Duck Dynasty’s Cultural Christianity

Duck Dynasty’s Cultural Christianity August 27, 2013

I hesitate to add my two cents about “Duck Dynasty,” at the risk of revealing just how lowbrow I am, and at the risk of commenting on a show that probably has “jumped the shark,” as they say. (I cannot imagine that this season’s premiere will not be the high point of the show’s popularity.) But as recent articles by our friend Sarah Pulliam Bailey at Religion News Service have indicated, the show’s appeal raises questions about the popularity – and value – of its wholesome portrayal of Louisiana good ol’ boys, their follies, and their cultural Christianity.

First, the good things about the show: it is fun, family-friendly, and frequently hilarious. Uncle Si’s philosophical riffs about his time in ‘Nam, his views on food (and anything else) are gut-busting, as are daddy Phil’s ruminations about his ‘preppy’ sons and his suspiciously fancy grandkids. I knew people like the Robertsons growing up in South Carolina and other southern locales. I know some in Waco. They’re real, or at least as real as you can be when your family and business are being filmed.

The Robertsons are also settled on the good things in life: marriage, children, honest work, the pleasures of place and the outdoors. Spouses constantly roll their eyes at one another, but their love and commitment (on-screen, and hopefully off) is never in question. Sure, you could ask a number of questions about the South (race, poverty, etc.) outside the confines of “Robertson Land” – a delightful term used for the home place – but within, all is right with the world.

That sense of settledness is confirmed when daddy Phil prays at the end of each episode, often over meat caught or shot during the show. He thanks the Good Lord for another day on planet earth, reviews a couple details from that show, acknowledging God’s blessings with thanks, and concludes with an “A-men.” The prayer is not directed to anyone more specific than the generic God, and not usually [UPDATE: see Bobby Ross’s helpful piece on this] offered in Jesus’s name. In many other off-screen appearances, including a May 2013 NASCAR race, the Robertsons pray to and even preach about Jesus. The on-screen Jesus-less prayers are apparently a compromise with the show’s producers to reach a broader audience, and father Phil has reportedly insisted that without some kind of prayers, he wouldn’t do the show.

Here’s the dilemma – what the show presents is a good life, but it is not in any specific way the Christian life. It is cultural Christianity of the kind that still characterizes much of the South. As Hank Williams, Jr. once described country boys, “We say grace, we say ma’am, if you ain’t into that we don’t give a damn.” It’s southern culture, and it’s heavily informed by Christian tradition and themes. Many Christians fit into that culture, but the culture does not equate with Christianity per se: being a good ol’ boy who thanks a vague deity at dinner doesn’t get you to heaven. From what I know of the “real life” Robertsons, they also know that generic southern theism is not, in substance, Christianity. And they use “Duck Dynasty” as a means to reveal their (Church of Christ inflected) full gospel off-camera, to very large audiences.

That’s a bargain I won’t question. But I do wonder how many of my fellow southerners figure that they’re Christians because they grew up in the South, their momma took them to church, they try to do right, and God knows there are many people worse than them. The specifics of historic Christian faith don’t enter into their thinking, and neither do they appear on-camera in Duck Dynasty.

Find out more about faith and Duck Dynasty in Joe Carter’s “9 Things You Should Know about Duck Dynasty” and 9 (More) Things You Should Know About Duck Dynasty

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  • Brent

    Actually not at all true. In recent episodes Phil has often prayed in Jesus’ name. It didn’t happen in the first couple seasons, but is fairly regular now.

  • I wrote about this in the The Christian Chronicle last fall, including the fact that Phil Robertson always prays in Jesus’ name:

    (F)or the show’s producers, the family’s strong Christian faith seems to be an uncomfortable storyline — one frequently chopped in the editing room.

    “They pretty much cut out most of the spiritual things,” Phil Robertson, a one-time honky-tonk operator who gave up his heathen lifestyle in the 1970s, told The Christian Chronicle. “We say them, but they just don’t run them on the show.

