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. Travis

    Did anyone realistically expect him to genuinely apologize? The guy has spent his life generating needless controversy. People like that aren't sorry for anything they say or do. The powers-that-be may be forcing him to say the words, but there's no remorse there. None of us should be surprised by this. You want to really humble him? Stop watching his show. Don't give him an audience. Stop sending him advertising dollars (this is already happening, thankfully). Render him obsolete. Once he finds himself knocked down from the #1 talk show host in the country to a has-been on the fringes, you'll see just how apologetic he can be.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      Travis you are a kind soul and have high expectations but most likely once the "king maker" is dethroned or becomes inconseqential he will revert to his Oxycotin and beat his new wife until he ends up in a hospital bed pleading for someone to listen to him rant. A man like Rush will never go down with dignity, I cite the history of all of his other non-apologise as well as this one as my evidence.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  2. Luis

    If nobodypays
    any attention to him or his sponsers he will go away
    He does it for the MONEY

    March 6, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Darth Cheney

      Well, that's not going to happen. He has millions of devout worshipers.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  3. Duane - St. Pete FLA

    boo hoo....she got called a bad name.......buy a condom and not on MY DIME!!!!

    March 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Guester

      You obviously have no idea what was even said.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      If you don't understand how insurance works, at least have the dignity not to admit it in public, crybaby.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Votan

      Of course he doesn't know... he has Rush to do all his thinking for him

      March 6, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Killdeer

      Where are you getting your info? Rush??? All it says is that insurance companies have to provide contraception as part of their policies. Wether a woman chooses to use it is her business and NO the Government is NOT making you pay!

      March 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Duane: Please explain how it is money out of your pocket when she pays in to the insurance plan? This is not about government covered insurance moron, this is about employment covered medical insurance...you're not paying a damn cent towards it! This goes beyond that though. This woman stood for women everywhere. She stood for their right to protect their health (the pill is used for a tremendous amount more than what a condom is used for). She stood for their right to control their own body. Who she sleeps with or how she cares for her body is her choice and only her choice. Maybe you control your spouse but my husband will never control me..we are equal partners in everything in our relationship.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      The fact that any of these partisan hack DJ's left or right on the dial have an audience makes me sad. Americans should want facts without spin, Americans should want questions without a forgone conclusion (Bias)written in to them. Now I will ask forgiveness for my sin. I started listening to Rush in 1989 or 1990 because a co-worker said he was funny and very tongue in cheek. So on the advice of my co-workers I listened day in and day out for 6 months or so during his show air time as we worked in the factory. After the 6 months I stood in front of my ditto head co-workers and said " I don't believe he is tongue in cheek, I believe he means everyword he is saying" I went on to say that politically he raised some good points (this was 1990 he was not a king maker yet and not quite as full of himself as today) but I was opting out and wanted to listen to rock music instead. FF to 2000 and I had parted ways with each of these co-workers on a personal level because of the vitriol that they began to spew daily. Rush now made me sick even though I only listend on occasion. Then in 2007 I began listening to Air America the lefts answer to Clear channels daily line up of partisan hacks. I listen to that for 2 yrs plus finding I agreed most often but still felt some of the same twinges of anger and frustration towards my fellow citizen for not agreeing with my beliefs. Today I listen to NPR only for talk because I cannot take the nastiness, the feeling I get when I get worked up by these on air personalities like Ed Schultz or Sean Hannity. The sooner America can stop buying products that support these nuts the better as far as Iam concerned. Read, learn, investigate on your own don't let some overweight boob tell you what to think. Opinion is great until it becomes vicious and nasty, and America needs less of that so boycott all of the sponsors of any of these shows and tell them how you feel. The buck stops with all of us!!

      March 6, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  4. Barrie

    And the very weak, some would say non-response, from the current crop of republican presidential wannabes to Limbaugh's non-apology will bite them in the you know where in good time. I just love it how these people keep shooting themselves in both feet.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  5. jaintn

    Ms. Fluke should consider the source. A narcissistic, adulterous junkie with a corpulent body and a face like a red swollen baboon butt. As if that isn't enough to convince her how worthless he is, consider his fan base. 'Nuff said.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Duane - St. Pete FLA

      hummm...she should buy a condom and get her hand out of my pocket

      March 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Killdeer

      Duane...you ain't paying for it....get your news from other sources and stop listening to Rush...open your eyes

      March 6, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Doozer

      Stop wasting your time folks, typical Rush fan
      doesnt even understand what the story is about.

