Must We All Clap Loudly? Thoughts on Phil Robertson, Legalized Marijuana, Obamacare and the Dignity of Dissent.

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Americans love to disagree with one another. The right of dissent is crucial to our identity as a people. We all learned with horror on December 12th that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek executed. This uncle had been a long time regime loyalist and supporter of Un’s father and had even provided valuable legitimization of Un himself during the time of his transition to power in 2012.

One of the most revealing statements was found in the list of reasons the uncle was executed. The government said that Un’s uncle had failed to show ‘sufficient enthusiasm’ in applauding when Kim Jong Un was named to a key post. In other words, he didn’t clap loudly enough. This was taken as a public act of disrespect and, therefore, he had to be silenced. There were other reasons given, but the underlying message behind the whole episode is that there is no place for dissent in N. Korea.

I don’t want to live in a society like that. I suspect that you don’t want that either. Let me illustrate the importance of this point by choosing three very different issues which would most likely elicit very different responses from readers of this blog: 1) Legalization of marijuana for non-medical purposes. 2) The Affordable Health Care (ObamaCare) requirement that insurers provide contraceptives. 3) The normalization of homosexual marriage. These are all complex, nuanced issues where Americans disagree. We can’t just sweep the dissent away with the question, “Aren’t we all really saying the same thing?” No, there really are different views about issues like the recreational use of marijuana, extending the definition of marriage to include homosexual couples, and the use of birth control to prevent conception. This is, of course, a list which could be much longer. Gun control, climate change, the use of nuclear weapons, abortion and immigration/border security come quickly to mind.

This post is not about positions on any of these issues. It is about the underlying dignity of dissent. Do we live in a country where the Little Sisters, an organization of Roman Catholic nuns who adamantly oppose contraception, should be forced to purchase health care which provides contraception? This will be decided in 2014. (My colleague, J.D. Walt, wrote a compelling post about this issue of “the dissent of the governed” some months back at It’s well worth your time to read.)

January 1, 2014 is also when the first retail stores are allowed to legally open across Colorado selling marijuana for recreational purposes. The majority of the citizens of Colorado apparently favor this since they voted to accept it. The question is, do we live in a country where a group of health care officials in Colorado can continue their vocal campaign against it, even though it is now legalized in Colorado? Alternatively, must everyone in Colorado now show “sufficient enthusiasm” or suffer the consequences?

Homosexual marriage is now being recognized across the country and before long will likely be legal in all 50 states. Do we live in a country where Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty can state publicly that he believes that homosexuality is a sin? It obscures the point if we focus only on the “coarseness” of the way he stated it. The deeper point is that after all the dust is cleared, can Phil Robertson (or anyone else) state publicly their opinion that homosexuality is a sin. Or, is this now the cause of immediate execution because of insufficient enthusiasm? Must we clap loudly at whatever the culture embraces? Is there no place for the dignity of dissent?


  • Rob Jones says:

    The issue with Phil Robertson has never been his “right” to speak publicly about his beliefs. That has just been the platform critics have used to rally the troops to defend Christianity. Phil Robertson was suspended for comments he made that reflected negatively on his employer, A&E. Frankly, he should have been fired, but that would have created an equally damaging issue for A&E’s brand since the Robertson brand is tied strongly to A&E’s brand. Contractually, though, they have every right to suspend or end any agreements with the Robertson family.

    I can assure you that most Americans would be fired for making statements which reflected poorly on their employers. Most companies have strict wording regarding statements which could be construed to be damaging to the company brand, usually ending with a phrase that the company can discipline the employee up to and including termination. We must remember that that A&E was exercising their rights within free market capitalism that we have helped to establish. We cannot blame them for doing that which we have told them they could do.

    As you said, the “right of dissent is crucial to our identity as a people.” Sometimes I wonder, though, if the right to refute a dissension is even more in danger. Must we now also clap loudly for the dissenter, or is it okay to say “No, I don’t agree with you” and refuse to clap?

