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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.

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. Luke

    Interesting game plan using Ms. Fluke. Find a Catholic woman, and one who goes to a Catholic University, who does not follow the churches teachings and use her as an example of why our government can ignore the first amendment and dictate to the church what they must do. I guess that would be like allowing us all to not pay our taxes because Geithner, cureent administration member, chose not to. Was Rush attacking her 'personally' or attacking the charade which surrounded her appearance? I guess that depends on if you are a fundamentalist or not?

    March 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Duane - St. Pete FLA

      yeah.....and why doen't she just buy a rubber?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • J.W

      Republicans have never paid any attention to the first amendment until now. If the first amendment applies to this shouldn't it apply to everything?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Cunning Stunts

      ** Was Rush attacking her 'personally' or attacking the charade which surrounded her appearance? I guess that depends on if you are a fundamentalist or not?

      Or just Republican politics as usual.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Why don't YOU buy your OWN?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Chris

      Duane, can you please explain to me how a rubber a man may refuse to use will work to prevent a pregnancy?
      And how does it work to treat polycystic ovarian syndrome and prevent a cyst from rupturing? Or do reduce extreme pain and heavy bleeding or endometriosis?
      I know, I am using big words you can't even pronounce but all those conditions are actually treated by this little pill you hate so much.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I hate to break it to you, but DUHwayne is passed out already.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  2. Dan

    Expecting a narcissist to apologize violates the definition of a narcissist.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Betty

      What exactly would he apologize for? Calling someone names? Read these comments- you think name calling is somethng he does not receive or give out. The cd's our twelve year olds listen to are far worse than what he said. People let theuir 13 year olds watch 'R' rated movies...get over it...Mrs. Clever retired years ago and this is what we wanted...we got it.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  3. Duane - St. Pete FLA

    why pay for her birth control????? BUY a rubber!!

    March 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      sigh, another one that missed the whole hearing and what the topic was actually about.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Duane - St. Pete FLA

      yeah, its about you libs and your prez getting your hands out of my product

      March 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Duane - St. Pete FLA

      pocket

      March 6, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      come back when you actually have a clue, until then you are just posting in the wind.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Cunning Stunts

      *** Duane – St. Pete FLA

      yeah, its about you libs and your prez getting your hands out of my product
      -----------------------------------–

      No, its about health care, and you just proved that you
      are an uneducated moron.
      It helps to have some knowledge about the subject you are talking about.
      You have none.
      Typical.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Why would anyone be interested in your pocket? You don't have anything in it.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Cynthia

      No, it's about you men getting out of women's business and get a grip and realize you know live in the 21st century.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  4. Brasil1958

    I agree 100% with Prof. Prothero's analysis of Rush Limbaugh's professed "apology". When he says I "used the wrong choice of words" he is simply saying that HE MEANT IT but said it incorrectly thus causing all this stir. Perhaps he meant to say a "woman of ill repute" or a woman from the "worlds oldest profession". I watched the footage of him babbling into his golden microphone and see a man who is enraptured with himself and completely caught up in his own imaginary world. It's like he has a captive audience of one and has completely eliminated the filter between brain and mouth. That is a trait of senior's and people with dementia and in Rush's case a strong dose of megalomania.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  5. geETO

    Rush is circling the bowl – when he goes down his worshippers will go with him

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

      You may find that there aren't nearly as many republicans who are fans of Rush as you think.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  6. Daveinil

    Listen to the liberals whine! When you express equal outrage for the names left wing pundits like Bill Maher call Palin or Bachmann, then you might be taken seriously. Until then, it's much ado about nothing.

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

      ... see my reply to Zeke... or get a dictionary....

      March 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Cunning Stunts

      We dont have to whine,
      we just sit back and watch the Republican party
      fall apart, one brick at a time.
      Its lots of fun.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  7. ZEKE

    So, when do we expect an apology from Bill Maher for calling Palin a C**T?

    Oh, by the way, Maher gave $1 million to Obama. The money came from his comedy enterprises, including calling conservative women bimbos, boobs, and c**ts.

    So is Obama really going to use this boob, bimbo, and c**t money?

    March 6, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • David

      Zeke... do you even know what the definition of a c**t is? ... "an unpleasant or stupid person"... accurate definition of both Palin and Bachmann.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Cunning Stunts

      Here you go Zeke...................
      I am sorry that Palin is a C**T.

      Feel better ?
      Thats how Rush does it.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  8. Duane - St. Pete FLA

    buy a rubber!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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

      What, are you 10?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Cunning Stunts

      Get a brain.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  9. jack

    This is no surprise, politicians and other public figures do this all the time when they want to appear to apologize but they can't bring themselves to do it because they don't really believe what they said is wrong. Just listen. They usually say "I'm sorry if anyone was offended by what I said..", or something to that effect. That's not an apology, and ideology doesn't matter, people on both sides of the spectrum use this sort of "apology". The Democratic congressman who compared Guantanamo to the Russian gulags did the exact same thing about 5 years ago.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Cunning Stunts

      *** The Democratic congressman who compared Guantanamo to the Russian gulags did the exact same thing about 5 years ago.

      You are now comparing a Russian gulag to a human being ?
      Wow.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  10. Brian

    "he is a sinner, too too."

