera before next March, by which time this whole crisis may have blown over.
And blow over it will, eventually, says veteran Hollywood crisis publicist Howard Bragman, who added that Robertson will likely return to the show.
“There’s too much money at stake,” said Bragman, vice president of reputation.com. “Although he plays kind of a hick on TV, I don’t think he’s dumb. I think he gets what’s at stake here. And I hope people on his team, the network and his producers get the message that what he did was wrong.”
The backlash spotlighted the schism over gay rights that persists in parts of the country. “This shows that there clearly needs to be more engagement of the evangelical community if gay acceptance is going to become a reality,” said Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay-rights-advocacy group.
Other gay-rights advocates noted the growing number of moderate Republican leaders who have embraced the cause of same-sex marriage. This year, more than 100 Republicans signed a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to declare that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.
Fred Sainz, spokesman for the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said “the days of making gay a wedge issue are dated.”
“I think they are outliers,” he said of Jindal, Cruz and Palin, adding that he believes they jumped into the ‘Duck Dynasty’ controversy to appeal to “a niche base.”
Robertson and his extended family became wealthy manufacturing duck calls and were turned into TV and pop-culture stars by “Duck Dynasty,” which has set cable ratings records for a nonfiction series.
“Duck Dynasty” is often the highest-rated cable show on television, and an episode last August that drew nearly 12 million viewers was the highest-rated of any show, cable or broadcast, that week.
Asked his definition of sinful behavior by GQ, Robertson replied: “Start with homosexual behavior and just go from there.”
Then he continued: “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.”
Although his suspension won quick praise from gay-rights groups, it offended people like Peter, who says conservative views like his are often overlooked by Hollywood and the news media.
“I think we’re getting a little bit tired of that pro-gay sentiment that’s out there in the media and it’s time to fight back,” he said.
Randy Schmidt of Illinois agreed, saying that while gay people can be happy that some states have granted them the right to marry, “I find it unnecessary to flaunt it all over the media.”
In the same GQ interview, Robertson also said that, growing up in Louisiana before the Civil Rights movement, he never saw mistreatment of blacks. He said that in his Louisiana youth he picked cotton with African Americans and never saw “the mistreatment of any black person. Not once.”
“We’re going across the field … They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ — not a word!” Robertson told the magazine. A&E said it had received no complaints about those remarks.
‘A Godly man’
Robertson family members released a statement on the Duck Commander website late Thursday in which they expressed thanks for prayers and support. The statement said though some of Robertson’s comments were coarse, “his beliefs are grounded” in the Bible and he “is a Godly man.”
“We are disappointed that Phil has been placed on hiatus for expressing his faith,” the statement said. “We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm. We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of Duck Dynasty.”
David Lane, an influential Christian activist based in California, said he got an email Thursday from a top Republican activist in Iowa who credited Jindal for speaking out quickly about the suspension.
“What Jindal is doing is absolutely tremendous, from an evangelical and pro-life Catholic standpoint,” Lane said. “Spiritually speaking, we’re in a war.”
And Robertson is serving as the unexpected latest flashpoint.
Robertson issued a statement Thursday saying he believes his mission is to spread the Bible’s teachings. “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me,” he said. “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.”
An online petition organized by the group Faith Driven Consumer, which promotes Christian-friendly companies, had more than 50,000 signatures. And the Faith & Freedom Coalition called on members to launch an email and phone campaign to let A&E know they will boycott the network until Robertson is reinstated.
“I would expect,” Reed said, “they will need to hire additional folks to handle the phones.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.