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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. abby in Texas

    Has America lost all sense of decency? Limbaugh's antics have gone too far for too long - rational, reasonable, decent people need to stand up and let his sponsors, his radio station know that his rants and ravings have gone too far and are totally unacceptable - it's time to pull his radio plug and get him off the air. There is no excuse for hate mongering and such misogyny. Enough is enough.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Jebb

      So true. Limbaugh is so powerful that Republicans are afraid of being his target & too cowardly to stand up to this bully. And what can one say about the mentality of some of his audience who defend his bigotry & hatred?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  2. GeorgeMc

    This guy KNOWS how to apologize, ...It's just that he had NO intention of apologizing! He should be fired!, ...Period!

    March 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  3. Marilyn

    I am NOT defending him, I don't even listen to him; I'm just saying from what I am seeing on TV she is now a hero and I'm sure she's loving it. Where in the world did you get that I'm defending him? Where did I say I was defending him? Now who is judging and spewing hate? Be careful, be VERY careful! Now sit in judgement on yourself.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  4. Dave

    Rush Limbaugh and Larry Doyle (Huffington Post) are equally incapable of civility and respect for others. There is no shortage of hate mongering on the left or the right. We live vicariously through the adolescent rudeness and arrogance of our favorite celebrity ranter. We are becoming a rabble... and we will get the leadership we deserve.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  5. Hodges

    Rush is financially set for life, so what does he care whether his show tanks? The man is a pompous, disingeuous oaf.
    What goes arounds comes around.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  6. bcm

    I am really tired of hearing Rush compared to Bill Maher. Bill Maher's show is not on a public television station. It is on HBO which is a pay station. Rush is on public radio. Big difference!! Have any of you ever seen a stand up comedian on pay television vs. public network television? The difference is night and day!

    March 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  7. Dott

    People who listen to this fat old windbag have a few screws loose somewhere. The man is garbage and I am sure his mom is so proud of him. Not!!

    March 6, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  8. Chris

    Good article! Rush would do well to listen to you, but I doubt that he would (due to the disease of egomonomania). It irks me when celebrities say, well, if I offended you, I apologize.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  9. blake

    No apology required. The woman is what she was called.

    Am sick of the attention given this by the leftist media who ignores it when one of their own uses the very same word for someone who is simply someone they don't like politically. Double standard. Double standard. Double standard.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      So were you doing her? Because otherwise, how in the world do you know a thing about her?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • MrSkippy

      Name one example of the double standard you refer to.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • AL

      Okay so we know you don't like women. Do you have any other characteristics in line with Rush? Been to any Klan meetings lately?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • T3chsupport

      You're probably some ni**er, aren't you?

      No, probably not, but that wasn't very nice, was it? Same thing. Even if you were one, it still wouldn't be nice to call you one on the radio. And there's no proof whatsoever that she is. There's another definition to that N word though, it's "a person of any race or origin regarded as contemptible, inferior, ignorant, etc. "

      That's you.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Jebb

      Name a SINGLE leftie who visciously attacked a female for 3 straight days & has a CLEAR HISTORY of hatred like the "conservative" bottom-feeder Rudh Limbaugh ??????????????

      March 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • pat mchenry

      imbecile, imbecile, imbecile

      March 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Ed

      we have no evidence to back up your claim or Limbaugh's that she is what she was called. So some evidence or stop claiming it true. The excuse that liberals do the same is a poor one. Its wrong no matter who does it.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Logical

      By that logic of who knows who is a s lut? probably Rush was doing her to have called her on it?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Sean

      Guess that makes you an ***h0le... just calling it as I see it...

      March 6, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Ed

      @jeff Bill Mayer to both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman. He is just a arrogant and unfair in his comments. not that that excuse Limbaugh

      March 6, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  10. Moe

    Rush is a good example of inbred white trash gone wrong. Add vicodin and the mix is incendiary.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • K

      You imply that somewhere there is inbred white trash gone right.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  11. jack

    the apology failed because he never really wanted to apologize – a statement was issued as a way of keeping his $$$$$$$$ (ie sponsors) happy

    March 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  12. J.W

    People who are complaining about Bill Maher and the like doing the same thing as Rush, you can do the same thing to him that people are doing to Rush. Why don't you call companies advertising on his show and complain, and tell people that they should not buy their products?

    March 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Don

      Well put.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Sean

      Because he's on HBO and there isnt any advertising!... *rolls eyes*

      March 6, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • J.W

      Well complain to HBO for having them on there then

      March 6, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Laura

      You obviously have not done your homework or you would know that Bill Maher is on HBO, and thus does not have advertisers. But nice try! Thanks for playing.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • J.W

      Like I said then complain to HBO. I knew he was on HBO but I just dont have any of those channels so I did not know that there was not advertising. I did not feel the need to do research on whether there is advertising on any of those channels or not.