      Duane – St. Pete FLA

      hummm...she should buy a condom and get her hand out of my pocket

      March 6, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  6. Walt Max

    Al Franken had it right.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  7. nycbiker

    I don't believe a reasonable person can defend what either Limbaugh or Maher have said at times. I think it is fair to say though that the actions of either one is not a defense for either one, Maher attacking Bachman does not offset Limbaugh attacking Fluke or vice versa, it's not the same as them attacking each other. What both have done, Limbaugh most recently, we should all agree is pretty repugnant, and what Maher has done in the past is also repugnant. The main stream media has also certainly talked up this incident more than the Maher incident, but that's only if you don't consider Fox main stream, lol! Plus, what about accountability? It's a mantra off the far right isn't it? So why doesn't Rush hold himself accountable for this regardless of what the media says or what someone else may get away with. Isn't that a test to see if you really can put your money where your mouth is?

    March 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  8. Tessa

    I kept wondering why nothing was said in the media about the "non apology"...he apologized for his choice of words...and did it on his blog, not to her directly. He is about as sincere as a brick and as thick as one too! I have already written to thank the sponsors that dumped him to thank them and told those that did not that I would no longer be doing business with them. I cannot believe that anyone with an ounce of intelligence would give him a platform to spew his hatred. He is a disgrace and proud of it.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Paul

      Well said.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Killdeer


      March 6, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Doozer

      Hugs from Rochester New York, Tessa !!!

      March 6, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  9. Poipounder

    I thought Rush moved to Puerto Rico like he said he would do if the Obamacare passed?

    March 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Mike in NJ

      I think it was Costa Rica. And Liars, well, they Lie.
      Re: the article, well said, you expanded on a few posts I put on the CNN and other sites around the net today – that was not an apology.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      He found out that his oxycontin is still cheaper here, plus, his insurance wouldn't cover his hearing implants if he moves out of the country. The hearing implants that his insurance paid for, and which he needs because of his drug abuse.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  10. CTExas

    Rush *loves* this attention. I say we keep giving "attention" to his sponsors.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  11. cytwo

    This deal is just way OVERBLOWN. To think that 'WOMEN,' as the media puts it, because of this incident change their vote, a vote for a future that will mortgage their children's economic future, for one stupid word, is just super insane and super stupidity. .. Just go to any MOVIE .. in our society .. the vast majority have language that dwarfs Limabaughs exponentially. Last I saw 'Women' go to the movies all the time and pay to do so and listen to this kind of language daily without a wink .. and then here one foul term by a radio jock and all this indignation like as though everyone is Mother Teresa .. If 'WOMEN' want to mortgage their children's economic future over something like this then they should use contraception .. but pay for IT !! (what next, is healthcare going to be mandated to provide condoms and Viagra? are 'MEN' then going to vote for the guy who makes this campaign promise). Lets say Limabaugh called her 'promiscuous' would that been such a HUGE difference ?? That all of corporate America could go back to advertising on his show. What a circus.

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

      hmmm... I think insurance companies already pay for Viagra

      March 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Doozer

      One step in the right direction.

      Most woman having heard Rick Santorum, have already changed thier vote.
      This is just another nail in the coffin.
      It has become very clear what Republicans think about woman.
      Its going to be clear what woman think about Republicans.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  12. MeInBham

    Limbaugh said about his fleeing advertisers: "They’ve decided they don’t want you or your business [he was talking about his listeners] any more." The truth is that the fleeing advertiser do not want to be associated with Limbaugh and I bet many listeners have stopped tunning in as well. Limbaugh just doesn't get it, does he?

    Does anyone else wonder if Limbaugh was a bully as a kid?

    March 6, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Vote GOP Save the Rich

      I I disagree many listeners have tuned out. Rush's misstatement of Ms. Fluke's testimony as well as his attacks are what his listeners want as they are mostly ignorant juvenile men. (I am just a juvenile man and thus don't listen).

      March 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  13. Independent

    Limbaugh has unequivocably proven that he has a very little mind connected to a very big mouth. A dangerous combination!!!

