A Tribute to Rush Limbaugh, Grating and Good-Hearted
Monday’s news that Rush Limbaugh has advanced lung cancer hit me like hearing that one of my college friends faces the same threat. Precious few figures in pop culture have brought more laughter into my daily life.
Tuned In a Skeptic
When Limbaugh launched his national radio show in July 1988, I tuned in as a skeptic. Limbaugh replaced a show hosted by Michael Jackson — no, not the King of Pop, but a Briton who warmed the airwaves with humor and smooth delivery. I knew and enjoyed Jackson. I had never heard of Limbaugh.
Memory may be fooling me, but I think that by the end of Limbaugh’s first hour I was happy to forget how much Jackson’s show meant to me.
Limbaugh was not another Jackson. He was clearly a cultural conservative, while he borrowed from the cultural left to make his points. Then, as now, he played “My City Was Gone” by the Pretenders as his theme song. Many of his early bits drew on parodies of Top 40 songs.
As a theme song for “Gay Community Updates” he played a campy cover version of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” by Klaus Nomi. How’s that for a deep cut? Limbaugh not only played “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John as bumper music. He hired John to play it for his last of four weddings.
That detail of four weddings prompts the required disclaimer: Rush has often failed to live up to the virtues he praises. And there’s a related thought: so what?
During the years of President Trump, conservative Christians have drawn frequent charges of hypocrisy for supporting Trump, liking Trump, or not joining in the daily ritual of Two Minutes Hate focused on the 45th president. Limbaugh meets the same scorn, at least from cultural elites.
How many celebrities do you know of who would be role models in all that they do? Only a perverse form of quietism would demand that Christians enjoy music or films or comedy only if the creator would make an ideal elder at the nearest church.
Limbaugh found his success largely by bringing a common-sense response to the nonsense of a culture stumbling its way into post-Christian relativism. He once asked listeners a blunt question about condoms: If you knew were drawn to a sexual encounter with an HIV-positive person, would you entrust your life to a Trojan?
For years, in his spirit of mocking absurdity by being absurd, he performed audio “caller abortions” for people who grew tedious. In so many words, Limbaugh was willing to call delusions by their proper name.
Grating and Good Humored
Limbaugh has known many off days, and perhaps even off months. He hid an addiction to painkillers with surprising success, but a nearly complete loss of hearing nearly destroyed his career in talk radio. Cochlear implants and on-the-spot texts of his callers’ remarks helped him find the groove again.
He can be grating when taking on his critics, or when he’s torqued about a topic, or sounds like he’s only reading talking points from candidates he likes. I never understood his steady mockery of the late Sen. John McCain.
Still, it would be a mistake to perceive Limbaugh as the king of angry talk radio. Beneath even the angriest talk of any given day, there was also good humor, a clear affection for his audience, and a joy about doing what he loved most: making his mark on radio.
Few Christians have even tried to copy his show. One rising star who’s a Christian, James T. Harris of KFYI in Phoenix, comes close, and he may help fill any void left if Limbaugh’s lung cancer proves fatal.
Pray for Healing
But let’s not dwell on that yet. Instead, let’s pray for Rush’s healing. Let’s pray that he’ll come to grasp the Christian faith’s message of grace just as fully as his brother David has.
And let’s give thanks that he reminded us of laughter’s healing power. If he’s not made you laugh yet, tune in while Limbaugh still talks among us.
Douglas LeBlanc, a veteran religion journalist, lives near Charleston, S.C.