Rush Limbaugh (hearts) Elton John

If you have read GetReligion for more than a week or two, you probably have noticed that we live in the age of the simplistic label. If you noticed that fact, then you also must have noticed that your GetReligionistas are not fond of labels — especially in religion coverage.

It’s just too easy to divide the world into left and right, moderates and fundamentalists and assume that news consumers have some idea what those words mean. Isn’t that right, Bill Keller? This is particularly true when issues of culture and public morality start getting mixed up with issues that are rooted in religion and doctrine.

Let’s look at a rather ridiculous case, just to make the point rather obvious.

So, tell me. What did you think when you read the news reports about Sir Elton John providing some of the music for the recent wedding of Rush Limbaugh and his fourth (count ‘em, four) wife? Here is the top of a rather typical report, care of a Wall Street Journal blog item by Zev Chafets, author of “Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One.”

A lot of people were unpleasantly surprised to learn that Elton John, one of the world’s most proudly prominent gay entertainers, played at Rush Limbaugh’s Palm Beach wedding to Kathryn Rogers. … Evangelicals voiced dismay that a pious fellow like Rush would give legitimacy to the libertine Sir Elton. Limbaugh-haters jeered at what they considered el Rushbo’s hypocracy.

OK, did you see any interesting labels in that paragraph which, admittedly, is a rather tongue-in-cheek salute to the shallowness of public images. Limbaugh? A “pious fellow”? Say what?

Here is another part of this short Chafets piece that many GetReligion readers will appreciate:

This demonstrates that even after more than 20 years on the radio, not everyone understands who Limbaugh actually is.

For starters he is not, and has never pretended to be, a member of the Christian Right. As a young disc jockey he invented a fictitious faith healer, “Friar Shuck” who saved people over the radio for a hundred bucks a pop. Shuck is gone now, but Rush’s show still has a rakish, sometimes impious edge. His fans know he was an Oxycontin addict who spent time in rehab, that he unapologetically appreciates “adult beverages” and beautiful women and that his Sunday devotionals take place in the Church of the NFL. …

On some social issues, like abortion, Limbaugh is a conventional conservative. On others he sounds a lot like Barack Obama. In an interview last summer he told me that he regards homosexuality as most likely determined by biology, considers other people’s sex lives to be none of his business and supports gay civil unions. I’m pretty sure that Elton John’s sexual orientation never even crossed Limbaugh’s mind.

Actually, early in his career Limbaugh was rather openly pro-choice, while he still enjoyed mocking the degree to which some feminists personed that particular barricade against any compromises whatsoever. Perhaps Limbaugh simply knows that legal access to abortion is a crucial fact of life for, well, men of his ilk.

If you were searching for a label to apply to Limbaugh — while talking about moral, cultural and religious issues — what label would you use? If one frames the debate in that manner, is “conservative” the best word?

In fact, if you are interested in compromises on moral and social issues, what is the essential difference between Limbaugh and, oh, Bill Clinton? You might want to remember that Clinton grew up as a Southern Baptist and remains a “moderate” Baptist, while Limbaugh grew up adoring his father, who was conservative on political issues, but a liberal Methodist on matters of faith and doctrine. And Limbaugh’s pew today?

I’ll leave you with one final thought, as we consider the usefulness of political and religious labels in a story of this kind.

Central to all forms of religious conservatism or traditionalism, at least the ones with which I am familiar, is a robust belief in the sinfulness of humanity. In a Scripps Howard column a year or so ago — entitled “Rush Limbaugh, liberal heretic?” — I asked a basic question: To what degree does El Rushbo’s view of the world include an emphasis on the reality of sin?

Does anyone remember that CPAC speech back in 2009? Here is a crucial passage:

Let me tell you who we conservatives are: We love people. When we look out over the United States of America, when we are anywhere, when we see a group of people, such as this or anywhere, we see Americans. We see human beings. We don’t see groups. We don’t see victims. We don’t see people we want to exploit. What we see — what we see is potential. We do not look out across the country and see the average American, the person that makes this country work. We do not see that person with contempt. We don’t think that person doesn’t have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government.

No doubt about it, that sounds like political conservatism. However, what is Limbaugh’s view of the power of sin in the world?

You just remove the clamps placed on people by government and all is well? It’s as simple as that, is it? How many people would embrace that Gospel right now along the Gulf Coast? How about people affected by the scandals on Wall Street and elsewhere in our economic temples? How many cultural conservatives want to see government regulations torn away from, oh, a corporation like Planned Parenthood?

