Rush, Race, and the Religious Right

Apr 10, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

2008-07-28-bnet_logo_white.gifWith Rush Limbaugh having asserted his claim to be the true and rightful leader of the Republican Party, it's tempting to argue that he is, in fact, the perfect embodiment for Republicans at this historical moment: loud, boorish, corpulent and (if you'll pardon my reference to an unfortunate physical malady) hard of hearing. Not to mention hypocritical. Let's remember that Limbaugh, together with his Republican cheerleaders in the Congress, opposed the economic stimulus bill because it was -- you can't make this up! -- fiscally irresponsible.

What interests me more, however, is Limbaugh's enduring popularity among politically conservative evangelicals. I have no polling data to back this up, only anecdotal evidence, but when I travel in evangelical precincts, or when I talk with my own brothers, the name of Rush Limbaugh evokes a kind of hushed reverence befitting the deity. He's often quoted more frequently than the scriptures: "Rush says . . ." or, "According to Rush . . . ."

It's an odd affinity, never mind the radical disjunction between Limbaugh's policy positions and the teachings of Jesus. The thrice-married Limbaugh is hardly the avatar of "family values." And he has confessed to an addiction to pain-killers, a habit he allegedly satisfied through illegal means.

So why the attraction? Some of it simply is a misguided sympathy for right-wing politics. But that still doesn't fully explain the allegiance.

Timothy Egan's superb opinion piece on Limbaugh in the New York Times has brought me to the reluctant conclusion that one reason politically conservative evangelicals so adore Limbaugh is that he expresses the racism they feel but cannot allow themselves to articulate. I hasten to add that I don't say this lightly; I have for years, in fact, defended evangelicals against the charge of racism.

But the evidence is beginning to mount. Several years ago I exposed what I call the "abortion myth," the fiction that the Religious Right coalesced as a political movement in response to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. That emphatically was not the case; many evangelicals at the time, in fact, applauded the decision. The true catalyst was a lower-court ruling, Green v. Connally, that upheld the Internal Revenue Service in its opinion that institutions engaging in racial discrimination were not charitable organizations and therefore had no claims to tax-exempt status. When the IRS enforced that decision in 1976 and rescinded the tax exemption at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school in Greenville, South Carolina, evangelicals preachers led by Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye and others banded together to form a mighty political coalition.

There are several legitimate ways to construe the Bob Jones case, and I have been careful in the past to present various mitigating interpretations. But the fact remains that the very people who eventually took extraordinary pains to style themselves as the "new abolitionists" because of their opposition to abortion actually organized as a political movement effectively to defend racial segregation and discrimination at Bob Jones University.

Another bit of evidence for racism among politically conservative evangelicals might be the popularity of home-schooling and their support for school vouchers. Like it or not, evangelicals have yet to come to terms with the legacy of "segregation academies," many of them organized by churches, that sprouted after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Not everyone who educates children at home is racist, of course. By no means. But one of the perennial Religious Right complaints about public education is its emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity. And, as I saw when I visited public school and voucher school classrooms in Cleveland several years ago, nothing perpetuates racial (and economic) stratification better than voucher programs.

Perhaps Limbaugh's racial rants help to explain his popularity among politically conservative evangelicals after all. Such lines of affinity are difficult to sort out, of course, especially when any such linkage is vigorously denied -- as I'm sure it will be. But when Limbaugh rails against Colin Powell, or when his program plays a parody called "Barack the Magic Negro," or when he suggests that the president is demanding that Americans "have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president" -- maybe, just maybe, Limbaugh is striking an ugly nerve among politically conservative evangelicals.

Cross Posted from Beliefnet's Progressive Revival