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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. shutthehellup

    Rush is 100%correct !!! Women should keep their months shut !!

    March 6, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • momoya

      "Keep their MONTHS shut?". Isn't that what contraceptives do?

      March 6, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  2. jackson

    The fall of a worthless point of view
    Go already

    March 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  3. Just me

    being a republican means never having to say you're sorry.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  4. dd

    He is part of a small, aging group of angry white males, who want the clock turned back in an attempt to relive their childhood, all pent up with anger, lashing out at everyone else, last gasps of a group that failed to evolve and mature socially.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • momoya

      Look, there's no reason to bring biblegod into all this.. 🙂

      March 6, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • oceanica

      His doctor shopping for multiple presciptions of Viagra and smoking big cigars (i wonder if he drives a long nosed corvette) gives us a clue as to what he thinks is his personal short coming. It could also explain why he has been divorced so many times and why he's just plain mad at the world ALL the time. He claims his radio talent is on loan from God so i guess in turn God didn't give him the big end of the stick , if you know what i mean.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  5. Big Bird

    You are right that Rush did not sincerely apologize. However, you are wrong to think it matters. Rush only needs to say that he apologized. The game is over. This will be forgotten in a few days. The losers are the sponsors that decided to leave.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • paul

      wishful thinking bird, most of us were looking for a real reason to boycott companies that supported him and now we have.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  6. Bo

    There is one radio talk-show host in California that made a terrible ethnic slander one time, I was so angry I turned him off and didn’t turn him back on again for about a month. Guess what? It just so happened that he was still apologizing for the remark. Something that I didn’t really understand was that he said that he left that day thinking he had really done a good job because he had made the listeners mad (angry). Is that the job of a talk-show host? I do have this much to say for the guy, he really was truly apologetic. The thing about him that I couldn’t stand was his filthy mouth. He’d make a filthy remark and none of his crew would laugh and he would call out “Hey! Where’s the crickets?” He never seemed to catch on that nobody really appreciated his off-colored jokes.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Cool Story, B(r)o!

      word.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  7. jennifer

    Did any of you have health problems where birthcontrol was need to help with bleeding , cramps , cists ,or other health issus? Alot of insurances companies will not pay for these things. And by the way do you even know how much birthcontrol even is my daughters pills without insurance 30.00 a mounth.Alot of companies don't cover it but they will cover viraga so where is the fairness in that? Some of you seemed to miss where the young lady talked about health problems so think about that. I had to be put on birthcontrol at 47 my doctor had to fight the insurance company to allow me to be on it. It's not always about Tom, Dick, and Harry.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Scott

      Huge, Huge, HUGE Amen!

      March 6, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Nah

      First, the issue isn't about medical needs for birth control, it's about contraceptives used willy nilly and paid for by everyone else's insurance.

      Second, if you can't afford $30 per month for your "daughter's" birth control - and you want to force everyone else to pay for it - perhaps you shouldn't be on the computer or the internet, and I hope to god you don't also have a smart phone. Or a flat screen t.v. Or an $80 per month hairdo.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nonsense. Birth control is a benefit to the public good and should be covered by insurance. Get over it.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Desi

      YES! You are so right. I was on birth control pills for twenty years to treat a medical condition.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  8. Scott

    momoya–You say "Free Speech," but then demand his "pay be cut." Strangely hypocritical, don't you think? It's either free, or it isn't.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • momoya

      No, you moron.. I didn't demand anything.. I say that it's free speech and he should NOT have to apologize.. If his free speech offends people, those people can use their free speech to say so, then those companies influenced by the free speech can withdraw their support, then Rush will be down at Maher's pay scale.. Then they're even.. Free speech doesn't guarantee you won't reap the consequences of your speech (in this case, the monetary consequences)..

      March 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • oceanica

      Free speech does not mean you can use persistant abusive language to personally attack private citizens. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that the exercise of these rights (freedom of speech) carries "special duties and responsibilities" and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary "[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others" or "[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals".

      March 6, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Nah

      ocean: "Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that the exercise of these rights (freedom of speech) carries "special duties and responsibilities" and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions""

      Oh please. Talk about the ultimate lip service to free speech.

      Article 19 says, in essence, that you have the right to speak what you want, except if someone's feelings are hurt and except if the government wants to prevent you from speaking in the first place. That's not free speech, that's Orwellian double speak.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • oceanica

      Uh Nah.
      I'm not the author of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, I just quoted it. If you think it's "lip service" you'll have to take it up with them.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Nah

      ocean: "I'm not the author of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, I just quoted it. If you think it's "lip service" you'll have to take it up with them."

