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.