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. Tom in Millstadt

    People are missing thevreal story here. I never expected Limbaugh to offer a worth while apology. It's not in his character.The real issue is the tepid, lukewarm condemnation of Limbaugh by the GOP presidential candidates. These men, Santorum, Romney and Gringrich are complete, unadulterated cowards. They are so afraid of criticizing LImbaugh that it's incredible. How can we ever expect them to stand up to Iran or any other crack pot, tin horn dictator when they are deathly afraid of antagonizing somebody as small Limbaugh. This is the saddest thing I've seen in years. So whenever you see a GOP talking head pompously say "Rush Limbaugh does not run the Republican Party", don't you believe it.

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

      You're 100% correct, Tom. They're cowards, but they know that the bonds of political support by the most hard-core Rush fans will be weakened if they (the candidates) call them (the general public shmoes who support Rush) on their reflexive response of vindictive hate for anyone who has a differing opinion. It's sad, just sad.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hadn't really considered that before. Thanks for pointing it out. I don't really recall hearing any of them say a word against Limbaugh.

      Such character! Such bravery! Such courage and adherence to principles!

      Aren't they the sort of people we want in the White House?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Calvins Rocket Underpants

      Good point Tom.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • mikeinmn


      March 6, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  2. Lenny Pincus

    I suppose it helps ease the pain, blaming liberal for everything, but there are obvious reasons by the Million Mom boycott of Target failed so miserably yet the boycott of Rush has succeeded so well. Americans like Ellen and they hate Rush.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  3. Duane - St. Pete FLA

    everyone wants to talk about a little name calling.....lets get to the heart of the matter....big goverment wants to pay for more crap with MY MONEY!!!!!

    March 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      Yeah, like Viagra and big oil research. Right on!

      March 6, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Put down that 5th beer and get a clue, duhwayne.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Duck Butter

      Hey Duane, we already do you azzhole.
      A little word that you will hate.....socialism !!

      It goes like this:

      We collect taxes from everybody (including you)
      and then we build roads, and schools, and pay for firemen, and police,
      ya know, all of those things that make a good community for all of us.....
      Yup, that is socialism, something i dont think you like,
      because you think it is some liberal plot to pay for rubbers.

      You just may be the most uneducated person i have ever heard from.

      I will tell you something, Duane,
      even if i was the most conservative southern trailer park redneck,
      i would toss you into a swamp with the gators,
      you are not even a human being.

      The human race cant get much lower than you.
      So go get drunk and beat somebody up.
      You need help !

      March 6, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • mikeinmn

      DuWayne, Listen to your fellow Americans. They speak the truth unlike Limbaug who's trying to brainwash you so he and his ilk can b#tt F8@k you

      March 6, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  4. WhereIsPalin


    RUSH: The left, folks - the media - are giddy that some advertisers have said they're leaving the program. And I'm sorry to see 'em go. They have profited handsomely from you. These advertisers who have split the scene have done very well due to their access to you, my audience, from this program. To offer their products and services to you through this venue is the best opportunity that they have ever had to advertise their wares. Now they've chosen to deny themselves that access, and that's a business decision, and it's theirs alone to make.

    They've decided they don't want you or your business anymore.

    So be it.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Duck Butter

      So much for the power and the glory.
      You build that platform on lies and hate.
      Sooner or later it will come crashing down.
      Sooner would have been better.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  5. c

    Bill Maher never apologizes

    March 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Rich

      He is not on Public Radio. It is a Rated MA on a Paid Channel. Please do not compare him with this crotch stain

      March 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      No one cares that Rush apologized. It was completely insincere. He made his remarks then doubled down for two days. There are some things you just can't walk back.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • c

      You're right I wont compare him to Maher, Maher is the devil, Rush is just controversial

      March 6, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Duck Butter

      Niether do Republicans about the disaster of the Bush Administration,
      so whats your point ?

