My Take: Rush Limbaugh's 'apology' fails test for public confession
The author argues that Rush Limbaugh didn't really apologize for maligning a Georgetown Law student.
March 6th, 2012
01:05 PM ET

My Take: Rush Limbaugh's 'apology' fails test for public confession

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Dear Rush, which part of “I’m sorry” don’t you understand?

The ritual of public confession is so formulaic in American culture that it’s hard to imagine that someone as media savvy as Rush Limbaugh doesn’t know how to do it. But his so-called apology for calling Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” shows he doesn’t know the first thing about this rite, so here is how it goes.

First, admit that you have done wrong. Say this straight. Do not hedge. Do not confuse things by saying that others have wronged you. Do not say that others have committed similar sins.

Here the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church is a good model:

Most merciful God,

We confess that we have sinned against you

in thought, word, and deed,

by what we have done,

and by what we have left undone.

Second, show that you are truly sorry. Saying “I’m sorry” (which Limbaugh did not do) is a good start, but it isn’t enough. You have to make yourself believable. Here tears are not necessary, but they help. Others need to believe that you are confessing for the sake of your soul, and not merely for the sake of your career. Hint: the best way to make that happen is to actually be sorry.

Third, humble yourself. Admit that you are a human being like the rest of us. This can be difficult for people with a high opinion of themselves. So what. Suck it up.

Fourth, repent, turn around, promise that you will go and sin no more.

Look familiar? It should, if you’ve ever gone to Catholic Mass or observed Yom Kippur. But Limbaugh flubbed it big time.

First, he didn’t really apologize for turning a public policy question into a vicious personal attack. In fact, he said, “I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.”

Second, he tried to justify his unjustifiable behavior by claiming that he was trying to be “absurd” and “humorous.” He wasn’t trying to libel or slander Fluke, or to shut her up or humiliate her. He was just trying to have a little fun.

Third, Limbaugh stopped apologizing almost as soon as his apology had begun. Instead of detailing his many and manifold sins, he launched into a reprise of his argument against birth control coverage in U.S. health plans, and criticized President Obama along the way for coming to Fluke’s defense. In other words, he changed the subject, so the bulk of his ”apology” wasn’t an apology at all.

Finally, when he got to something approaching apologizing, Limbaugh did not apologize for what he really did. He did not apologize for launching a multi-day ad hominem attack against a private citizen. He did not apologize for dragging the American public through the muck and mire of his misogynistic fantasies. He did not apologize for inspiring a series of copycats in the right wing blogosphere.

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Instead he apologized for “insulting word choices.” In other words, he apologized for using the word “slut” instead of some less insulting synonym.

Given this abysmal performance, we should not be surprised that Fluke did not find his remarks particularly apologetic, or that she and many others believe he issued it not out of genuine remorse but in an effort to stanch the hemmoraging of advertisers from his show. “I don’t think that a statement like this issued, saying that his choice of words was not the best, changes anything, and especially when that statement is issued when he’s under significant pressure from sponsors who have begun to pull their support,” said Fluke, a Georgetown Law student.

Neither should we find it surprising that advertisers, including AOL, are fleeing the show en masse, and that some radio stations are now refusing to air it.

Limbaugh could have stanched the bleeding by practicing what historian Susan Wise Bauer has described as “the art of the public grovel.” Instead he gave us the art of the public equivocation.

Why? So why couldn’t he say, "I'm sorry"?

In a word: ego.

Republicans and Democrats will doubtless disagree about vices and virtues of the man who would be a GOP kingmaker. But there is no doubting that Limbaugh admires himself. And he is not about to sacrifice that form of worship at the altar of Sandra Fluke or anyone else.

That is why he is now blaming not himself but the companies who have stopped advertising on his show for their decision to separate themselves from his hate speech. “They’ve decided they don’t want you or your business any more,” he told his radio audience on Monday.

This in my view is a foolish course. Americans are a forgiving people. Many of the public figures profiled in Bauer’s “The Art of the Public Grovel” have come back into the public eye, not least President Bill Clinton. But the American public will not forgive you unless and until you confess and repent. And so far at least Limbaugh has refused to do either.

At this point, what is dragging Limbaugh down is not so much his incendiary attack on Fluke but his refusal to admit that, like the rest of us, he is a sinner, too. Until he does that, he will continue to float around in a celebrity limbo of his own making, praised by his true believers but damned - and rightly so - by most of the rest of us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Celebrity • Church and state • Culture wars • Politics • Sex • Sexuality • United States

soundoff (1,250 Responses)
  1. KeithTexas

    No one would ever expect a sincere apology from a narcissistic ego manic.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Just Say'in

      NO ONE expects the Spanish Inquisition.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  2. Suzanne

    Someone asked when Bill Maher was going to apologize to Sarah Palin, but when is Sarah Palin going to apologize to the President when she referred to his privates with a crude word (just referring to them at all was disgraceful). She is no lady!!! People have become so rude in this country. What has happened?

