Giving up Rush Limbaugh for Lent

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A coincidence, surely, that Rush Limbaugh and I share a birth year, or that he died of lung cancer on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian 40-day “penance” tradition of Lent.

When I would visit my then-88-year-old Norwegian grandmother while attending university near her Upper Peninsula Michigan home, she would open the Houghton Daily Mining Gazette in the morning to page two, where the obituaries were listed (it was an aging immigrant community, so this was important news). She would then read aloud: “Hmm. Mrs. Lahti died. She was Finnish, don’t ya know.” I have to admit that now one of the first links I click each morning in my online New York Times subscription is the obituary page. Some deaths strain the mortician’s Latin dictum of Nil nisi bonum: “Of the dead, say nothing but good.” Some deaths break that tradition.

I state here simply fact. Rush Limbaugh found that the way out of a dead-end sports marketing career in Kansas City was to cultivate an image as the most intentionally odious “talk radio” host on the air. Maybe it was just an image. Maybe not. That is the best I can say about Rush.

Limbaugh’s death has unearthed so many of his “great odious hits” that I had forgotten. There was his regular on-air celebration of the deaths of individual gay men from AIDS in the early 1980s. Rush reportedly later expressed that these segments were “regretful.” And who among us doesn’t regret things we did in the 1980s?

Who can forget how the cigar-smoking, four-times married Limbaugh frequently derided women for their appearance, including the two young daughters of Presidents Carter and Clinton? Or his playing of a song called “Barack, the Magic Negro” to the tune of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” during the 2008 election, part of a long on-air trail of race-baiting. Rush was the best at being publicly odious and it made him rich.

The embrace of Limbaugh by many of my overtly Christian friends, mostly men, constantly mystified me. Rush presaged the rise of the most odious presidential candidate in modern history, who swept the support of religious conservatives in 2016 to rule with Twitter-rant odiousness for four years. And on January 6, 2021, that same president went out in a blaze of odious glory as his cultist followers stormed the Capitol during the Constitutionally mandated counting of votes to officially put an end to his reign. One of Trump’s many odious acts was to award Limbaugh with the Medal of Freedom in 2020.

Looking for “odious” in the Bible

Forgiveness and tolerance of others were a big part of the religious tradition in which I was raised. How should that tradition inform my response to the Limbaugh passing?

In our church, we did not really focus much on Lent, the 40-day period of repentance that traditionally comes before Easter. I found it curious when some of my friends would come to school with a cross of ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, saying that they were giving up certain “sins,” like watching too much television, for Lent. But there was no let-up in our also-religious household; the after-school cartoon programs of the 1950s were uninterrupted fare during Lent.

Buck Barry

Western Michigan ’50s cartoon host Buck Barry and his horse Thunder.

In the conservative Protestant version of this sin compression, “God abhors all sin.” As the religious heirs of Billy Graham state: “Remember that whether our sins are relatively small or great, they will place us in hell apart from God’s grace.” I had to deliver Sunday newspapers to only half of my regular customers during the 1960s, because the dominant Calvinist denomination in town saw reading the newspaper on Sunday as “sin.” I was the Devil’s newsagent while barely in my teens.

I have since studied with the Jesuits and have come to a better cultural understanding of their tradition, although not acceptance. If you want to tackle bad behavior, they would say, you might have to “start small” by tackling the eating of the wrong kind of food on the wrong days. The Protestant version is intended to literally scare the Hell out of people enough to “say the Name” of Jesus Christ, and to come down the aisle to receive salvation.

Ironic, then, that it is hard to find in the Bible, especially the New Testament, any direct prohibition against being as personally odious as Rush was. There are only two odd usages of that word in the King James Version of the Bible, one in First Chronicles and one in Proverbs. Other translations substitute this word for synonyms like “abhorrent” or “obnoxious,” but nowhere have I found a “Thou shalt not” that directly addresses this kind of behavior. But language and word usage change over time, and I am not a Biblical literalist, so I generally find the hunting for specific words in multiple Bible translations to be less than a fruitful use of time.

Perhaps this is the problem with Biblical literalism, however. Literalists think they are justified in condemning a single human behavior based on a sole mention in Leviticus, even while ignoring most of the rest of the “abominations” there, and being personally odious in their methods of condemnation. Even a classic sin like adultery makes sense in the Old Testament only if you read it as a property crime against a father or a husband, the legal “owner” of the woman. Coveting your neighbor’s ass is apparently a more grievous sin than spouting nasty, racist, sexist crap on the radio for money (as far as I can tell).

The answer here is likely not found in one book. Rather, the resistance to, or the embrace of, odious behavior is demonstrably more cultural than religiously doctrinal, as the last four years have demonstrated. Mitt Romney was one of the few brave conservatives willing to stand up to the Trump Cult and condemn both the odious presidential behavior and the January 6 insurrection. His confidence that he can withstand political retribution in Utah is likely due to his knowledge that Mormon bishops like himself are culturally required among his fellow LDS church members to be as non-odious as possible. Step out of Utah, say for his fellow Mormon senator Jeff Flake from Arizona, and the cultural shield disappears. Flake paid a political price for his decency. But I have not read all of the additional LDS scriptures, so perhaps someone can point me to a “Thou shalt not be odious” passage. And fellow-Utah Senator Mike Lee apparently never got that message.

I have recounted in past posts how my first indirect encounter with Donald Trump came in the 1990s “Casino Years,” when I was working on a company merger team with a New York acquisition, to whom the Trump Organization owed a lot of money. The debt remained uncollected because goons showed up at the company threatening the employees in the Accounts Receivable department, a tactic that Trump attorney Michael Cohen later testified to. Odious behavior often starts early, and unfortunately my company (and a lot of others, it turns out) rewarded it by writing off the debt.

I do not pretend to know anymore what lies beyond the grave. Rush is gone from the airwaves, but he spawned an entire industry and political movement grounded in public odiousness and scary attempts at political autocracy. We all leave a legacy, some more ugly than others.

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