    “Hollywood has run upon the kingdom of God, and there’s a rub there,” said the Duck Commander, a tenacious personal evangelist who has brought hundreds of souls to new life in the Ouachita River. “Well, we have to be as harmless as a dove and as shrewd as a snake in the way we deal with them.”,_family_and_ducks:_Behind_the_scenes_of_

    A few times as the show has gained popularity among Christian viewers, A&E has left in references to Jesus in the prayer. See this post in which Alan Robertson told me that time:

    “We are pleased that A&E honored Phil’s persistence, and our Lord, by leaving in Jesus’ name at the end of our family prayer,” Al Robertson said in response to a question from the Chronicle.

  • Thomas Kidd

    thanks Bobby – link included now to this in the post.

  • Thanks, Thomas.

  • Paul Mayhan

    I think you’re being too harsh on them. I see an active faith in the way they behave on the show, which has been getting more obvious as it has gone on. They forgive each other regularly, they show kindness and generosity to each other, they are patient with each other, and as the article points out, they thank God for it all. True enough they don’t present the 4 spiritual laws on camera, but they do offer a portrait of what it looks like to live a transformed life day to day in the South and they are clear that God is the reason for it all. Given the current atmosphere of what sells on TV, that was a huge gamble for them and a big commitment to their faith.

  • Thomas Kidd

    thanks, Paul – this is a valid point!

  • TexasRangersFan

    Tom, I believe I know you and your work well enough to agree with you here once again. Perhaps the point can be made that what we are provided with the “Duck Doctrine” is rather generic (whether this is the process of merely the editing I cannot say) theism. But, then I believe that today’s world needs this generic but wholesome presentation of “cultural Christianity” as an alternative to the standard fare that ‘Hollywood’ provides. This not the full expression of the Gospel but it is in agreement with it. As always thank you for your clarity and insight. (Mark Sadler)

  • Thomas Kidd

    thanks Mark! part of my point here is that in southern culture – the southern culture of my childhood – and most of the time on the show itself (though not “behind the scenes”), generic theism is as far as it goes, and generic theism does not equal Christianity. I heartily agree that the show is far preferable to a great deal of the trash that Hollywood produces, and I commend the Robertsons for more fully presenting the gospel in venues that will allow them to do so.

  • Stuart Blessman

    Thou shalt not touch nor criticize the Lord’s annointed!!

    But seriously, these guys seem to be above reproach to anyone who likes them. And that worries me. Yet another entry in the museum of christian folly…

  • Paul Mayhan

    I would definitely agree with you that generic theism is a problem in the South. As a native Mississippian, I recall the word “Christian” simply meaning that you were in the club of good ol’ boys, acceptable in general society and not indulging in the worst of human vices like drunkenness and sexual immorality. Church membership was as much about social connections as it was about mission. As such, one could take Duck Dynasty that way, but I doubt that’s what they are going for. The family has done all it can to make their back stories known and to present the Gospel in a much more direct way to those who are interested in what drives their values.

  • Matt Mitchell

    Your observation is fair enough but if a subtle introduction into the true good life of daily communion with Jesus (by demonstrating the real life benefits and truths about that relationship with Him) isn’t beneficial then you must also have a problem with the idea of “friendship evangelism” as well as the fictional writings of Tolkien, neither of which overtly references Jesus (well, at least that might be the case initially in a friendship) but both of which can be used as a vehicle to introduce someone to Christ. I understand the dangers of the “Christian heritage” southern culture but I don’t think the Robertsons are compounding that already existing problem. If anything, I think those who identify with the Robertsons primarily because of shared culture might get a true introduction to Jesus by going to hear the Roberstons speak, watching one of their videos, reading one of their books, etc. C.S. Lewis said, “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects–with their Christianity latent.” Can’t that same principle be applied to TV shows? If so, Duck Dynasty is meeting that need.

  • Liya

    It seems to me the American South( especially what’s called the “Bible Belt” )has traditionally represented the worst in Christianity. Let me say, I know a few Southerners personally that have the most amazing faith and deeds to prove it, I am truly envious of their level of spiritual maturity.

    Yet Southern Christianity has a bad name… Slavery, KKK, segregation, racism, homophobia, misogyny, the SBaptists, the fundamentalists … all were and are really bad Christians, and are always behind progressive Christianity when in comes to morality.

