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Duck Dynasty star makes waves in hometown

Many residents of West Monroe, Louisiana, are supporting Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, after his controversial statements about gays and African Americans.

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Each year after the leaves fall and Congress ends its business and real news recedes the Christmas culture wars erupt in America.

Traditionally the right rails against the “war on Christmas”, chastising public officials and private companies who dare send “holiday greetings” rather than “Christmas cards.” This, we are told, is at best pandering to liberal-atheism, at worst actively engaging in it. In early December the usual standards were thrust into the usual turf. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, by some accounts the War-on-Christmas patent-holder, dedicated a section of his show to the issue.

Sarah Palin went on tour promoting her new book on the crisis, Good Tidings, Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. “Thomas Jefferson today, he would recognise those who would want to try to ignore that Jesus is the reason for the season, those who would want to try to abort Christ from Christmas,” she told an audience at Liberty University.

Phil Robertson: likened homosexuality to alcoholism and terrorism.

Phil Robertson: likened homosexuality to alcoholism and terrorism. Photo: AP

This year though, rather than having to settle for the usual Christmas media pantomimes, America’s commentators found themselves in combat in a different battleground. A sudden proxy war broke out over a real issue – the rapid advancement of gay rights.

It began when GQ magazine published an interview with Phil Robertson, the paterfamilias of the family that is the focus of the most-watched reality show in America, the Duck Dynasty. Robertson and his family live on the bayous of Louisiana and run a successful business called the Duck Commander Company, which sells hunting gear and is named for Phil’s duck call, the Duck Commander.

While the 10 million-odd viewers appear to be drawn to the family’s earthiness – “redneck” culture has been all the rage over the past season or two on American cable television – many conservative commentators have celebrated the show for its depiction of the Robertson family’s values.  In no particular order, the Robertsons believe in God and guns and family.

So it should have been no surprise to A&E, the channel that produces the show, when during an interview with GQ magazine Phil Robertson likened homosexuality to alcoholism and terrorism.  “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job,” he said, reasonably enough. “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?”

Though Robertson had aired such views often in the past – you can find them on YouTube - he voiced them at a time when the show has become a genuine cultural phenomenon, and from a far more public stage.

A&E suspended Robertson from filming. "We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty," the network said in a statement last week.

And rather than dying off over the weekend the story has picked up steam, leaving those with a commercial interest in the program in the difficult position of trying to pick which constituency they can least afford to offend – conservative traditionalists or those who consider anti-gay bigotry as a peculiar relic. One example: on Friday the Tennessee-based restaurant chain Cracker Barrel, which has 625 locations in 42 states, announced it would cease selling Duck Dynasty merchandise. By Sunday it reversed its course.

"You told us we made a mistake," the company said on its Facebook page. "And, you weren't shy about it. You wrote, you called and you took to social media to express your thoughts and feelings. You flat out told us we were wrong. We listened. Today, we are putting all our Duck Dynasty products back in our stores." While Cracker Barrel eventually came around to the Duck Dynasty’s view of the world, what is striking is that it was not there in the first place.

Gay rights have advanced in America at a pace that has left gay activists dizzy, and many in opposition utterly disoriented. On May 9 2012 Barack Obama became the first US president to back gay marriage. In June this year the US Supreme Court made two rulings effectively finding bans on gay marriage to be unconstitutional. On Friday a federal judge in one of America’s most conservative states, Utah, struck down its ban on gay marriage, writing, "The state’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional."

With the decision, which is being appealed, Utah became the 18th US state to legalise gay marriage, just one day after New Mexico became the 17th.

An ABC poll found at the beginning of the month that 58 per cent of Americans supported the right of gays to marry, a 17-point surge since 2004. The same poll found that 81 per cent of those aged between 18 and 29 support the freedom to marry.

Much of the Duck Dynasty debate has focused on A&E’s alleged abuse of Phil Robertson’s constitutional right to free speech. This is nonsense. America’s first amendment protects Phil Robertson’s freedom of expression from the government, not from the A&E channel.

In fact this year’s Christmas culture war has revealed as much about how America has embraced the expansion of civil rights to gays as it has about Phil Robertson’s opinions about them.