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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. Charlie

    This is just a bump in the road. Rush is far too popular and will be back. Not hat I listen to the nut case, but ,millions do.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  2. Bob

    "Saying “I’m sorry” (which Limbaugh did not do) is a good start, but it isn’t enough. "

    Yet if he was a liberal like Bill Maher, he wouldnt have to apologize at all !
    How much longer is the state-run media going to obsess about this....it will soon backfire against the libs.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Kleb

      Maybe, but until then it sure is fun watching that fat POS squirm.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Siege268

      So maybe he needs to rise above Bill Maher and be a MAN and simply say, "I'm sorry." A real man would apologize and if he had done so, we'd likely not be reading yet another article about his mistake.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Z

      Typical conservative tactic. Know that you're soundly beaten? Change the topic!

      March 6, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Refresh my memory: when did Maher call a private citizen a "sl #t" and get away with it?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  3. infonomics

    Rush lauds the ideals of rugged individualism–and to whom does he manifest such? His ditto-heads, his sheeple, who, as the names suggest, are anything but individualist. They tune in everyday for group think. Rush knows this and his advertisers know this and they both exploit it. His listeners are like pigeons scurrying for Rush's bread crumbs of demagoguery, each head-bobbing one excited and grateful to be used for building Rush's wealth. In private conversation, Rush probably refers to them as "useful idiots".

    March 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  4. me138

    Do people really even care about Rush's apology? I don't.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  5. Michael

    and this article fails the test of journalistic integrity (whatever that means these days)

    March 6, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Kleb

      It's an opinion piece, Einstein.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  6. Joe

    My take: You are cool for having a take on this issue. Can't wait until Maher apologize for calling Palin a C$%nt.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • momoya

      Rush shouldn't apologize; he should just be busted down to Maher's rank and pay.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  7. Luke

    Wow. Tell me, what did he have for breakfast. Maybe that will be of interest.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • LeRoy_Was_Here

      He had cornflakes. But somebody peed in them.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  8. Gary

    Ms. Fluke is no longer a private person when she choose to go before congress to give testtimony about "friends".
    The right and left are guilty of this. It is sad that Stephen and those to the left of center need make sad attempt to single out one person,
    Let's all strive to keep the conversation at the adult level.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • J.W

      Perhaps not. I do not know legally when one becomes a public figure. I did not think that testifying one time would make her what would technically a public figure. It is possible I am wrong on the specifics of that part of the law.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • BobFromPA

      The conversation was started by Limbaugh and was not at an adult level, but the backlash has been.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Luke

      I would like to know what qualifications Ms. Fluke has to speak on such an issue or was it just a fluke that she happens to be a Catholic going to a Catholic University that gives her qualification above any woman- anywhere? Unless she has some specific qualification that causes her to be in this public arena I would suggest every woman in America be invited in to give equal testimony. Rush is irrelevent. I would rather know more about what is truly behind the theatircs that Rush simply went overboard on.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:51 pm |

    Rush can't apologize because he fears he would no longer be the ACKNOWLEDGED leader of the Republican Party.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  10. Kleb

    Bye bye Rush. This is so fun!

    *grabs more popcorn...

    March 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • DeathsEmbrace

      He isnt going anywhere. Advertisers will drop and feign concern but at the end of the day people will STILL listen (even more so for the time being) and advertisers WILL jump on that. He can say whatever he wants and as long as people listen the money will roll in and he will be around. This whole thing has solidified the truth of today that is the only people allowed to be called out or made fun of are white, middle aged, Christian, males... everyone else is off the board.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Kleb

      Maybe. But this is how is how Glenn Blech went down.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  11. suesark

    Of course he didn't apologize! DUH! This is going to be great for his ratings! It's why he says this kind of stuff. The whole world is talking about it, and listening to his show to hear what he says next, etc etc. Ratings go up, money goes in Rushs' pocket. End of story.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Erick

      Why would anyone need to listen to Rush Limbaugh? I get all the information i need about him from late night comedians

      March 6, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  12. Donald

    Thaddeus Matthews has issued no apology either. Al Sharpton has issued no apolgies either. Where is the media outcry on those individuals?