    March 6, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Dave, CA

      The tea party happened and the GOP embraced their hate with open arms just like they did to the disgustingly hypocritical "evangelicals".

      March 6, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  3. mark trought

    there are 15 millions racists in America that is the listernership of Rush's talk show. I wouldnt be listening to a racist day in day ot if I am not a fan of his bigotry. Now what do we do with these trolls who advertise and listen to Rushes garbage. Do we treat them as how we would handle terrorist I think so, as I see no difference in behavior

    March 6, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • newsreel

      Racist aside, his audience would also be uneducated, low class, lacking self-respect to be able to consume his show.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  4. Frank

    Well said Stephen.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  5. Phil

    Rush's listeners are to stupid to realize they are being played by one of the most immoral, deceitful, dishonest figures currently on the national stage. He makes millions feeding them hate and they lap it up. WWJD? he would unplug the right wing hate radio. People like Rush and Glen Beck are extraordinarily UN-Christian and UN-American. They live on hate (and profit tremendously from it). More educated and thoughtful people are not taken in by this stuff, they see it for what it is. The Republican Party has followed the playbook of feed on peoples fear, racism, nationalism, hate this group, hate that group. That's just what so many sociopathic manipulators do – work the dark side. There's a long list of them, cynically manipulate their own people, it starts out great but usually ends badly.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  6. Jimbo1918

    According to Rush view on ontraception coverage, his insurance carrier should not reimburse him for pain killer medicine for his back problem becuase he refuses to lose weight. He wants to eat like a pig but expect insurance coverage for his pain medicine. If contraceptive medicine is a good thing for family planning and health reason. It should be covered by the insurance not because someone is getting a free ride from the insurance for irresponsible behavior. If behaviors dictate what should be covered by the insurance, then a lot illness caused by drinking and smoking would not be covered by the insurance.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • SDN

      jimbo: May I be bold enough to a 'obesity'?

      March 6, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • SDN

      sorry, should have been 'add' – but I suppose that was more than obvious.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  7. Oh Rush....

    When you use attack tactics and hate, it's funny how people choose not to follow or somehow endorse your position. Right wing religious folks have used this tactic for ever and can't seem to understand why people don't buy what they're selling. As a republican, I don't need tools like Rush speaking for me or thinking they carry my message to the masses.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  8. Rudy Gonzales

    The TEA-GOP-Republican contenders are scared of 'Ol Brush Himoff and what he could do to them. Fringe group says it all. The fringe should have a voice, but with moderation. But, the TEA party doesn't want any moderation. They are a confrontational, in-your-face, contentious rabble. Since the Terroristic Economic Antagonist(TEA) party want to control every aspect of our economy and living standard, there will be no compromise by them at all. Middle-of-the-road discussion used to be the norm, but that has gone by the wayside since 2010. The Toxic Egotistica­l Activist(T­EA) party learned that if they control the local level, they have better control of power and monies and how to use those monies to their betterment at the expense of the general population. Get out and vote and get out the vote!
    It's more than 'Ol Brush Himoff's trouble that his incendiary comments have brought about, it's the radio stations, the network's who transmit his daily diatribe, the money men behind his motor-mouth, Bain Capital, Clear Channel and even the other Toxic Talking Heads defending this cigar chomping trash tongue. Look around the country and see who is blasting the president at every turn. Who is throwing flowers in Brushes path signalling his triumphant tattles? The Right-wing used to scream and holler at the liberal media, but do not look inward at their own biased curmudgeons.
    On his radio show Monday, Limbaugh addressed the advertisers who dropped their spots from his program, telling his audience, "I'm sorry to see them go. They have profited handsomely from you. These advertisers who have split the scene have done very well from their access to you, my audience on this program."
    This Braggart and self promoter is too full of himself and the networks who allow his diatribe should have had standards in place and delayed broadcasting to censor his blatant lying and brash commentary. The really sad part is the lack of distancing themselves by the right-winged politico's. As for Brush Himoff, I think he has had a great comupance and has crashed back down to earth. This stoogie chompin' braggart has not pulled back at all in today's show but rather went down memory lane to fill the time. Normally he rants and raves about president Obama. Some subdued, but still Brush Himoff!