      March 7, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  13. S e x translates to cha ching!

    Wow s e x is big bucks! Who would have ever thought? from the Pharmas/Insurance/M&E everybody rides on it including the sl uts! 😉

    March 6, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  14. Jeff

    This man sells hate. I have been exposed to some of his fans. Yikes! I hope his act is finally discovered as another version of the Emeror Has No Clothes.
    I hope the young lady, who is studying an admirable course of study, has a long and successful career as a libel attorney.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • lawyers admirable?

      not sure I can call her course of study all that admirable, lwayers are some of the most dishonest greedy people in the world

      March 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • pat mchenry

      here goes the ad hominems

      March 6, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  15. TommyTT

    We teach our kids that "I apologize for the awful thing you made me do" is a fake apology. It's the sort of thing abusers say. And it's disturbingly close to what Limbaugh said.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  16. T. Lee

    "Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot"

    Somebody ought to write a book......

    March 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  17. c

    The left just kills me. Such hypocrites its nauseating. Bill Maher has been ruthless to conservative women he makes Rush look like a Sunday School teacher

    March 6, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • T. Lee

      Mauer is a comedian – and is actually funny sometimes.

      Limbaugh is a bombastic, self-aggrandizing bully that is simply a rude college drop-out milking the trailer-park crowd.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • cali

      Well Bill Works for HBO and it's adult entertainment. Rush is on AM and even kids listen to him

      March 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      1. I do not watch/listen to Maher.
      2. Have you heard or read ALL that he said about her?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • T. Lee

      (Make that "Maher") – and HBO where Maher rants is not public access, it's a paid subscription just like Imas and Howard went to after they abused THEIR "freedom of speech" by going to far with insults. Hopefuly Rush is about to join them.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Terri

      They are both hate mongers but nothing "makes" Limbaugh "look anything" but himself.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Steve

      Bill Maher attacks conservative women for their actions and words.

      What exactly did Sandra Fluke say that got Rush Limbaugh to attack her?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      When are you going to start yapping about Big Pharma and vaccines, c? That's your usual schtick.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  18. drod3

    I work in Houston and we are constantly bombarded with right wing radical radio entertainers that are brainwashing peoples minds that the Democrats are evil, that Obama is not an American citizen, that the Republicans are going to fix things this time...really....they really mean it this time.....It makes me laugh to hear someone call in and complain that Obama was not qualified to be president and that he's a muslim or some other fox lie. And the radio entertainer encourages the speaker to go on and on. The moderates that will probably decide the election are intelligent enough to see past all the BS.. at least I hope so.

    OBAMA 2012

    March 6, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Howard

      To think if they pull Rush off the air who will tell the repubs what to think, cause we know it would be a miracle if they had to think for themselves.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Terri

      Yea I am voting Obama again, not because I am happy with him or the Dems but because the GOP has become the party of hate. There was a time when there were moderates in the GOP but the lunatics have taken over and we are left to vote for the lesser of two evils...but what's new about that?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  19. mojobutta

    Rush Limbaugh is a GOP puppet, racist and misogynist. Surprised? I represent a group of 25,000 + people in a smart shopper buyers club. Any advertiser that supports this racist will be boycotted.

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

      I am boycotting every advertiser that dropped Rush. They know Rush and how vocal he is. I am guessing they did it out of pressure from the left

      March 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Yeah and a sense of decency.... Something you clearly lack.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You and the 3 other stooges just do that, c.

      Buh-bye, Rush.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • WhereIsPalin

      Hey c................You go ahead and boycott them. By the way, can you name them? And how much of a dent are you going to put in their bottom line?

      March 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If c is who I think it is, it's a bonafide nut job who thinks Big Pharma and the FDA are out to get everyone poisoned by vaccines.

      March 6, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  20. Heidi

    Rush represents the GOP enough said

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

      Maybe he represents the GOP for 1 out of 40k but not for me. I found a major dislike for him years ago and would not lower myself to even listen to him ever again. He is evil plain and simple. You do not call anyone the words he used even if true.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Terri

      You are correct Heidi, every time I turn around more hatred is spewed from the GOP. Rush is the cheer leader and all the old white boys are following like puppets. The war currently being waged on women by the party has assured I will not vote for any of them for many years. I have always voted for a person rather than a party but they have shown me what I mean to them, as a woman I have been insulted for the last time by the GOP and am gone.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
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