  • Liya

    plus to that they aren’t the good old boys 😉 :
    Pornhub just released the results of it’s porn
    searches and time spent on porn sites nationwide. And once again, the good old Bible Belt tops the charts in the number of searches and the length of time spent on pornographic sites. The hypocrisy of the “godly Southern folk”. These
    states are very anti-gay, anti-women’s rights, yet…”

    The states with the lowest educational levels, worst economy
    most teen pregnancies are all in the good old South. Ducks have work to do if
    they want to repair the negative image of a “Southern Christian”

  • Noticed on this week’s episode that the prayer was blatantly Christian with a full mention of Jesus. I think A&E has figured out that letting the Robertsons be their true selves will help and not hurt ratings.

  • Paul Mayhan

    I have to agree with you on that, Liya. Christianity in the deep South has largely taken on a covenantal tone, with people thinking they are a-ok because their name is on a Church role. It’s a very compartmentalized life, with faith being a matter of association and membership and ethics being all cultural and secular. It’s so strange to me that just 100 years ago this part of the nation was the leader in wholesome and clean living.
    What’s also happening is a major falling away of the X and Millennial generation, which are the biggest consumers of online filth.

  • Liya

    I have one more question,please.By “falling away” you mean the church attendance is down? Is it actually slowing down in the South?

  • Paul Mayhan

    I believe it is. Attendance seems to be dropping in most areas, but a much greater “falling away” exists in nominal church attenders. It’s pretty standard for X’ers to be cynical about church because of the hypocrisy of the boomers. It’s led to one of two situations- either they just attend to please their parents and live up to expectations, or they actually believe that salvation means being a hypocrite. I’ve been in conversations with people who seem to think that enduring the beating that is attendance in a dead church is itself what constitutes the Christian life along with keeping basic external morals. This is the product of the boomer-run dead Southern churches, the X’er who actually thinks that church can not and should not be a pleasant experience and who actively seeks spiritually dead congregations to suffer in. Of course, there are bright spots too, much to the chagrin of those who feel that the youngsters down in the new church plants are going to hell because they make church enjoyable for themselves.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “It’s so strange to me that just 100 years ago this part of the nation was the leader in wholesome and clean living.”

    Save the Jim Crow laws which disenfranchised more than half the population and the occasional public lynching . . .

  • Paul Mayhan

    Yes, those are some real dark spots on the South, but weren’t limited to the South. MLK said that Chicago was the most racist city he ever visited, so I’d say it was a national problem. The fact still remains that within the group that a given church considered its community (inclusive enough or not) the South’s reputation was that its morals were the best to be found around the turn of the century.

  • Andrew Dowling

    As a Southerner, I would say definitely yes in terms of manners and etiquette. Morals I think is highly questionable.

  • Liya

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply. Appreciate the answer 🙂

  • You’ve partially missed it, and in a big way. It is much more insidious. Here’s a fine example: A member of my Sunday School class requested prayer for his terminally ill inlaws. When asked if they were Christians he responded dryly and accurately, “Well, It’s the South everybody’s a Christian.” Southerners don’t espouse some vague Jeffersonian theism. Jesus is talked openly and often. In a church small group I brought up football in the Bible Belt and its Baptist infused prosperity gospel, “When you are right with the Lord and give your all, you will win.” There was a question and all I recall is the answer, “maybe you had to make a profession of faith to be on the team.” You may have been been blessed with irresistible grace. Or in a culture so saturated one is convinced that if they walk the aisle while every head is bowed and every eye closed and make a public pronouncement then their soul is safe from perdition.

  • I have seen off-screen interviews, and they are blatantly Christian, especially Phil.

  • Mary Palmer

    AE/Disney/Herst are willing to lose the TOP SHOW because the happy people are so intolerant to hear christian views. The leftist do not want to hear that they are sinners. They wanted to make these shouthern christians look like dumb uncivilized idiots. The sterotype that pervades hollyweird about southerners and normal people. They were shocked that MOST PEOPLE agree with the Duck Dynasty Clan. The Intoleranthappy people got it wrong again. They like train wrecks

  • spurgeon687

    The Christian life is not a good old boy club or centered around relatives. A proper witness before the world would look something like this lifestyle: He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers, your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Luke 14:12-14 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:41-46 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:33

  • helligusvart

    Pornography is a problem throughout the entire American church. A recent survey came out (long after your post) that claimed that only 3% of Christian men never use pornography. This is not just a southern thing.