    March 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  9. ron

    Rush doesnt need to apologise. Rush is a talk show host,not a elected rep.he doesnt run the republicians or any other group. he doesnt do anything but hes opinion. bill marrrrrrrrrrr doesnt apologise,for hes hateful everyday comments. nothing said about any far left communist liberal comments. this lady was a rube used by the democrats to get away from the real issue,forcing the church to go against its religious practices. more government socialist control .also avoid the truth about Obama and hes mandates ,that will cost us to death,along with his run as a failed terrible president. vote him and any other far left liberal communist liberal out in november . thats the only hope and change weve got.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • SDN

      ron: A triple header. Failure of logic, ethics and punctuation. All in one swell foop. Relax, it was intentional. Maybe a guest spot (or a 'phone abortion') on his show?

      March 6, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Billie

      He committed slander against her – against the law. He'll be lucky if she doesn't sue him.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Jake

      Yes, Ron, she's a real rube...a Georgetown law student, I'm sure you could get into Georgetown law, and yes, Obama is secretly a communist, why are you so moderate in your viewpoints? Thats sarcasm by the way genius, they learn things like that at schools like Georgetown Law...

      March 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • jaintn

      Hey Ron, do you have fevers with those fits?

      March 6, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • JustMe

      No, you're right, he doesn't need to apologize. Freedom of speech and all that. But freedom of speech doesn't mean everyone has to agree with you. It also means that advertisers are free to take their dollars elsewhere and I suspect that has far more do with his 'apology' than any actual remorse. Besides, he didn't really apologize anyway.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • Legalchick

      He is not an elected official, but he most certainly DOES run the Republicans. If you're a Republican, you can not afford to make him your enemy. He can make and break a campaign. Period. That's why none of the Republican electorate or candidates has publicly criticized or condemned his remarks. They should, but they won't. Because they can't.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  10. SDN

    "..the muck and mire of his misogynistic fantasies". How much more articulate and accurate could this have been stated? Well done, Mr. Prothero. Since he apparently doesn't have a daughter, perhaps we should introduce he and his current and former wives to the muck and mire of our misogynistic fantasies? Just in fun, you understand.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  11. *frank*

    Any insult from that greasy halfwit windbag pig should be regarded as an unintended compliment.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • ron

      as usual liberals communists resort to name calling ,on any issue. free country ,a talk show host can say what they want. just listen to the liberals and what they say from Bush ,until now. the real issues are mandated government control ,higher taxes, higher gas, no jobs ,no homes ,sorry excuse for a president ever elected

      March 6, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Dave, CA

      Seriously "ron"? Are you Deaf to all the name calling and disrespect for President Obama from the GOP? Or do you think it's only OK when Republicans fling mud at so called "liberals and commies"?

      Are you also deaf to the smears going on with in the GOP's clown show of presidential candidates? No wonder you're so bitter! With morons like THAT representing your party it'd be hard not to!

      March 6, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • SDN

      ron: "Liberals communists". I betting you couldn't accurately define either term. Haven't you noticed how vapid, hateful, vulgar and inane most of the Rush supporters comments turn out to be? Ignorance may be bliss, but it never seems to approach articulation or relevance. Why do you suppose that is?

      March 6, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  12. Dave, CA

    "I'm sorry you were offended." Is NOT an apology. Rethuglicans need to learn this simple fact.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  13. jsok

    What a bunch of freaks here.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  14. JoeH

    He shouldn't have apologized in the first place. I am tired of conservatives apologizing to stinkin' libs when the apology should come the other way. I have already sent an email to all the advertisers that pulled from his show telling them they lost my business and will be mailing out the same tomorrow.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • So What

      It probably would have helped if you had purchased something from them in the first place... but be like your hero and talk big even though you have nothing to support it with,

      March 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Christine

      ...and I'll be contacting the advertisers who pulled, to let them know they have new business.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yeah. Your letter and your mother's should have a HUGE impact.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Steve the Goat

      "herp derp derp. My name is Joe. I drool a lot. I want to make babies with my sister and mother. I love Jesus, barbeque, and buckets of lard"

      March 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Dave, CA

      I'm sure they're shaking. You should also learn that crossing the lines of decency and engaging in a 3-day perverted hate-fest on a young woman isn't a "lib" vrs "con" thing. I know you have that knee jerk reaction to blame everything under the sun on liberals, but this isn't the case. Maybe you need to seek help with that.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest


      And why shouldn't Rush have to apologize? Oh are you one of those people who didn't listen to Flukes' testimony, and doesn't know what the pill is used for other than contraception?

      March 6, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • manyote

      As if your business is going to make or break them. Take your business and stick it where the sun don't shine.
      And that was not an apology from that "stinkin" konservative either, so what's your beef?

      March 6, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • alice58

      don't let the door hit you on the way out buddy - cuz you're in the minority! loser!