    As a Christian, is it okay for me to be of the opinion that Phil Robertson’s comments about homosexuals do not convey the love of Christ? That his comments about black people do not show the love of Christ? That his comments about women and marriage do not represent the ways Christ related to women? Sometimes I wonder.

  • Tim, the context in which I read your blog today is that dissent is one thing; having an increasingly political state force its values on every citizen is another. Here, I am thinking more of the affordable healthcare act. This piece(if 2000 pages is a piece) of legislation requires businesses and citizens to do things that may well be against the values they have as individuals. It qualifies as a large step toward “soft tyranny” of which Tocqueville wrote.

  • de Toqueville is often quoted for America’s position as “good” and what happens when it fails to be “good”. It is revealing to wade through his massive writings which, though a century and a half old, reveal facts which he saw as an outsider that we may well have forgotten as events may well have tempered our ability to see the core issues and turned absolutes into dirty gray.

    Public policies of today may well reflect the failure to react responsibly yesterday, and demand a higher degree of future Christian assuming of responsibility than may prove comfortable.

    2000 “Kindle” pages of de Toqueville make more sense than a like number of pages of current regulatory and frequently amended edicts from government.

  • I enjoy your blog, but disagree with you when you write: “It obscures the point if we focus only on the “coarseness” of the way he (Phil Robertson) stated it. ”

    Tim, the point is the coarseness.

    Serious dissent deserve intentional language. I’m afraid in this case, inflammatory language was used, and it undermined the work of the Kingdom in the world.

  • I quite agree that serious dissent is best served by careful, intentional and nuanced language. However, the point is that even to say quite simply and straightforwardly with care and sensitivity that “historic Christianity has understood that homosexual behavior is a sin” is now considered by the broader culture to be “coarse” language.

  • David Goss says:

    Rob, I think you are mistaken for believing the real issue with Phil Robertson’s suspension was “comments he made that reflected negatively on his employer, A&E”. All employers are strictly banned from any discrimination in hiring or firing based on their employees’ religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc. Not once did Phil Robertson mention A&E. It was a personal question about Robertson’s personal religious beliefs. For them to fire Robertson for voicing personal religious beliefs would have brought A&E into discriminatory and illegal activity as an employer, not the other way around…(yet)

    • Rob Jones says:

      David, I probably shouldn’t have used the term “employer.” Robertson is under contract with A&E. And unfortunately for him he has become a public figure as a member of the Duck Dynasty crew. As such, he represents Duck Dynasty and–therefore–A&E whenever he is in a public forum. An interview in a national magazine qualifies as a public forum. It doesn’t matter if he mentions A&E. As a public figure, he represents A&E in public forums. You can also count on there being a stipulation in the contract that it can be terminated at the discretion of A&E, and one item of discretion would be comments that reflect negatively on A&E.
      Additionally, he was not suspended for his beliefs, he was suspended for his comments. There is a difference in a court of law. He made negative comments about homosexuality and also made racist comments. Both are discriminatory in nature, and both can be used to terminate a contract–or an employee.
      My source in this is my brother, who is an employment litigation attorney. He represents individuals wrongfully disciplined or terminated by their employers. Had Robertson sought my brother’s representation, my brother told me he would have had to tell Robertson that there was no case against A&E. By law and by contract, they acted within legal parameters.

  • Rod says:

    I never heard Phil Robertson’s comments on homosexuality. However, he probably should have just stuck to Romans 1 for his personal belief and maybe said others are free to disagree. After all, we are not under Sharia law. However, I would agree with the basic premise.

  • Laura Straub says:

    “The right of dissent is crucial to our identity as a people.” Unless one works at a “theological” institution where one is forced to sign an ethos statement. And then the president proclaims that “100% of the faculty” have signed the statement. So, yes, there is a place where there is no room or dignity in dissent for fear of reprisals.