      First, you quoted it because, evidently, you agree with it.

      Second, pointing out how and why "Article 19" is flawed is relevant for that reason. No one needs to take it up with "them" to prove how and why it (and you) are wrong.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  9. ron

    People like Limbaugh do not apologize. They only want you to think they have. I'll never understand how anyone
    could sit and listen to this gob of sweaty lard. Just my opinion.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  10. Catherine54

    No, he didn't apologize. He never took pesonal responsibility for his words. He blamed liberals. Unless there was someone off camera with a gun pointing to his head and holding as script of what to say, I have to believe those were HIS words. It wasn't a slip of the tongue, not over the three days of his diatribe. The ONLY reason he is apologizing is because the backlash is affecting his bottom line.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  11. reggie222

    What I am hoping is that sponsors see his claims that they don't want his listeners business to see if for the slander it really is. Might be a good lesson for him to face not only the loss of sponsors, but a few liable suits as well. My prediction for Rush, take away his money and he'll be on the corner drugged up in a week...

    March 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  12. Norman Martin

    By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN May have impressive background but to call someone a liar is very biased and presumptuous. If one side can say something but the other side says the same thing about someone on the other side it is bad. Then that shows how biased they are. To quite a verse in the bible “then the truth is not in him”.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  13. Paul E. Williams

    There is a rehab for Rush. It is called Hell. It takes a thousand years. So the good part is: We won't be here when he gets back.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  14. Patrick

    Gee, if that comment came out my mouth I would loose my job. It just goes to show you if you have a lot of money and pull you can say what you want, and get away with it. He should be held accountable for his comments. I will never waste my time listening to his radio program ever again.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  15. Scott

    So–Anyone who says Rush Limbaugh should be jerked off the radio WITHOUT demanding an apology from Bill Maher is a hypocrite. Either there is a "War on Women," or there isn't. You can't have it both ways.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • momoya

      Free speech.. Both Rush and Maher are able to use it.. Rush doesn't need to apologize, but he should be busted down to Maher's pay grade.. Looks like Rush's advertisers agree.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Catherine54

      Maher was out of line as well. That's why I quit watching his show.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • charlotte

      And YOU, pathetic schill, fail to grasp the fact that Bill Maher did not force Limbaugh to do this inexcusable assault on a private citizen. Thus there is absolutely no connection. You can't justify one man's bad behavior by the juvenile "Well HE did it, too!" like some five year old. Clearly those of you who think this is adequate justification still have the maturity of five-year-olds. He did what he did. Period. Full stop. Quit trying to justify it because some other completely separate person did something else, at some other time. You people are complete ninnies. No wonder your spouses hate you most of the time. No clue about personal responsibility.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • rick

      scott is a true believer. hey scott, tell the cop that pulls you over for speeding that he should have also pulled over the guy behind you or you shouldn't get a ticket and see what happens.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Nah

      charlotte: "Thus there is absolutely no connection. You can't justify one man's bad behavior by the juvenile "Well HE did it, too!" like some five year old."

      Are we reading different comments? Because "Scott" was commenting on the hypocrisy of liberals, not making a statement about what Limbaugh can do because of what Maher did.

      "You people are complete ninnies. No wonder your spouses hate you most of the time. No clue about personal responsibility."

      That's cute. You're criticizing Limbaugh's ad hominem and you go ahead and make an ad hominem yourself.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Beth

      Two wrongs dont make a right. Just because fewer people get upset over something Bill Maher says doesnt mean that Rush gets a free pass to say words like that.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Scott

      @Charlotte: "Shill?" I'm a "Shill?" LOL! Babykins you have No idea. Cute, though. And although your opinions are cross-eyed, stupid and wrong, (as you think mine are), I will allow you to continue to be exactly that–because I believe in freedom. Something you HYPOCRITICALLY do not. Good luck with your dreams of oppression–although those will be taken care of by someone else For you, naturally. Cheers and Big Kiss.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Scott

      @Beth: I agree with you, but that is not at all what is implied here. What is implied is the screeching hypocrisy of those who would condemn one person for doing the same thing they allow someone else to do.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  16. Core Christian Values

    Rush is a disgusting monster. The only value he serves is to remind Americans that the republican party is morally corrupt. But I would prefer instead of that role, he just go off the air and leave American in peace. Peace is what I want, and Limbaugh stands for hate, anger, and everything that is ugly.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • paul

      limbaugh thinks people will stop patronizing companies that deserted him but actually i think more people will boycott companies that continue to support his fat ass. he has reached the end of his celebrity status and i doubt he will be playing at pebble beach in the near future

      March 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • stu

      haha, yeah right. Pray away – I'll be enjoying my life without fear of the boogyman.

