In 1997, at the height of her ABC sitcom’s popularity, Ellen Degeneres responded to months of rumors and speculation by coming out to the world as a lesbian. Immediately, there was a firestorm of controversy, and conservative Christian groups diligently worked to pressure advertisers like JC Penny to stop sponsoring her show in hopes of seeing it cancelled. And while ABC did sign on for one more season, they drastically cut back on promotion, resulting in a ratings plummet that led to cancellation. Fast forward sixteen years, and The United States is a very different place. Phil Robertson faced similar consequences this past week for stating his beliefs about homosexuality. The tide has turned.
Now some people were outraged about what happened to Ellen. And others were outraged about what happened to Phil. And still others couldn’t care less about either. But if you’re outraged about one and not the other, you’re being a hypocrite; the same thing happened to both of them.
But can I tell you what didn’t happen to either of them? Neither of them had their freedom of speech violated. Shocking, right? This has been stated a lot, but the misinformation persists, so it’s worth mentioning here. Neither Ellen nor Phil was penalized by the government for their statements. And that’s all our freedom of speech laws protect us from. We can feel that it’s unfortunate and wrong for Phil to be suspended, but please: let’s be sure that we’re a little better informed before plastering our thoughts all over social media.
And given what happened to Ellen back when it was ok to make crass jokes about gay people, we might want to be careful about how we characterize what’s going on here. If we insist on saying that GLAAD and A&E are violating Phil’s freedom of speech, then we have no choice but to say that Christians violated Ellen’s. And if we want to rant about how Phil’s being persecuted, then we have no choice but to admit that Ellen was persecuted… by Christians!
And let’s think about exactly what it was that got Ellen all of that social backlash. She didn’t say that straight sex was illogical and gross and that heterosexuals are headed for hell. She just basically said, “hey this is an aspect of who I am, and I’m not going to hide it anymore.” It would have been like Phil facing all these consequences for simply saying that he’s straight and unashamed of it. So the reaction to Phil’s statements may seem over the top to many, but it took a lot less for Christians to go after Ellen than it did for GLAAD to go after Phil.
Now that everybody thinks I’m advocating homosexuality, let me do some ‘splainin’.
Phil’s belief that homosexual activity is a sin is not based on his own prejudices, although he clearly has them (nobody is totally free from prejudice). It is based on sound biblical teaching. And as a Christian, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me, I’ve no choice but to affirm the truth and authority of that teaching. And neither does he. Did he use the wisdom and tact that he should have? Well, certainly not. But truth is truth, regardless of the shortcomings of the messenger.
But the way American Christians (the most privileged Christians in the world, no less) have all run to their computers to cry persecution, while real persecution is happening all over the world, the way we’ve been going on about freedom of speech, showing our ignorance of one of the most basic American civil liberties, is just kind of embarrassing. And people see this. They recognize the hypocrisy of a group of people who went after Ellen’s head in the nineties, but can’t take it when the shoe is on the other foot.
I know that I’m addressing people who probably love Jesus and other people more than I do, and who want to honor Christ. So this isn’t meant as a harsh slap to the face, but as an honest appeal. As an alternative to boycotts and Facebook groups, let’s just go out and live as Christians, being Jesus to people. Let’s go and live among sinners and love them, and tell them of grace, and not be afraid to be slandered or misunderstood by others in the process. Let’s put a little less emphasis on the culture war and a little more on the spiritual one.