    March 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Kleb

      ....but...but...those other guys killed somebody too! Therefore it's ok that I'm a serial killer!

      March 6, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  13. Jared

    Does anyone really pay attention to Rush anyway? I'm a Republican and I don't bother to listen to him.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • shoos

      Sadly, yes.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  14. scoobypoo

    So many posts about contraception, which is not the real issue with Fluke. Get a clue.

    Ms. Fluke was testifying about how a friend had to have surgery because she couldn't afford the pills (which are used for many medicinal purposes, not just birth control); Fluke said nothing about needing them or using them for contraception. Rush made that up, like so much of the untruths he spews.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  15. northernCA

    does Rush know that because he is obese there are many health insurance companies who won't want to pay for the many diseases associated with corpulence

    March 6, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  16. Tom

    To all of you, who are so shocked, hurt, outraged, and offended by Rush Limbaugh’s remarks concerning that poor little defenseless college girl. Now you know how I felt when they called me a teabagger (I had to look it up). If that wasn’t hurtful enough, they also called me a racist. It was so hurtful mainly because it wasn’t true. The tea party was mostly about fiscal responsibility (we are fifteen, going on sixteen trillion in debt). It was a lot of people who had never seen such blatant political chicanery in their lives and they were scared. But think what a relief it was to have the mainstream media come to our aid. No wait; it was the mainstream media who were slandering us. No one came to our aid and we will not forget it in November.
    It is unconscionable what we are doing to our future generations. The government cannot provide everything to everyone because we are the government. At least we should be.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • northernCA

      this isn't about you

      March 6, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      You ranks were so loaded with racists it became difficult to tell the difference. They owned the message, not you.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • LeRoy_Was_Here

      If you're so concerned about the national debt, why weren't you complaining when George W. Bush doubled it, with senseless wars and irresponsible tax cuts for our billionaires?

      March 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Kleb

      Well, the only reason we called you racist was that it was accurate.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Ron

      Don't forget fetishist, terrorist, and I'm sure I'm missing a few more. But that's OK. They're liberals and are allowed to do such things.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Kleb

      "Fetishist?" LOL....okay....

      March 6, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      So you are just as angry at Rush then for his comments then Tom? I mean you havent actually stated that either way in your rant.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Treebeard

      *** The tea party was mostly about fiscal responsibility (we are fifteen, going on sixteen trillion in debt).

      Fiscal responsibility my azz.
      Not a peep out of any of you while George Bush spent money like a drunken sailor,
      But on January 2009 the day President Obama was sworn in everything Bush did
      was thrown in Obamas face.

      Bush started two wars on a credit card, and when Obama put those wars
      back on the books, you TEA freaks started screaming about the debt,
      George Bush's debt.

      Everything you just posted was bullship.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  17. fastball

    He didn't apologize for anything other than the words he used in "an attempt to be funny".
    Limbaugh's employers should finally say "enough, we really don't want to be associated with you". Unfortunately, there's always a station out there that figures if they hire him, he'll drag enough of the trailer park along with him to make it worthwhile.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  18. dc3gal

    You got that right he didn't appologize. I use to be a huge fan of his but that stopped years ago. After he insulted her not once but twice, all he really did was say his choice of words weren't good and he wrote it. I haven't HEARD anything yet that comes close to an apology. This guy doesn' t know how to and it's going to be his downfall.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  19. LeRoy_Was_Here

    The Democrats are lucky to have Rush on their side. In the last week, he has just doubled the gender gap between the two parties, which was already in the Democrats' favor.

    Thanks, Rush!

    March 6, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  20. Erick

    How is Rush's "apology" even in the opinion section?

    March 6, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19
About this blog

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.