We have now been informed of the rationale of the “inside decision” to suspend Phil Robertson from his TV show. The rock of offense, the big line that was crossed, was his alleged comparison of homosexuality to bestiality.
So here is the big question: what moral standards required this decision?
It is important to note that Robertson’s comments were made in response to the question of what he considered sinful. Here was his answer: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there—bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and that man.”
Exactly what he meant by this “morphing” is not clear, nor exactly is the nature of the comparison. Moreover, he also mentioned heterosexual promiscuity as part of the morphing. All that is clear is that he listed some examples of things he believes are sinful.
There is however, one undeniable comparison that can be drawn between the things he listed, and this I suspect is the real rock of offense. All of these practices are condemned in the Scriptures, and that is the foremost reason Robertson finds them sinful.
And this is where reality TV bumps up against hard Reality.
What is truly shocking is that Robertson has very vivid views of reality that are sharply at odds with contemporary secular culture. He believes there really is a God. He believes God has revealed the ultimate truth about Himself in Jesus, and we have access to this truth in the Scriptures. He believes that what is right and wrong depends on God. He believes God has a Kingdom and that God has specified the terms under which we can enter His Kingdom. He believes in final judgment and in heaven and hell.
The deep shock of his claims does not come from the fact that he used some crude language in expressing his views. Crude language, after all, is par for the course today. No, the real affront of what he said emerges from this picture of reality.
It is the suggestion that all the things Robertson listed are not only wrong, but ultimately wrong for the same jarring reason: they go against the will of a personal God and His design for human sexuality and human flourishing. We are, moreover, accountable to Him, and to persist in resisting His will is to exclude ourselves from His kingdom and our ultimate true fulfillment.
If this is what Robertson was saying, he was merely stating core beliefs shared by all orthodox Christians.
Note: in saying this, I do NOT mean to equate all these behaviors he listed, or to say they all fall short of God’s will for us in the same way or in the same degree. But it is to say that all of them are ultimately wrong for the reason that none of them conforms to God’s intentions for us.
This picture of reality is radically and profoundly at odds with the picture that says there is no God. Or if there is, there is no objective truth about him that we can know. Jesus represents one account of God, but hardly one that is true for all people. Right and wrong have not been definitively revealed to us in Scripture. Rather, right and wrong have no transcendent or supernatural ground, but are “human, all too human” as Nietzsche put it. Contemporary people have no obligation to accept traditional morality. We ultimately decide what is right and wrong.
Now in light of this radical clash about the nature of ultimate reality, I do find it most interesting that the alleged comparison with bestiality is cited as the rock of offense that required Robertson’s suspension. No offense was apparently taken at the comparison with “sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman.” Indeed, our culture is hardly offended by sexual promiscuity. Bestiality, however, is another matter it seems. A+E apparently finds it a highly offensive practice or they would not find an implied comparison with homosexuality such an outrage. But why?
Dostoevsky famously declared that “if God is dead, everything is permitted.” Lurking here obviously, is a slippery slope argument. And that is a famous informal fallacy, and of course, I like to avoid fallacies when I can. So I do not mean to claim that if we depart from Christian morality at one point, then anything goes.
Still, what is sometimes alleged to be a slippery slope fallacy may not in fact be one. There may be reason to think there is a connection between one idea and another, and one may lead to another in a weaker sense than a logical entailment.
So let’s put the question this way. Assuming morality does not have a transcendent source, and we are not obligated to live by traditional morality, is there a good reason to condemn bestiality as wrong? The question is particularly worth asking when we consider why traditional morality is typically rejected with respect to the other items on Robertson’s list. The general reason is the claim that we have the right to do with our bodies as we choose. Adults accordingly can determine for themselves what is right for them in the realm of sexual morality.
So why is bestiality such an outrage on this criterion? I suppose that it might be suggested that animals are mere passive victims so it would be a version of animal abuse. But it is pretty hard to make a case on these grounds since we kill and eat animals without their permission, and the vast majority of people have no problem with that, including me. Granted, most of us find bestiality a distasteful practice, maybe even repulsive. However, such emotional or visceral reactions are hardly sufficient to create moral obligations for others.
So I am left wondering why bestiality is thought to be so far outside the pale that Robertson’s alleged comparison required his suspension, as A+E insisted. The answer is not apparent. But perhaps it provides them their best available option for claiming the moral high ground against those who affirm traditional morality in ways they find objectionable.