Now He Wants 15-Year-Old Child Brides? How Phil Robertson Embodies What's Wrong with the Christian Right
Know what? If you had told me, a month ago, that the Christian Right would have a strong reaction to a bearded religious zealot in a headscarf urging men to take child brides, I'd have believed that. And I would have believed that the man's family would go on Fox News to defend him, but I would have assumed they were doing it from a bunker somewhere, with voice filters and behind a screen … not in the studio on New Year's Eve.
Yet this is how things are playing out in the aftermath of footage showingDuck Dynasty's Phil Robertson advising young men to "marry … girls when they are about 15 or 16", after, of course, "making sure she can cook a meal". "You need to eat some meals that she cooks. Check that out," he said to an audience at a Christian retreat in 2009. "Make sure she carries her Bible," he added. "That will save you trouble down the road."
I suppose it depends on how you define "trouble" – Robertson implies that it has to do with the little lady (or, better said, barely pubescent child) wanting some kind of monetary compensation for her labor ("you wait until they get to be 20 years old, the only picking that's going to take place is your pocket"). It also depends on which version of the Bible she has. Better hope she skips the part where it says, "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ!" Actually, there a bunch of sections you should edit out.
After his comments about homosexuality (it's a choice, and a sin) and race (no blacks were "singing the blues" when he was young!) in GQ magazine, Robertson was suspended by A&E (the network that carries Duck Dynasty) for a scant nine days – hardly a season in the wilderness. Given the network's apparent reluctance to do more than do a pious headshake over those statements, it seems unlikely that they will do more about – or even acknowledge – Robertson's charged take on the age of consent and gender roles.
Just for the record: the federal age of consent to have sex is 18; it's 17 in Robertson's home state of Louisiana. As in most states, sex with a minor is legal if the couple is married, but you can't just "check with mom and dad", as Robertson noted: they must sign their consent and be present at the marriage ceremony. If the bride is younger than 16 – which Robertson implies is ideal, I mean, you gotta lock that down – you have to get a court order to obtain a marriage license.
You'd think that Robertson would be on top of these things, as he married his wife when she was 16. But that was in 1966, and perhaps times were different then. You could marry a 16-year-old without much trouble, but not, say, someone of a different race. Or the same sex. As of five years ago, it was still pretty hard to marry someone of a different race: a justice of the peace who refused to marry a mixed race couple was forced to resign after a month of controversy; his parting wordshave an uncomfortable bearing on the Robertson situation: "It's kind of hard to apologize for something that you really and truly feel down in your heart you haven't done wrong."
It is still illegal in Louisiana to marry someone of the same sex, which is, I guess, good news for that half of the under-16 population that can't be forced into the Robertson clan or its emulators.
If Robertson's views on female sexuality and servitude had been made public first, the Right could be more properly scandalized. The idea that a young woman is ripe for bedding before she can drive has connotations about that side of a romanticized rustic culture that, even for white people, is decidedly less appealing than the hearth-and-heart, God-and-guns milieu that the earlier Robertson defenders harkened to.
Also, they could blame Miley Cyrus. In a vacuum, conservatives could to spin the apparent marriageability of female children as yet another piece of evidence for the degradation of culture and validation of the right's embrace of permanent victim status – "Dammit, things didn't used to be this way!"
Roberts' initial interview resonated so deeply with conservatives because it fit with the narrative they mutter to themselves daily: "Things used to be better, and once we're all dead you'll see we were right all along." Gay sinners in the closet, darkies picking and grinning on the porch, America the way God (their very particular and peculiar God) meant it to be.
For the Right to reject Robertson now would mean acknowledging that his advocacy of cradle-robbing is of a piece with his comments about the blissful black workers of his youth and his anus-centered eschatology. The thing about marrying off women before they got old enough to know better? It used to be that way, as well. And it was justified with the same paternalistic logic and ruthless rejection of anything that dared to threaten the position of those in power.
For the professional Right – candidates, pundits and the like – this Duck Dynasty flap is a reminder of a different disturbing truth: the gap between what you want voters to believe you stand for and what it's OK to say out loud. There's a reason they call it a dog whistle and not a duck call.