Friday, December 20, 2013

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What I Think Phil Robertson Was Trying to Say

I’ve been writing professionally for 7 years, the last several of which I spent as a sex editor at a national magazine. I’m also a Christian, which puts me in the minority in the liberal media world (especially among sex editors).

Writing about sex, while still being deeply devoted to my faith, has been difficult to reconcile (although God did create sex, and he did design it to be pleasurable. But that’s another article). Many editors have told me I’m too traditional or conservative over the years (and I’ve even lost out on work opportunities because of this, although no one would ever admit it). At the same time, I’ve been the subject of Sunday school chagrin because my beat doesn’t sync with what a Christian writer is supposed to cover.

I’ve also been in the position I imagine Phil Robertson believed he was in: being offered a rare opportunity to spread the message of my faith, through an outlet built on an entirely different (if not opposing) set of beliefs.

In my case, it didn’t work. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that trying to use liberal media as a platform for a conservative message rarely works. 

I’ve had an editor remove an unobtrusive reference to God (that was, by the way, totally appropriate to the story). I’ve also had views counter to my own injected into articles with my name attached to them. I’ve seen editors emphasize atheism, while watering down Christianity to vague, but widely palatable, “spirituality.”

As long as there is someone editing my work, my beliefs will be diluted, skewed, or just disregarded. That’s the way it goes.

Journalists have a story to tell. And a story is ultimately an argument: The language isn’t always incendiary, accusatory, or divisive, but the journalist’s job is to persuade you to believe (or least consider) what he’s saying as truth. This requires carefully selecting quotes—bits and pieces of often-lengthy conversations—to support the story being told. Quotes that further the argument, whether through content, tone, or just through an unfortunate lack of context, will be used; quotes that don’t convey the message will be ignored.

Which makes a liberal publication a dangerous place for an outspoken Christian like Phil Robertson. In his interview with GQ, I’m guessing—although I have no way to prove this—that Robertson made statements about his faith that the masses would have easily swallowed. But, then, what kind of story would that be? Would have gotten as many clicks? I doubt it.

Let me clarify: I don’t fault GQ for cherry-picking quotes. That’s journalism. But I do think this is a cautionary tale for Christians: A secular journalist is NOT going to be sympathetic to your message. Which means he’s not going to say, “Well, I know what he meant” and opt to leave out an easy-to-misconstrue quote that would undoubtedly raise a ruckus. (Not commenting specifically on Phil here, by the way.)

He doesn’t care if you meant “We’re all equal in the eyes of God” but it didn’t quite come out that way. He’s going to publish exactly what you said, regardless of the intention behind it, especially if it adds to the argument he’s making. Which I believe, in the case of GQ, was that Robertson is a backwoods Bible thumper, whose views are so off-color that readers should perhaps be amused even more than they should be offended. The Bible thumper part is by Phil’s own admission; the second part is the writer’s addition.

There’s an oft-repeated phrase in journalism school: Know your audience. In other words, balance what you want to say with what your audience wants to hear. In the case of GQ, much of the audience is, in fact, gay. A few years back, reported that GQ was “the gayest magazine” on newsstands (of course, excluding magazines like Out that are written specifically for a homosexual audience), with 10.35 percent of male readers identifying as gay or bisexual.

Now let’s rewind to the argument I believe the writer was trying to make—that Robertson is everything a GQ reader is not—which means the Duck Dynasty patriarch’s opinions about homosexuality would, of course, be emphasized. (I also think the writer consciously tried to distance himself from Robertson’s beliefs—lest the readers mistakenly assume he, a husband and father, was siding with his subject—by inserting curse words, like G-D, into the story. His only concession to Phil was that living on a farm really does seem nice.)

I think that what Robertson said was jarringly blunt, if not crude. But I don’t think he intended to spread a message of hate.

The Internet has been ablaze with stories claiming that Robertson equated homosexuality with bestiality. Let’s review what he said about his definition of sin: “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 slanders, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.”

Nowhere does Robertson say that bestiality and homosexuality are one in the same. Yes, he mentioned them within a breath of each other, but he wasn’t equating the two. What he was saying: According to Christian beliefs, both are sinful acts. And while we, as humans, may categorize sin by varying degrees of wrong, God does not.

Why? Because Christian teachings say that any sin makes us unholy—it doesn’t matter how “wrong” or “acceptable” the world tells us it is. And Christians don’t decide what falls under the umbrella of sin. God does. (He also decided to send his son to redeem us.)

Here’s the part of the message that people miss: Just as God doesn’t have a hierarchy  of  sins (barring blasphemy), he also doesn’t categorize humans. He loves us all equally, no matter our sexual preference, our color, our gender, our line of work. That doesn’t mean he’s not grieved by our sins. Our sins just don’t make him love us any less.

And tolerance is not to be confused with love. You can refuse to tolerate, say, your teenager’s habit of getting drunk, but that doesn’t mean you love your child any less. Likewise, the Christian faith doesn’t condone homosexuality, but it also doesn’t condemn the people who practice it. I think that’s what Phil meant.


  1. Thank you! I've been saying this all along.

  2. Amen! I think we have to stand on the Word of God and it's great that someone like Phil who has access to the world is doing this!