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

      Not only is your screen name a joke but so is the comment. I feel sorry for you.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Nah

      Both stu and Steve got trolled.

      Not surprising that they're atheists as well.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  18. useemenow

    He Rush can say what he likes...after all is it is not what we "fight" for everyday and to get worked up makes no sense especially after we find out this woman is a professional lobbyist for far reaching legislation. Now before all the women jump on the beat me down wagon, I sincerely believe Rush definite could have use a differing method/approach and words but the fact still remains..should employers (i'm one) be forced to pay for insurance that covers birth control pill...very interesting issue but is it contraceptives we are bickering about or just the BCP. If in deed the argument is pills only then that is a one sided view...There has to be 2 sides to every coin. I believe if pills are covered then insurance should equally covering my condoms. Birth control is a 2 person issue and as a man I feel if pills are covered so should condoms after all it is a health issue for me as well.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I have no problem with my premiums covering your condoms, so to speak. In fact, it would be a privilege.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • charlotte

      You're right – it IS a 2-person issue, and condoms could be covered, too. Although condoms have little other use, whereas the Pill is used to regulate uncontrolled bleeding, hormonal issues that lead to cervical cysts and cancers, and other legitimate medical concerns unrelated to contraception. But even if it covers contraception only – this is a darn sight cheaper than child support.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Damn straight, charlotte.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  19. whitmanguy

    Limbaugh will not apologize; it isn't in his interest to do so. And the "American public" doesn't need to forgive him. His slice of it doesn't believe that what he said was wrong; quite the contrary. If he were to say he is sorry he would be regarded as a wuss by the mentality he panders to and cultivates.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      His advertisers may be convinced that their customers feel differently.

      Nobody cares what his listeners think unless they're the ones spending cash.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • whitmanguy

      @Tom. I wish I could believe that. I know he's been dropped by some. But I suspect that others will fill the gap, or the droppers will pick him up again when the incident is forgotten. Only if his rating go down will the sponsors evaporate.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  20. Howie76

    Junkies do not apologize because nothing is their fault.

    March 6, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Isn't it funny that conservative fans of Rush seem so ready to overlook his drug-addict history?

      Why is that?

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

      tom: "Isn't it funny that conservative fans of Rush seem so ready to overlook his drug-addict history?"

      Alas, how like a tolerant, open minded liberal: base your arguments on fallacies and misconstrue the issues.

      Hate Limbaugh all you want but there is a clear and distinct difference between being a drug addict and becoming dependent on your own prescription medications. Many people - like Limbaugh - who have legitimate medications can become addicted to them because the drugs themselves are narcotics.

      Limbaugh's dependency is not the same as a heroin addict's.

      Get over it.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • shut up, herbie

      you suck

      March 6, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh? Do explain how it's different, dear. I'm just all ears.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Nah

      tom: "Oh? Do explain how it's different, dear. I'm just all ears."

      Reading comprehension isn't your forte, eh?

      But for your benefit: there's a difference between someone going out and looking for illegal drugs - that serve no medical purpose - in order to "get high", and a person who is on legitimate prescription medications and who, because of their physiological response to the medications, becomes dependent on them.

      In the one case you have an addict who initially, and every time thereafter, was merely looking for a "fix", and in the other you have someone on prescription medications who has become addicted to them because of that prescription.

      Try reading the comment next time. And when you can't respond, admit defeat and move on. You'll look less foolish that way.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • oceanica

      Nah
      Limbaugh admitted on his radio show that he was a drug addict, checked himself into rehab twice. a few years later police found that he was associated with a black market drug ring in Palm Beach County, Florida, a few years later airport security found him to have doctor shopped drugs on him.
      an addict is an addict no matter how much money you have or how you get your drugs or which ones you prefer.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • Nah

      ocean: "an addict is an addict no matter how much money you have or how you get your drugs or which ones you prefer."

      Good job at not understanding the issue.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.