      March 6, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  6. JeanneLH

    The hate that this guy spews for 3 hours every day cannot be good for people to listen to. I've only heard snippits, but it is such an obnoxious, negative rambling. He is definately the Bully of the GOP. No one dare speak ill of him or they will be destroyed. Frankly, I'm surprised the Fluke lady has not sued.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • c

      You need to listen to more than snippets. And no one on the far left is ever noted for their 'trash talk'

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

      I look at it a bit like this: Is there anything – anything, no matter how base, crude, dishonorable or mean-spirited – that I can honestly imagine Rush would not say if he thought it would get him more attention and therefore ad revenue? I haven't come up with a single thing. He's just not a good person.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  7. Annexian

    Rather than make any issue on Rush's "Politics" my opinion is that Rush is far less than any -ist label we give him.

    Rather it's -et...

    As in SOCK-PUPPET. One man's opinion again, if Rush suddenly had a change of heart (or someone slipped Acid in his sandwich and I mean the drug) and suddenly went 100% opposite of what he ordinarily did, it'd never make it on the air. I think mmmaybe he'd get a warning, then they'd fire him, have security toss him out the door with a pink slip, then have a replacement to suddenly be hyped up to fill his shoes and read a script for the rich elite in his own words.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  8. Bill Stokes

    The "Left" CNN must have looked hard to find this egotistical fellow.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  9. RapidOne

    Hypocritical, pill-popping, cancer to American society, Rush spreads misinformation and hate, brainwashing his audience in the most disgusting way. He appeals to people's utter worst traits.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Rich

      It is easy to brain wash the DEAD

      March 6, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  10. David in Cincinnati

    Why would Limbaugh apologize? Peddling bile is his lifeline.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  11. dmadam

    How can you sincerely apologize when you think you are always right?

    March 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  12. Tom

    Pretty long article for something we all knew anyway. We can take the idea of not wanting our insurance premiums to increase for many reasons. Like if you are obese and do nothing about it should I pay for your type 2 diabetese care, or if you continue to smoke should I pay for your cardiac care. Those are choices too. Let's face it, this is really about controlling and punishing women, by religious fanatics.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  13. Big George in Big D

    I am sick to death of all the crap on this subject. The hypocrisy is at an all time high with this one. Where was/is the moral outrage when Bill Mahar called Sarah Palin a 4-ltr word beginning with a "C" and so on and so forth??? He's called most all conservative women horrificly horrible names but I have NEVER heard anyone on the left ask him to apologize or scold him publicly for his loud-mouth! You people make me sick! That Fluke woman is a nutjob – I am also sick to death of liberals thinking the federal government HAS to pay for everything! Grow the hell up people!

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

      Well why don't you LISTEN instead of staying IGNORANT. First of all, Fluke is a private citizen who was participating in the public process by giving a very mild and well thought out argument on this issue. The people you speak of were PUBLIC figures and threw barbs themselves. They were also as loud and obnoxious as Maher themselves–but the bottom line was that THEY WERE PUBLIC FIGURES. Does that matter to you?? IF it doesn't, we can go one and on and make it VERY CERTAIN that all the evidence points to you NOT KNO WING WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT. Would that matter to you??? Tell me it would, PLEASE (but I have a feeling it won't, but I just hope you aren't SO WORTHLESS).

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

      How about this for a take on it all. They both should be off the air. Lets talk about a true moral base. I find both of them disguisting and am ready to clean up the airways.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • WhereIsPalin

      "That Fluke woman is a nutjob "........................This is your quote.

      How can you be so dense? You don't get it, do ya?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Simon Says

      We have grown up.
      Your brand of hate is no longer acceptable.

      Sarah Palin went live with "death panels"
      She lied !

      This woman went live with health care issues
      something you Republicans dont like.

      Figures you are from Texas.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  14. Horbie

    AVV in Cal, you need to read up on the issue. It is about the government FORCING insurance companies to offer and us as consumers to subsidize birth control.

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

      @Horbie, I guess the Right Wing Talking Point Memo got corrected. Yesterday, you bozos were asking why your TAX dollars were being used to subsidize contraception. I guess you figured out that your tax dollars weren't going to be implicated, period.

      But typical of the first grade mentality, now you come back with this whine. Sickening.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Corey

      They are forcing employers that fail to provide for woman a basic necessity. The argument is that it is against their moral code. They aren't paying for it the worker is. It is part of their payment compensation. How would you feel if your employer said you know what we are a non drinking company and we will not allow you to buy liquor? How would you feel about that? How would you feel if you worked for someone who's belief doesn't believe if medicine at all and such will not allow you to obtain said medicines?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Simon Says

      Is it some kind of Republican thing that they dont even understand the issue ?
      Education and comprehension would help.
      Guess that i am asking too much.
      You Rush supporters keep proving how low the Republican party has gone.

