I for one am glad that A&E has seen fit to lift Phil Robertson’s suspension as patriarch of its hit reality show.
It’s not that I’m a particular fan of the show, which to be honest I have only dipped into as part of my job as a — oxymoron alert — responsible blogger. Nor, as faithful readers may suspect, am I down with the Robertsonian program, at least as concerns homosexuality morphing out to bestiality, etc.
But I do think that Robertson and his clan represent a major development in the reality show known as the Culture Wars, now well into its fourth decade on Channel U.S. of A. Consider the progression from Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority to Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family to Phil Robertson’s Duck Dynasty. What we see is shrinking demographic ambition, from a time when invigorated evangelical activists imagined they could lead a post-sixties revival of most of the American population to one where bearded backwoodsmen guard their corner of America against hordes of godless yuppies.
That corner would be what we at the Greenberg Center call the Southern Crossroads, a distinctive region of the country comprising Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, MIssouri, and of course Louisiana, in whose northern reaches Duck Dynasty’s West Monroe headquarters may be found. The Crossroads is a place of many boundaries — between North and South, East and West, Anglo and Latino, Protestant and Catholic — and is thus a place where fighting for territorial control has long been a way of life. These days, it’s the most Republican region of the country and (not coincidentally) the most religiously committed as well.
Growing up in the 60s in north Louisiana, I was always noticing the angry billboards:
GET US OUT OF THE U.N.!
JESUS IS COMING SOON–ARE YOU READY?
WATER FLUORIDATION … A COMMUNIST PLOT.
These insistent messages were just a normal part of the scenery, like azaleas in bloom, icebox pies and LSU football. But the anger was puzzling. I saw it in letters to the editor, in leaflets left on the car windshield, in the scowls of TV preachers–attacks on “weak sister” liberals, blasts against secular humanism, detailed predictions of Armageddon.
Why were the adults so mad? What were they afraid of? It seemed out of proportion to the facts. No one could tell me why.
My part of America was always filled with gracious people, charming neighborhoods, and faithful churchgoing. But there was something else in the air–a cloud of political fierceness and aggressive Protestant argument. The very sky was a riddle of anxiety. We saw it as the staging area of a gathering apocalypse: Either Russian missiles would bear down on nearby Barksdale Air Base, or Christ himself would split the firmament in a final blaze of judgment, an ultimate furnace of truth.
It didn’t occur to me until I left home that our brand of confrontational culture wasn’t so normal after all. It was the strange brew of a specific religious and social past, an accident of history.
Among the region’s notably confrontational religious communities have been the Churches of Christ, to which the Robertsons belong. Theirs is the hardline branch of the Restorationist movement that since the early 19th-century has viewed itself as reestablishing the beliefs and practices of the first followers of Jesus. Unlike the more inclusive Disciples of Christ, the Churches of Christ hold to the view that whatever is not found in the New Testament accounts of the early church is not permitted. That means, for example, no instrumental music in church.
The Robertsons’ restorationism is central to their whole shtick, up to and including the beards. “We’re kind of the John the Baptists of the 21st century,” Phil’s son Alan told RNS’ Sarah Pulliam Bailey last summer. “It’s how you imagine, with the wild hair and the locusts.” But if you’re not with them, you’re against them. They are, in their own eyes, the Moral Minority.