Is Rush the new Pat Robertson?

rush_limbaughRaise your hand if you think that religious conservatives play a major role in the power structure of the Republican Party today. Raise your hand if you think Rush Limbaugh is an important leader in the Republican Party.

OK, raise your hand if you think that the combination of these two facts means that Limbaugh is a leader in the Religious Right or some other stream of religious conservatism. That's a harder question, isn't it? To be blunt, I know some religious conservatives who swear by Rush and others who swear at him.

Thus, with that preamble, let me head into Tmatt's GetReligion guilt file (since I have been out of the country for several days) I thought about this Rush thing not that long ago while reading the recent Los Angeles Times piece entitled, "Rush Limbaugh has his grip on the GOP microphone -- As Republicans grapple with their fall from power, not all are comfortable with the talk radio king's suggestion that he, by default, has become the politically wounded party's unofficial leader."

Here's the whole top of the story:

In 1994, Rush Limbaugh was a field marshal in the Republican revolution, rallying troops fervid in their passion, armed with a change agenda and determined to shake Washington upside down.

Fifteen years later, Republicans are politically hobbled and Democrats are fervid in their passion, armed with a change agenda and determined, along with their new president, to shake Washington upside down. And again there is Limbaugh, master of the talk radio universe, unchanged and unbowed. If anything, his prominence and political import have increased.

Obama is "obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell. He's more frightened of me, than he is of, say, John Boehner, which doesn't say much about our party," Limbaugh said on the air, referring to the GOP leaders in the Senate and House, respectively.

That may be cause for personal congratulation (not to mention a bigger audience). But as Republicans grapple with their fall from power and undertake some inevitable soul-searching, not all are comfortable with Limbaugh's suggestion that he has become the party's unofficial leader by default.

"He motivates a core Republican, who is a very important part of the Republican coalition, and we need those guys to be interested and active," said Jan van Lohuizen, a GOP strategist in Washington. "But it's not enough. The Republican Party has shrunk and it needs to be expanding."

Several things are going on here at the same time.

First of all, Limbaugh is a showman who has never met a headline that he didn't like. At the same time, President Barack Obama has everything to gain by, somehow, acting as if Limbaugh stands for political AND cultural conservatism in this nation. My question is whether the press should help in this process or simply let them shout at each other and that's that.

Beyond that is another issue: Mainstream reporters have always enjoyed, it seems to me, pinning the Rev. Pat Robertson on the back of mainstream evangelicals and Catholics, like a bright "kick me" sign (click here for more about that). Trying to turn Rush -- the official lap-dog of the Dick Cheney side of the GOP equation -- into the voice of all conservatives is a bit choice.

The article, for example, does tell us this:

Limbaugh's listening audience is relatively narrow -- it is predominantly white, male and politically conservative -- but highly motivated. Many of the 20 million or so who tune in each week are willing, even eager, to pummel their opponents with letters, phone calls and e-mails to make their voices heard. ...

Limbaugh has plenty of critics, not all of them liberal or Democrats. Some Republicans worry that the 58-year-old AM radio icon, highly effective at rallying disenchanted conservatives, may be turning off the less ideological voters whom Republicans need if they hope to again become a majority party.

Right here, we need more info. If religious traditionalists are a major part of the GOP world -- all together now, "DUH!" -- then something needs to be said about the complex and obvious tensions between Rush and the world of cultural conservatism.

So let me do something strange here to underline what I am talking about.

A long, long time ago -- Nov. 17, 1993 to be precise -- I took a look at this in a Scripps Howard column that is not on my website because the site had not been created yet. Ever since, I have quoted the opening of this piece and have had Limbaugh disciples ask me more questions about it. The column cannot be found anywhere online.

Here it is, so that I now have a URL to point people toward. I had to type it back in off a paper copy, so help me spot the typos. Also, this was another divorce and a bunch of drug-related tabloid headlines ago.

e380440b9ca37b6303dbeb634db2fe10So this is pretty mild, to tell you the truth.

He was raised in a mainline Protestant home, the loyal son of a freethinking father who didn't believe in hell.

He says televangelists are "potentially dangerous," shuns Bible-thumpers and gets hate mail from fundamentalists. He believes homosexuality isn't a matter of mere personal choice and that the emotions of romantic love cannot be controlled.

He is, of course, that notorious religious liberal -- Rush Hudson Limbaugh III.

"I must be honest. ... There are people who are disappointed that I am not as devoted as they would like me to be," said Limbaugh, in his first interview with a Christian magazine. "They are disappointed that I don't use my program to promote whatever they think the Christian agenda is."

A stained-glass image of "St. Limbaugh" graces the new issue of The Door, a Christian humor magazine based in El Cajon, Calif. Editors pursued the political right's hottest superstar for a year.

Limbaugh said that his faith is important to him -- up to a point.

"I don't look at the radio as a pulpit. ... I don't like to take calls from people who want to tell me why we shouldn't raise taxes because of what the Bible says in Ezekiel," he said.

Nevertheless, the 20 million or so listeners to his weekday radio show include legions of conservatives who call him a prophet. But some hear gaps in his gospel.

"Although Limbaugh considers himself a Christian, he is not as eager as many evangelicals to discuss ... people's need for Christ," writes journalist Doug LeBlanc, in Moody Magazine. "He admits an almost slavish devotion to his career. His two marriages have failed, and he has no children. Limbaugh's commitment to family values is stronger in theory than in practice."

Part of the problem is that Limbaugh is both entertainer and social commentator and his persona often changes, between commercials. He is perfectly capable of saying, with a snicker, that nice guys don't get enough sex and then, moments later, fiercely defending Christian doctrines about sexual morality.

The bottom line: Anyone who claims "talent on loan from God," and says that his views are "the epitome of morality and virtue," can expect religious leaders to ask questions.

Limbaugh relishes his superhero role, even when on religious ground. Asked by a Playboy editor why he granted an interview, he replied: "As that great man Jesus Christ said, 'You go where the sinners are.' "

But Limbaugh is always serious when discussing the faith of his strong-willed Methodist father.

"My father ... was a scholar of the Bible. There were parts of it he didn't believe. He thought, for example, that Revelation had no business being in the Bible," Limbaugh told The Door. "He didn't believe in hell. He didn't believe that a God who is capable of love and (capable of the) creation would tempt humanity with the ability to conceive things that weren't true."

Limbaugh has given few clues as to what parts of the Bible he considers irrelevant and he constantly defends biblical concepts of right and wrong. His latest bestseller, "See, I Told You So" even includes a hint of eternal judgment.

"If there are no ultimate standards of behavior that descend from God, and if morality is merely an individual choice, then life itself has lost its greater meaning." Today, he writes, many refuse to teach young people that there is "a higher morality than our state and national laws. We can't introduce the idea that someday they might have to answer to God for their behavior."

On the air and in print, Limbaugh does allow himself moments of regret about his personal failures. Recently, he has stressed that wealth and fame cannot provide happiness or salvation.

"Jesus holds the answers to all of the everyday problems that you face," he told The Door. "I am talking about an acceptance and belief in Jesus, heaven and God. ... The quest for happiness is too often centered on materialism and wealth. Anyone who has had those things will tell you that they don't contribute to internal happiness or self-satisfaction at all."

And that's that. The irony is that Limbaugh is a liberal mainline Protestant, in background. He is an entertainer who needs conservative religious leaders, so he tries to keep them happy. But his life and his real political views? They speak for themselves.

It might help if journalists asked him some questions about that. There might even be a way to ask conservative religious leaders about this. Some of them would want to talk. Trust me.

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