      March 6, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Howie76

      You will have forgotten this in two weeks and go back to buying those products.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • SDN

      joe: Would you expect, or demand, an apology if I said such things about your daughter, wife or sister – to an audience of 14 million? Or would you be obligated to apologize to me?

      March 6, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Bob in Ohio

      I'm do not know how any woman could not be offended by Mr. Limbaugh's language referring to Ms Fluke. My quess is most of the posts here defending him are from men (just a guess people so don't get excited). Regardless of how one views the issue, his language was incredibly crude and his so-called "apology" was a joke. In viewing the video where he was describing Ms Fluke, I saw absolutely no hint of "humor' in his delivery or facial expression. I wonder what his wife and exes thought of his rant?

      March 6, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • SDN

      joe: Such fear, such hate, such profound ignorance.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Norm

      I will let those same advertisers know that they've gained my business. I think people should be rewarded when they stand up to a bully.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • jim

      Boy Joe – that sure is tough talk


      March 6, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Whaddaya bet Joe runs a Subway franchise?

      March 6, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  15. AV

    Whatever be the underlying issues or causes, his thinking, his belief, nothing gives him any right to use such indecent, insulting and filthy language for a woman. Fluke should sue him and take him to court.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • jim

      Mr. Potato head is finished – question is why did it take so long

      March 6, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  16. sybaris

    Regardless, unless the apology is face to face it's worthless.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      And if he said the same non-apologetic crap to her face it would still be worthless...

      March 6, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  17. edmundburkeson

    This is the one press conference this President will have this year ... and what does he do? Finds more ways to divide us? We need to ignore him and not allow him to come between us. He is not a leader. He is a follower! Rush is not the enemy. Fluke is not the enemy. Get over it!!!!

    March 6, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Sylvia Feldman

      What planet have you been living on the last three years? President Obama bent over backwards from the beginning of his
      presidency to try and bring both parties together to accomplish things, but the Republicans in the House and Senate dismantled everything he did. Everything he was for they were automatically against. He is not a leader? It would take the leadership of
      the Almighty to make people work together, and then it still would not work because people would argue over who the Almighty actually is in each religion. Partisanship has gotten worse and worse over the years..... it did not begin with President Obama and it definitely will not end when he leaves office. Unfortunately, people have become so rude and
      offensive in public discourse toward the President, the hostility between the parties is likely to last into perpetuity. How are
      children going to grow up with any respect for the President when their parents show none? It's unfathomable to me how
      Republicans and Democrats see the world so entirely differently. To blame this President for dividing the country is ludicrous
      and just totally wrong.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Norm

      Ignore the president, but Rush is OK. Megadittoes to you! For me, I think I'll listen to President Obama. If you want to check out for the next four years, be my guest.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do you often have these sorts of "spells", eddie? Get some meds.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  18. nc

    "Why? So why couldn’t he say, "I'm sorry"?

    In a word: ego."

    EGO – Excessively Grandiose Opinion

    March 6, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  19. ca3b

    Lots of comparisons here to negative comments regarding Sarah Palin. There is little relationship between the two. The big difference is Sarah is a public figure, like any other recognized politician, media personality, and celebrity. The barbs and jabs go with the job. You'll be ridiculed on SNL, late night TV, etc. But you bought into that being a high paid public figure. The woman who was the target of Rush's attack was a private citizen. Vulgar insults hurled at a private citizen, who is merely expressing a political viewpoint, goes beyond appropriate boundaries when made by a public figure with unlimited access to the media in order to humiliate someone.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • jsok

      You are wrong. She is a private person who went public in a VERY big way.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • JL

      Fluke is a political advocate that set herself up for ridicule by making up this sob story about how Georgetown law students are impoverished by having to buy their own birth control. It's absolutely absurd, so Rush took the bait and lost some sponsors because of it. Let's move on.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Bob in Ohio

      Let's not move on JL. Let's look at exactly what Mr. Limbaugh is and has been. Hopefully "has been" are the key words here.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      She testified before a committee. That doesn't make her a political figure or in any way equivalent to a Palin or Bachmann, you moron.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  20. abcdxyz

    The author didn't add that usually, when a public figure has "confessed," we absolve them only when they agree to do "penance." Usually this involves entering rehab. Mel Gibson, for example, after his anti-Semitic rant at a cop, entered rehab to do penance. Is there a rehab for whatever ails Rush?

    March 6, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Dumb and dumber

      The hemorrhoid clinic.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Amused

      I agree with what you say, but you are getting ahead yourself as Rush has yet to actually apologize in the first place! He said that his choice of words were unfortunate and taken the wrong way, not that he was sorry at all. Rush is a real POS.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
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