I am a Christian, and I am a social conservative. I oppose President Obama’s HHS mandate that requires employers to pay insurance premiums that cover chemical abortions, sterilization, and contraception. I support legislation that would accommodate citizens who do not want to be coerced by their government to pay for services that violate their consciences. In short, I find the HHS mandate to be an abhorrent assault on religious freedom. Furthermore, I believe it to be an open scandal that the national media narrative has turned the mandate into a debate about contraception rather than what it is—an assault upon the religious liberty of millions of Americans.
For all of these reasons, I found Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke to be particularly offensive. Ironically, I agree with Limbaugh’s opposition to the mandate. On the substance, I imagine that he and I may hold many things in common. But his comments last week about Ms. Fluke were disgusting and unhelpful. After insulting Ms. Fluke on Wednesday, he doubled down on the offense on Thursday. His late apology appeared on his website only after he began losing sponsors. Whatever his motives, the damage has already been done, and it’s unlikely to be undone anytime soon. Here’s why.
1. Rush Limbaugh has turned a momentous policy debate into another cheap laugh-line for his talk show. In doing so, he offended not only Ms. Fluke but also every single person who had to listen to his coarse and bawdy humor. His kind of talk is the reason that our national discourse has become so uncivil. Ms. Fluke and the rest of America deserve better than this. If Limbaugh’s apology is sincere, then let it be reflected in the way he speaks going forward on his radio program. Limbaugh needs to apologize to Ms. Fluke on the air.
2. Rush Limbaugh has fed a false impression of what this debate is about. President Obama, congressional Democrats and the national media have successfully sold the HHS mandate as if it were all about contraception and nothing about religious freedom. Conservative Christians of various traditions have united together in an effort to change this narrative, but to little effect. Limbaugh’s apology only reinforces the liberal narrative and has nothing to say about the religious liberty issues at stake. Many Americans are still unaware of how the HHS mandate undermines religious freedom and how it sets a devastating precedent concerning government interference with free exercise. Limbaugh has distracted from the real issue and has fostered the worst caricatures of those of us who oppose the mandate.
3. Rush Limbaugh has been mistaken by many Americans as the spokesperson for modern conservatism. I heard Chris Matthews say on Thursday night that Limbaugh is the “intellectual and spiritual leader” of the conservative movement. Hogwash. Rush Limbaugh is to conservatism what a carnival barker is to entertainment. He’s loud and boisterous, but what he’s selling behind his curtain is a sideshow. The ideological roots of conservatism still have more to do with Burke and Friedman than they do with the likes of Limbaugh. Don’t believe the hype about his being a driving ideological force behind conservatism. He’s not.
4. Rush Limbaugh has created a diversion for supporters of the HHS mandate. He is widely mistaken by many Americans as a surrogate for the GOP. Democrats are trying to leverage this impression to their political advantage, and they are calling on GOP leaders to denounce Limbaugh as if he were their spokesman or representative. I hope many conservatives find appropriate ways to denounce Limbaugh’s remarks. But I also hope that they will resist doing anything that suggests that Limbaugh speaks for the party in particular or for conservatism more generally.
5. Rush Limbaugh has been mistaken as a representative of social conservative voters, a big portion of whom are evangelicals. As an evangelical, I will say that I gave up on Limbaugh a long time ago. I am a conservative, and so is he. But it seems to me that his views are coming from a different place than mine are. The sanctity of human life and religious liberty motivate my opposition to the HHS mandate. Limbaugh seems to be motivated by something else—something more cynical. His remarks about Ms. Fluke are a case in point. Encouraging a fellow citizen—even in jest—to post a sex video of themselves on the internet sounds as secular and godless as anything I’ve ever heard. It’s not just Christians who abominate this kind of speech (Ephesians 5:4). Every decent American is rightly offended by this kind of talk.
President Obama’s HHS mandate is a watershed moment for religious liberty in the United States, and I believe there is a grave showdown on the horizon. If the mandate is allowed to stand, countless Americans will be forced to violate their consciences and their religion in order to comply. Many of them will refuse to obey this unjust law and will either close up shop or incur penalties for breaking the law. In the very near future, many citizens will find that following their religious beliefs is against the law. For these Americans, the stakes could not be any higher or more serious.
Limbaugh’s remarks last week distracted the nation from this reality with a lowbrow personal attack. His subsequent apology was untimely and advanced the liberal narrative that this debate is about privacy and contraception. There’s no escaping the conclusion that he has set the cause back with his careless remarks, and his apology won’t fix that. We do not need cynical voices like his joining the debate on either side. America deserves better.