How in the world did a family of squirrel-eating, Bible-thumping, catchphrase-spouting duck hunters become the biggest TV stars in America? And what will they do now that they have 14 million fervent disciples? Our Drew Magary toured the Louisiana backwater with Phil Robertson and the Duck Dynasty gang to find out.
Let’s start with the crossbow, because the crossbow is huge. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a camo-painted ATV, rumbling through the northern Louisiana backwoods with Phil Robertson, founder of the Duck Commander company, patriarch at the heart of A&E’s smash reality hit Duck Dynasty, and my tour guide for the afternoon. There are seat belts in this ATV, but it doesn’t look like they’ve ever been used. Phil is not wearing one. I am not wearing one, because I don’t want Phil to think I’m a pussy. (Too late!) The crossbow—a Barnett model equipped with a steel-tipped four-blade broadhead arrow—is perched on the dash between us. It looks like you could shoot through a goddamn mountain with it.
“That’ll bury up in you and kill you dead,” Phil says.
The bow is cocked and loaded, just in case a deer stumbles in front of us and we need to do a redneck drive-by on the poor bastard, but the safety is on. SAFETY FIRST. Still, Phil warns me, “You don’t want to be bumping that.”
As we drive out into the woods, past a sign that reads parish maintenance ends, Phil is telling me all about the land around us and how the animals are a glorious gift from God and how blowing their heads off is part of His plan for us.
“Look at this,” he says, gesturing to the surrounding wilderness. “The Almighty gave us this. Genesis 9 is where the animals went wild, and God gave them wildness. After the flood, that’s when he made animals wild. Up until that time, everybody was vegetarian. After the flood, he said, ‘I’m giving you everything now. Animals are wild.’”
There’s a fly parked on Phil’s long beard. It’s been there the whole ride, and I desperately want to pluck it out, but I decide against it. Along with the crossbow, there’s a loaded .22-caliber rifle rattling around in the footwell. And yet, much like the 14 million Americans who Nielsen says tune in to Duck Dynasty every week—over 2 million more than the audience for the Breaking Bad finale—I am comfortable here in these woods with Phil and his small cache of deadly weaponry. He is welcoming and gracious. He is a man who preaches the gospel of the outdoors and, to my great envy, practices what he preaches. He spends most of his time out here, daydreaming about what he calls a “pristine earth”: a world where nothing gets in the way of nature or the hunters who lovingly maintain it. No cities. No buildings. No highways.
Oh, and no sinners, too. So here’s where things get a bit uncomfortable. Phil calls himself a Bible-thumper, and holy shit, he thumps that Bible hard enough to ring the bell at a county-fair test of strength. If you watch Duck Dynasty, you can hear plenty of it in the nondenominational supper-table prayer the family recites at the end of every episode, and in the show’s no-cussing, no-blaspheming tone. But there are more things Phil would like to say—“controversial” things, as he puts it to me—that don’t make the cut. (This March, for instance, he told the Christian-oriented Sports Spectrum magazine that he didn’t approve of A&E editing out “in Jesus” from a family prayer scene, even though A&E says that the phrase has been uttered in at least seventeen episodes.)
Out here in these woods, without any cameras around, Phil is free to say what he wants. Maybe a little too free. He’s got lots of thoughts on modern immorality, and there’s no stopping them from rushing out. Like this one:
“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”
Perhaps we’ll be needing that seat belt after all.