At this point of the 21st Century, Rush Limbaugh occupies a unique place. Locating him on the radio dial, however, is easier than identifying whether he is head of the Republican Party, news broadcaster, or entertainer. That ambiguity raises the question: Is it a sin to listen to Rush? The question has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat: Catholics are free to join either party (or neither). We can also ignore issues about Rush’s marriages or drug addition. Those are personal matters and rather than require a Catholic to shun a person with such problems, we should encourage forgiveness and understanding.
The moral issue about Limbaugh regards his “-isms”: racism and sexism, as well as homophobia and prevarication. That Rush has made racist remarks is a matter of fact: he was fired from ESPN for his racist put-down of Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb — and this has scarcely been his only infraction of the Catholic moral principle to love all of God’s creatures. Certainly, his political take on issues may be defended as legitimate opinion; but it is indefensible to base opinion upon untruths or wrap them up with any of the sinful “-isms.”
There can be no doubt that Limbaugh engages in ridicule of persons and principles he dislikes and in exaggeration of what he likes. The ridicule often includes crude sexual and racial references. Excusing such as “entertainment” or dismissing him as a “clown” merely postpones necessary scrutiny over his destructive behavior. While Limbaugh will have to deal with his own conscience if he says or does such things maliciously with the intention of using racism or lying to destroy reputations, believing and repeating such things challenges the morality of his listeners.
When I was a teenager in Philadelphia’s Jesuit high school, St. Joe’s Prep back in the 1950s, I was given rules for how to react to dirty jokes or to lies about our “neighbors.” (I confess that I laughed at “dirty jokes,” meaning humor with sexual references.) But some so-called jokes were vicious and crossed the line from humor to prejudice. They could be told only when no Black, Latino, woman or Jew was present. Sexual references – often to depravity on the part of those who were “different” — were inescapable. These were not so much jokes as put-downs meant to cement white, rising middle-class Catholics in a faux sense of superiority over people who were “different.” When my son went to the College of the Holy Cross in 2001, he encountered this relic of a culture dominant in his father’s youth. He, however, belonged to a generation of Catholics that have mostly repudiated such thinking.
On the radio, Rush revels in this retro-culture. The locker room is now on the MP3 player. Moreover, his appeal to conspiracy theories and the repetition of out-right lies is mixed in with sarcastic review of reported news. Not every word on Limbaugh’s show (or any of the wanna-be’s, right or left) crosses the line. But it is virtually impossible to separate his justifiable commentary from his objectionable verbal bullying by racism, sexism, homophobia, fear mongering and downright lies. Worse still is the encouragement to violence that is often implicit in statements* like, “Who will rid us of this president (Obama)?”
I would not lay all responsibility for the coarseness of political debate in front of the gold microphone of Mr. Limbaugh: blame can be spread around. Whether it is the liberal fringe beating up on former vice president Dick Cheney as torturer-in-chief, or the right wing nuts saying that Obama wants “to kill Granny,” we Catholics have a responsibility to respect the humanity of all persons made in the image and likeness of God.
So, it is not a sin to listen to Rush: it is only sinful to be a “dittohead” and believe in lies or contribute to the climate of hate by repeating his provocative commentary. The same applies to all others of whatever political side who feed the monster of personal destruction. I thank God that in Catholic America there are a growing number of us who tune out hate speech.
*John Voight to the NRA
PS – The most curious thing about Rush’s programs this week is the amount of commercials advertising benefits from the president’s stimulus package: things like refinancing credit card debt and cash for clunkers. On Wednesday there were 3 out of 8 such pro-Obama commercials in 28 minutes. It’s amazing that there is such a disconnect between what Rush says and who pays his salary!