Duck Dynasty and Rural Civil Religion: A Report from an Iowa Farm

DUck-Dynasty

By Kenyon Gradert

News broke of Phil Robertson’s remarks a few days before my wife and I left for my parents’ Iowa farm. Both of us teachers, we were excited to conclude end-of-semester disarray with Christmas break, a time for family, for religious reflection on the Advent season, and for much “koffieklatz,” a Dutch word for quality chitchats around a cup of joe. As I packed for single-digit weather, then, I uneasily watched my Facebook feed erupt into a rancorous chorus of  “I Stand with Phil,” many of the defenses coming from family and friends back home in Iowa.

The reasons for my unease were multiple. I was dismayed to see this story garner more righteous rage than far more important stories–Mandela’s death, a possible US deal with Assad, a ruling on NSA spying, to name but a few–the ballooned controversy snaring the shallow energies of liberals and conservatives alike. I was disgusted (though not surprised) to see Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and a slew of talkshow hosts turn the story into a cheap rally cry “in defense of the 1st Amendment.”

But intellectual annoyance alone didn’t count for my disquiet. Instead, as I continued to ponder the debate while driving up I-29 between frozen Iowa farms, I realized that the digital firestorm spoke volumes about religious and rural life in contemporary America, two things in which I’m deeply intertwined and about which I care deeply. I didn’t like what I heard.

The instinctively defensive posturing of conservatives reminded me of the culture wars of the early 2000s, a phase of American history that I had hoped we’d moved beyond. I had flashbacks to 9-11, to cultural warfare rhetoric, to single-issue voting, to an unnecessary war. A phrase came to mind that I haven’t heard for some time: “civil religion.”

But the Robertson fiasco was a new development. It revealed a civil religion that didn’t rally behind a clean-cut Billy Graham cultural warrior type as it would have in past decades, but behind a reality-tv construction of a simple Louisiana duck hunter, little more than a caricature dressed in a beard and camo that does no justice to the average rural American (nor, I presume, to the complexities of Phil Robertson himself). Civil religion now seemed cast in a more flamboyantly rural hue.

More importantly, this “rural civil religion” peddled a particular vision of the rural that–as it often does–relied on cheap pastoral myths. Duck Dynasty’s explosive popularity isn’t due solely to its warm-fuzzy prayer scenes and moral lessons tacked on to the end of every prank-filled episode, but also to the fact that the Robertson boys enact a distinctly rural vision of the good life: catching frogs, hunting ducks, playing pranks. The life seems straight out of Tom Sawyer, if it weren’t for the grand irony (that Twain would have surely noticed and lampooned) that the Robertsons, between their duck-call business, their reality tv, their various book deals, and their contracts with Under Armor, Wal Mart and more, have a net worth of $83 million that allows them the leisure to such a simple country life. The situation for the average rural American is far different.

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And lest good progressive readers pat themselves on the back for noting the class dynamics of rural civil religion, Duck Dynasty’s popularity can also be explained by ignorance of rural life among American elites. According to census data, 2011 marked the first time in American history that rural America lost population. An increasing amount of Americans find themselves displaced, rural expats living in suburbs with nostalgic longing for the farm. The majority of Americans neither understand nor cater to this longing. Duck Dynasty does, and enlightened Americans ought to pay this in mind the next time they take to an online comments sections determined to cast the hillbillies back into the infernal hinterlands whence they crawled.

Nonetheless, Duck Dynasty’s vision of rural and religious life in America is ultimately a spoonful of sugar to rural Americans. As I now sit on our Iowa farm typing this story, gazing out of our backyard into a shorn cornfield blanketed with snow, it’s Duck Dynasty’s prospect of syrupy sweetness to rural Christians like my family and friends that bothers me most.

I saw this threat when my friend mentioned (at about the same time that he became an ardent fan of Duck Dynasty) that he was considering putting a Confederate flag decal in the back window of his truck. My friend was no racist; he equated the flag with rural pride. None of my chastising lectures on the flag’s history or our own history as northerners could free him from the notion that, somehow, country pride meant a southern drawl.

I worry that this threat is seeping into my own tradition of Christianity–a Dutch brand of Calvinism–and rotting out its historical reverence for deep theological reflection through simplistic evangelical culture. My grandpa, an auto mechanic, read systematic theology in his spare time. I fear my generation is trading that tradition for the shallow, ten-second sermons tacked to the end of every episode of Duck Dynasty because that’s what it must mean to be God-fearing, America-loving country folk.

But I also love God,  America, and rural life, and I think Phil Robertson’s vision of all three is sorely lacking. Duck Dynasty isn’t the answer to the woes of rural expats trapped in suburbia, and Phil Robertson is no cultural-religious martyr persecuted by America-hating city folk. If you crave heroes of rural faith and culture, I urge you on to Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Russell Sanders, and a slew of other artists, thinkers, and pastors who can offer meat and potatoes in place of fluffy desserts. To be rural and to fear God need not entail a defensive posture of entrenched cultural warfare, nor does it require anti-intellectualism.

My family and friends are deeply good people. For their many flaws (we’re Calvinists, after all) they are humble, hard-working, and committed to living honorable lives. They are both filled with grace and theological reflection–and many have reservations about the LGBTQIA movement. It is possible for these two things to co-exist.

What is not possible is an escapist cultural vision of American rural and religious life. Our family farm in Iowa’s reddest county may seem light years from the same state capitol that legalized gay marriage in 2009, but it’s not, and no amount of cheap Duck Dynasty sugar in our koffieklatz can make us forget.

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Kenyon Gradert is a doctoral student in English at Washington University in St. Louis where he studies religious imaginations of the American West. He grew up on a grain and cattle farm in Northwest Iowa where most of his immediate and extended family still resides (mainly as farmers and mechanics). He is a Project Steward in American Culture Studies for Art of the Rural.