    March 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  14. Why is this in the belief blog?

    because Rush believes someone is a s.lut?

    March 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |

      I always voted Democrat, however, this whole mess with Rush L has became ridiculous , leave this man alone, he said something inappropriate but we all do the same once in a while, that’s part of being humans. What turns me off is the hypocrisy of the liberal women ( I am a Liberal myself) , they get all upset when a conservative person says something we consider offensive, on the other hand , every day we hear on cable TV, read on magazines , comedians on cable, mostly of them liberals offend females, and I do not see the same reaction against them. Be more transparent, people. Be fair. Leave this man alone. There are worse issues in the world to care about it.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • jimtanker

      Hey idiot. No one is taking away his freedom of speech. He is loosing sponsors because he's an oxy popping biggot.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • All-caps is the technique of conservatives, not liberals

      Another fake "I am a liberal, but . . . " post by what obviously is a conservative.

      Why do you guys feel the need to lie so much?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  15. Billie

    I wonder who paid for Rush's rehab? He must have paid for it completely out of his own pocket right? doubt it.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • J.W

      Good point.

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

      Most of his callers sound dumb.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  16. I've Met Too Many

    Funny you should mention this type of apology style- the "Sorry, but it was your fault." I met too many people like that.
    Sometimes, people trivialize their own errors (good trick) by saying "Opps, my bad." Or chuckle when apologizing ...
    the ways to be insincere and almost mocking is to fluff an apology. Rush is an obvious "dead souled person." He's rich,
    so what, can't stop a heart attack or high blood pressure for too long.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  17. Portland tony

    Get over it! Limbaugh is an entertainer. A radio personality. He gets paid to make outlandish remarks. His credentials are few. He stands for nothing. His goal is to reach out to the fringe on the right. The more noise he can generate means more money in his pocket. This time he got carried away, but succeeded in getting mentioned in every media outlet worldwide. He will recover and go on as usual broadcasting hate and his fans will love him for it!

    March 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • she79

      Portland Tony – Rush is an entertainer like Jeffrey Dahmer is a chef.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Darth Cheney

      If that's true, why do so many Republican politicians live in abject fear of him?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  18. TheDude

    The biggest reason this whole thing is just dumb is because his words actually drown out the point he was making, which was a good one. Buy your own birth control.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • BillSD33

      Insurance covers hundreds of drugs, why should it not cover birth control. BTW, many insurers already do cover it.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      If my employer provides me with health insurance, they do so so that I won't have to buy my own prescription medication. If my employer provided me with insurance that did not cover the cost of medications, that wouldn't be much of a benefit, would it?

      I guess we need a special "Non-socialist Insurance Plan For Republicans". It would be a plan where none of the insured actually recieve any medical care or medication, and everyone can go out and pay their own medical bills in full out of pocket with no danger of any socialism. I joke, but someone is going to set that up and get rich.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Chris

      @ Rbnlegnd101, you may be joking but someone will certainly do it seriously.
      The problem is that many people (mostly men but also some women) are ignorant of the fact that hormone-based birth control are used by many women to treat painful (and sometimes lethal) diseases. If health insurance doesn't cover those treatments, why should they cover any other treatment? Vasectomies are covered after all and few are done to preserve the health of the patient. And those who compare the pill to condoms are also ignorant (or ignoring) the fact that condoms do not require a prescription while the pill does. And condoms, while excellent for prevention, do not TREAT any diseases.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Doozer

      Hey "dude".............
      You didnt get the point.
      But that is what i expect from a Rush fan.
      Republican talking points.
      And hate.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  19. Duh.

    An unwanted pregnancy and a child take a lot more from the health care system than a few pills. I'd rather pay for the pills.

    March 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  20. theStugatz

    get over it. waaaaaaaaaaa. like the leftards never have anything bad to say about anyone. everyone is so anxious to be offended and appalled these days at just about anything.

    extreme righties are dumb. extreme lefties are even dumber. anyone who can't see this whole mess is the fault of both parties is an absolute m o ron

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

      So, you are saying that bullying is okay and insulting people is okay. I guess you are also teaching this behavior to your kids and hating all well-behaved people.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Doozer

      *** leftards ***

      Thank god for leftards.
      The only sane people here.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
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