    Really CNN ? Do you not proofread your articles ?

    March 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  11. Ken Margo

    If you have to be "pressured" to apologize, the apology isn't sincere. The real issue is contraception and abortion. I challenge anyone who is pro-life to put up their money to help these children they want so badly to be born. Kids are NOT FREE. Every person born cost money to everybody. Five things pro-lifers should GUARANTEE. Food, clothing, shelter, health care and education. No one from the Pope on down is willing to kick over some money to help these kids out. SO THE BOTTOM LINE IS SIMPLE. NOBODY REALLY CARES ABOUT THESE KIDS.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Tbrown1906

      You are Sooooooo right!!! They are all hypocrites!!! They would force women to have kids and then offer absolutely no support afterwards....

      March 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Dude

      They could very easily put these unwanted babies up for adoption rather than abort them. If they don't want them, why should they have a problem with giving them up once they're born?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Why should anyone act as an incubator if she doesn't want to be one?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  12. dogs2?

    Who cares. Gee whiz, how many times has some Bollywood piece of dirt, or for even that matter, person's of presidential caliber, made comments and never ever apologized? Hmmm.... like a certain black president who sided with an obviously wrong professor and made pathetic statements defending one black professior who violated the law but whined because he was black? So no, who cares if Rush apologizes or not. And no, we don't really know if the gal is really a bimbo or not, nor will we ever unless someone feels some need to keep digging in the mud for something.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  13. Mitte

    I dont listen to Rush as closely as some of the most ardent fans. But I have some great friends who own multimedia conglomerates. When I said that I supported Rush yesterday I misunderstood the question. I thought the reporter was referring to the band.

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

      *Gasp!!* Don't tell Geddy Lee!!

      March 6, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • jimtanker

      2112, I can listen to that for hours.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Cunning Stunts

      The oaks are much too greedy, they grab up all the light.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  14. Zippy

    How come Rush is for insurance covering Viagra? It's the same argument to conclude that Ms Fluke was a w h o-re

    March 6, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • David

      because he has a small, limp you-know-what!

      March 6, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • ZEKE

      One is for having an erection and the other is for preventing pregnancy.

      Maybe you don't understand the difference.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "One is for having an erection and the other is for preventing pregnancy. "

      Actually its for a lot more than that of course....such as preventing cysts, which Fluke was talking about.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  15. MommaM

    What is boils down to is this – I doesn't matter if you or agree or disagree with Miss Fluke – she was expressing her views and excercising her freedom of speech – she did not attack anyone – Rush chose to take her words and to twist them so that he could continue spewing his words of hate – I allow the Rush's of our country Freedom of Speech UNTIL he attacks a young lady in the vile manner that he did. For those of you who are supporting Rush – please take the time to listen to what Miss Fluke actually said yourself and not rely on Rush. She was not asking for free contraceptives – only that it be offered in her healthcare policy. Try listenting to other points of view – you might learn something along the way.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • misterdrifter

      very well said. it seems everyone wants to react, but never actually listening to/understanding what they are reacting to

      March 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Doozer

      Well put Momma !

      March 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  16. David B

    Rush is a Moron and any person who digests his Hate & Bigoted views needs to finish the second grade. Only the Uneducated listen to such rubbish!

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

      What makes you any better than Rush? You're just as judgmental and hateful in your comments as he is. Hypocrisy.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Doozer

      *** Nick

      What makes you any better than David B ? You're just as judgmental and hateful in your comments as he is. Hypocrisy.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  17. fernace

    Limbaugh has spewed his hatred, vitriol, divisiveness & twisted views for decades! He was front & center (alongside Trump) in the "Birther" debacle & I don't recall any backlash over his attrocious treatment of the new president! It's about time his vicious tounge gets the lashing it deserves! BTW, this is on the Belief Blog because the Religious Right has called "open season" on womens healthcare & reproductive rights! That is why we're having heated discussions about birthcontrol in the 21st century! Why are mens s.e.xual needs (Viagara, Cialis) unquestioningly covered by insurance provided by religious businesses, but womens s.e.xual needs (birthcontrol) earn us derogatory slurs, comments & questions our "promiscuity"!? This is a grossly skewered arguement that has no place in modernday discourse! It's a poorly disguised effort to vilify womens s.e.xuality & a continuation of the RR's efforts to control our bodies, by taking our rights back to the era when we had none! The hypocracy muststop!!

    March 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  18. LouAz

    The KIng has no clothes !

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

      And yet the religious masses continue to debate it's finery, stltching and details...

      Please provide even one single piece of the cloth for rational persons to examine, until then we will continue to believe their Emperor/King is a nudist.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • reACTIONary

      Rush with no cloths? Uck!

      March 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  19. zoeyj

    STOP IT..........BE NICE !!!!! Rush just hasn't been the same since he cut back on his prescription drug habit, DAMN that HEALTHCARE REFORM, I just hope Rush can afford the increases with the drug copayments.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  20. JoeBobFancyPants

    Look at this another way conservatives...

    Birth control will decrease her chances of reproducing.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • David

      Have you EVER had an original thought in your life?

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

      Too bad your mother didnt think of it.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:50 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.