A long, long time ago -- pre-World Wide Web -- I wrote a column for the Scripps Howard News Service (RIP) and The Rocky Mountain News (RIP) that tried to explain why a very charismatic evangelical leader of national renown insisted on saying that homosexual acts were sinful.
The leader was University of Colorado head football coach Bill McCartney, who went on to lead the national Promise Keepers movement. During a 1992 press conference, he was asked about his links to Colorado for Family Values, a network that had taken conservative stands on issues linked to homosexuality (specifically whether homosexuals should be granted special group-status protection, equal to race and gender, under civil rights laws).
The coach was wearing a shirt with a CU logo. Later, he acknowledged that he was wrong to have answered this question while wearing that shirt. Nevertheless, he responded by saying -- in part -- that homosexuality was "an abomination of almighty God."
Reactions were rather intense in the city that Colorado folks have long called "The People's Republic of Boulder." A Chicago Tribune piece at that time noted:
BOULDER, COLO. -- The peace of the Colorado campus, in all its winter splendor, was shattered last February by the sudden appearance of handbills with side-by-side pictures of Adolf Hitler and Bill McCartney, the school's football coach.
Underneath the pictures were the words, "Twins, separated at birth."
As you would expect, McCartney's use of "abomination" language quickly evolved into claims that he was, for example, a bigot who would apply Old Testament punishments (references to stones were popular) to homosexuals and others whose actions he condemned.
McCartney was also quoted as saying: "I did nothing more than call a sin a sin."
What was missing from the coverage? Well, for starters, people missed that McCartney was well aware that Leviticus 18 called a number of sins "abominations" and the coach, himself, consistently referred to racism as an "abomination" before God.
Most importantly, I kept reminding other journalists, McCartney had -- in the press conference that started it all -- stated that "my own sins" are an abomination before God and just as horrible as the sins of anyone else. However, he was clearly saying that homosexual acts were sinful and as sinful as x, y and z in any biblical list of sinful behaviors.
What he said was clearly offensive. However, I argued that it was crucial to stress that it wasn't fair or, in the best sense of the word, "accurate" to give readers the impression that McCartney had singled gays out for unique censure and had, in fact, stressed that his own sins were just as abominable to God. The coach stressed that he was a sinner in the eyes of God and needed to repent and be forgiven, just like everybody else.
McCartney's words were, of course, offensive to many readers no matter how they were parsed. People had every right to protest. However, I argued, if anyone actually wanted to understand what the coach had said they would need to see his words in context, including his judgments on his own sins.
This brings us, of course, to Phil Robertson and his coarse, offensive and highly anti-evangelical (in the sense of serving as effective evangelism) GQ words on homosexual behavior.
First things first: It really helps to know that for much of his life Robertson was -- how to put this -- an Olympics level sinner when it came to the ways of the flesh. The man has been there and done that -- all kinds of thats -- over and over again.
Now pay attention to what the GQ article says about that, in part:
He is welcoming and gracious. He is a man who preaches the gospel of the outdoors and, to my great envy, practices what he preaches. He spends most of his time out here, daydreaming about what he calls a “pristine earth”: a world where nothing gets in the way of nature or the hunters who lovingly maintain it. No cities. No buildings. No highways.
Oh, and no sinners, too. So here’s where things get a bit uncomfortable. Phil calls himself a Bible-thumper, and ... he thumps that Bible hard enough to ring the bell at a county-fair test of strength. If you watch Duck Dynasty, you can hear plenty of it in the nondenominational supper-table prayer the family recites at the end of every episode, and in the show’s no-cussing, no-blaspheming tone. But there are more things Phil would like to say -- “controversial” things, as he puts it to me -- that don’t make the cut.
Now, as I read that, the GQ team seems to think that Robertson believes there are no sinners in his Louisiana kingdom and, one most assume, there is little or no sinning going on.
To be blunt: Is there the slightest evidence in Hades that Robertson thinks that? Does he really believe that his life is now free of sin or the lives of his kinfolks? In effect, GQ is calling Robertson a heretic.
What else does the article say? This is where readers are given a helpful flashback.
According to Phil’s autobiography -- a ghostwritten book he says he has never read -- he spent his days after [Louisiana] Tech doing odd jobs and his evenings getting drunk, chasing tail, and swallowing diet pills and black mollies, a form of medicinal speed. In his midtwenties, already married with three sons, a piss-drunk Robertson kicked his family out of the house. “I’m sick of you,” he told his wife, Kay. But Robertson soon realized the error of his ways, begged Kay to come back, and turned over his life to Jesus Christ.
Now, if you watch interviews with the Robertson patriarch, I see no evidence that this man thinks he is now some kind of living saint, a man whose days of temptation, sin and repentance are over.
With that in mind, let's turn to the abominable quote that is at the heart of the current media storm.
“You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off. We ought to just be repentant, turn to God, and let’s get on with it, and everything will turn around.” ...
“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Sin becomes fine. ... 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,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “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.”
Are those words offensive? You bet. Were they ungracious? You bet. Do people have every right to protest them, all the way to arguing that A&E executives take him (and his highly, highly profitable so-called reality show) off the air? Of course. Is it silly, to quote conservative Ross Douthat of The New York Times, that we live in a nation in which a Phil Robertson is seen as an authoritative voice on matters of Christian moral theology? Of course.
However, did patriarch Robertson, as many are arguing, state that homosexual acts are the same as acts of bestiality? The answer is yes, and no. He listed a bunch of sins, including some from his past, and said they were all truly sins (much as McCartney did long ago in talking about "abominations"). Did Robertson rank them? Draw concise parallels? No, he did not, other than to state that sins are sins.
And what about the state of Robertson and his own sins? Is there any evidence that he sees himself as anything other than another sinner in need of the grace of God?
However, later in the GQ piece there is this:
During Phil’s darkest days, in the early 1970s, he had to flee the state of Arkansas after he badly beat up a bar owner and the guy’s wife. Kay Robertson persuaded the bar owner not to press charges in exchange for most of the Robertsons’ life savings. (“A hefty price,” he notes in his memoir.) I ask Phil if he ever repented for that, as he wants America to repent -- if he ever tracked down the bar owner and his wife to apologize for the assault. He shakes his head.
“I didn’t dredge anything back up. I just put it behind me.”
As far as Phil is concerned, he was literally born again. Old Phil -- the guy with the booze and the pills -- died a long time ago, and New Phil sees no need to apologize for him: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus -- whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”
Whoa. Did Robertson say there is "no need to apologize" for the sins in his past, or did he say that he believes God has accepted his repentance and forgiven him? There is a difference. He also noted that, ultimately, it is the God of scripture who judges, not prophets in pulpits or swamps.
Or even in elite newsrooms.
Actually, I added that last part.
So once again, were Robertson's words coarse and offensive. Yes. Do people have a right to protest them? Yes.
But if the journalistic goal is to understand Robertson and people who share his beliefs (insert list of orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc., at this point) would it help to try to understand what he is saying about sin, grace, repentance and forgiveness? Yes. Why? Because it would improve the journalistic quality of articles about Robertson and millions of people who are, to varying degrees, his cultural and spiritual kin.