      I am enjoying this very much !

      March 6, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  15. drod3

    Hey everybody, this is what Rush had to say today.

    "The Republican Party doesn't write off anybody. The Republican Party, my gosh, does everything it can - it doesn't know how, but it tries every way it can - to get women vote, Hispanic vote, black vote, minority vote. It's doing everything it can. They just don't know how to do it. But they're out there trying all the time. It's the Democrats who alienate voting groups."

    I guess we were all wrong about Rush. NOT

    March 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Big George in Big D


      March 6, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • RapidOne

      Big George in Big D - You obviously don't have as much brains as you think. Take caps lock off and also offer some SUBSTANCE in your posts (information or evidence of something instead of some garbage). Then you might not look so brainless. Seriously, be ashamed of yourself and your worthlessness and learn some humility.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What do you bet his wife laughs at him behind his back and votes for any candidate he opposes?


      March 6, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Fearless Freep

      *** Big George in Big D

      If you stop beating her, and treating her like property,
      maybe she can escape and get away from you.
      Only neanderthals treat woman like you do !

      March 6, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  16. RapidOne

    Duane – St. Pete FLA - WE care about Rush Duane, because he is making people like you dumber and louder because you don't realize you're being brainwashed and really know NOTHING of reality because of people like this. Don't be as worthless as Rush–we are rooting for your kind.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  17. ShavedClamLover

    Bring on Gloria Alred. This disgusting pig, is probably gurgling with semen right now.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  18. JJ

    What do you expect from a drug addict without a conscience?

    March 6, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  19. Marilyn

    Sandra Fluke didn't seem all that upset; I'll bet behind closed doors she's laughing her head off and will milk the attention for all it's worth. The Liberals who hate Limbaugh will hold her up as a hero.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Tex71

      It doesn't take a liberal to hate Limbaugh, only a decent human being who hates to see a vile, hateful glutton who makes the salaries of 1,000 hard-working American families in exchange for tearing those families' nation apart with hate speech, lies, and angry rhetoric. Anyone who could like Limbaugh has serious mental issues.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • drod3

      Still trying to justify it any way you can huh? It doesn't work that way. Rush has finally crossed the line far enogh that people will no longer tolerate it.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      So? If she is, bully for her. Think your idol Rush would be somehow more "noble". Puhleeze. If you do, I have a bridge for sale.


      March 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Burbank

      Anyone with self respect should shun this abusive person who makes millions as a hate monger! You must be one of his mindless Ditto Head sheep. No wonder the Republican party is dying! Decent conservatives are leaving it in droves and becoming independents. They don't want this haterful wing-nut stench rubbing off on them.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Burbank

      Tex 71: You are right about the glutton part, I have always thought of him as a pink pig. Just look at him, all he needs is a snout and he could advertise Bacon.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Yossarian

      Rush deserves all the ridicule he can get.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • RapidOne

      Marylin - the whole world, along with many of your fellow Americans, look at you with disgust because you have allowed yourself to be enslaved by these demagogues. You are a laughing stock to so many because EVERYONE but you sees that you don't have a leg to stand on and are filled with unsubstantiated garbage. Have some humility and think about your stance on things and if it has the evidence to support it, or just more hate.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Fearless Freep

      Why do i doubt that you are a woman ?
      Because everything you said sounded like a man.

      March 6, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  20. Loren

    I don't understand the point of an apology if you don't mean it, nor is it required in this instance. While I think that Rush Limbaugh is symptomatic of the lack of civil discourse in public affairs, I think that what he was attacking, the idea that insurance should pay for protection against a consensual activity, was appropriate. Ms. Fluke chose to enter an arena of noted vitriol and that she was splashed with some is a byproduct of where she chose to go. Whether he was over the top, it listeners will decide, but I don't see Ms Fluke as being wronged, incredibly naive, both in her expectations and her position, maybe, but wronged, she chose to inject herself and got thumped.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Fearless Freep

      Another person pretending to be a woman,
      and having no idea about the subject matter.

      March 6, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
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