Anyway, what is the best label for Limbaugh when it comes to issues of morality, culture and religions? Give it your best JOURNALISTIC shot and remember that this is a family weblog.

Top photo: Elton John and another spiritual seeker.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mollie


    Where did you get the information that Rush Limbaugh was pro-choice early in his career? I’m reading Zev Chafets book right now and just read about how the most politically charged of Rush’s early convictions — dating from his time in Kansas City to his move to New York City — was that “Abortion is wrong.” That was the 1980s.

    The book also notes that when he was permitted to guest host a talk show in 1990, he prepared to talk about the Idaho governor’s recent veto of a bill that would ban abortion. Limbaugh was critical of that decision.

    I know his early 1990s book included quite a bit against abortion as a moral wrong.

    To quote from the Chafets book, “In his ’35 Truths,’ Rush pronounced abortion ‘wrong’ without any qualification, and he has never altered that view.”

    So I guess I’m just wondering when you’re referring to his “early” career?

  • Jerry

    Anyway, what is the best label for Limbaugh when it comes to issues of morality, culture and religions? Give it your best JOURNALISTIC shot

    Entertainer. Seriously. I don’t have any idea what his true beliefs are since all I see is someone who has built a career promoting anger against the left along with a good helping of fear and distrust.

  • MichaelV

    Are journalists more likely than the general public to lump together everyone on the other side of the political spectrum? (Er… maybe the term “political spectrum” is part of the problem!)

  • Bill

    A good place to start is with a person’s self description. I have heard Rush describe himself as an entertainer. He is very much an entertainer, with the mastery of Mort Sahl or Dick Gregory, but coming from another direction.

  • John D

    Well, obviously any article on Limbaugh that fails to mention his three divorces and include quotations from Christian clergy opposed to divorce has failed to “get religion.” That’s the religion ghost here.

  • Michael Bates

    It’s not online anywhere I can find, but his interview in the Wittenburg Door, way back at the early peak of his popularity, made it clear that he is not operating from conservative theological presuppositions. He talked about his father’s views and his own. To the extent he has an intuitive grasp of human depravity, it seems to be derived from his appreciation of the Founding Fathers and not from his theology.

  • tmatt

    The Wittenburg Door piece is still in my Rush files, at home. It has some useful material in it and, yes, he does come off as a kind of eternally optimistic mainline liberal at several key points.

    MZ: I think all of the older docs are still in that folder. Is it the same thing to say that he thought abortion is wrong and to say that he thought the government should ban the procedure? Also, is it simply proper to say that he is a moral Libertarian?

  • Charlie

    Lots of people call Rush an entertainer so as not to have to take his political views seriously. I think a better label can be found in the political archives: country club conservative. Rush pays lip service to the social conservatism issues of family and life because his core audience is deeply invested in them. He was highly critical of George W Bush’s talk about “compassionate conservatism.” What really motivates Rush are free speech, personal liberty and free market capitalism.

  • tmatt


    This would fit with his loathing of Mike Huckabee as well, seeing as how Huckabee is, in so many ways, simply a pre-Roe v. Wade Southern Democrat.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    As I recall so many conservatives saying, they started following Rush when they discovered “the only voice in the major media saying what I have always believed.” Rush may make converts, and some calling him describe themselves that way, but for many others trapped in the desert that the major media always have been for conservative views, Rush was a fount of water, an oasis, in that desert. He certainly no longer is the only one.

    Entertainer? Yes, in that he presents his beliefs in an entertaining way (at least if you agree with those views), but the presentation would mean nothing without the content. I have never heard him describe himself as a conventional Christian, though he appears to respect the faith and those who hold it, unlike some other commentators. His personal life, including his painkiller addiction (to kill pain, not to get high) and his failed marriages, is clearly far short of what most of us would admire. Nevertheless, how many of us (and of his critics) live flawless lives? You don’t have to like everything he does to agree with much of what he says. I’d rather follow people with standards I liked, even if they failed to meet them all the time, than follow people whose standards were atrocious, even (especially even) if they met them all the time.

    Here’s a title National Review used for him in the Clinton era: “Leader of the Opposition.” Not so much any more — he did not produce the tea party movement, for example — but he remains a reliable source for what’s going on on the right — and what the left is up to. Regardless of how many political offices Republicans hold, conservatism as a viewpoint remains seriously underrepresented in the major media, in academia, among the Harvard/Yale/Princeton cultural elites, and in popular entertainment. Ergo, they remain “the opposition.”

    It will be interesting to see who becomes their next leader.

  • Chloe Davies

    Elton John is a very good musician and has been my idol ever since.:::