Rush Limbaugh and three evangelical blind spots

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Mic' photo (c) 2009, Renée Johnson - license:

“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and says that she must be paid to have sex. What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute...So, if we’re gonna sit here, and if we’re gonna have a part in this, then we want something in return, Ms. Fluke: And that would be the videos of all this sex posted online so we can see what we are getting for our money.”
– Rush Limbaugh 

To me, this is whole situation is a no-brainer:  What Rush Limbaugh said was wrong.  No woman, under any circumstances should be spoken of in those terms.  Limbaugh’s ugly rant against law student and activist Sandra Fluke was misogynistic, vitriolic, and far beyond any definition of civil discourse. It should be categorically condemned, and sponsors are right to pull their advertisements in response. Yes, two liberal commentators have used similar language in the past, but as David Frum wisely points out, the indecencies of others in the past do not excuse those of Limbaugh in the present, nor should they prevent us from speaking out about the situation at hand.

It’s hard to believe that any Christian would support a man who leveled such a crass and hateful rant against someone created in the image of God, but over the weekend, I encountered several who did just that...and passionately. Most were part of my own evangelical community.   This baffled and frustrated me, as it did many of you who, via Facebook and Twitter, told me that you’ve encountered similar reactions among your family and friends. 

How can anyone who identifies as a follower of Jesus not only listen to, but support, this kind of disgusting language?  How can good people—the kind who show up at my door with a casserole the minute they find out I’m sick—openly cheer these kinds of remarks? 

 I can’t know for sure what goes on in people’s minds when they align themselves with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, but I suspect this reaction has something to do with three common blind spots among evangelicals: 

1. Politics 

As many have noted elsewhere, evangelicalism has become so intertwined with conservative politics that it can be hard to tell at times where Republicanism begins and evangelicalism ends.

No longer defined by its original ethos—spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ—evangelicalism has been reduced to little more than a voting block, and I get the idea from many of my evangelical friends that so long as a person shares their political convictions, it matters not how they live their life or speak about other people; a person is on the Christian “team” as long as he votes for conservative candidates come election day. 

We saw a clear example of this back in 2010 when Liberty University invited Glen Beck to speak at its commencement. It didn’t matter that the majority of Liberty students and faculty would consider Beck’s Mormonism to be outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy or that Beck had a reputation for sowing discord, what mattered was that he shared their conservative voting habits.  As I wrote in my post on the topic, “Graduation 2010 confirms once and for all what many of us have suspected for years.  Liberty University is characterized not by Christian fundamentalism but by political fundamentalism. For Republicanism is clearly the university's highest and most sacred value.”  

This also explains why Franklin Graham has such a hard time accepting Barack Obama’s Christian faith and yet readily accepts the faith of Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. Like many evangelicals, he measures the faith of other people based on how they vote, not what they profess or how they live. 

This is the blind spot that allows some of the same Christians who refuse to watch R-rated movies to suspend their judgment as Rush Limbaugh makes crass, vulgar, racist, misogynistic, and homophobic remarks on his radio show.  So long as he’s speaking the truth about politics, they seem to reason, it doesn’t matter how he delivers it.  So long as he is right, it doesn’t matter whether he is decent or kind. 

This blind spot is absolutely killing our Christian witness. A 2007 Barna Group study found that among 16-29 year-olds only 3 percent express favorable views of evangelicals. Common negative perceptions among non-Christians are that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87 percent), hypocritical (85 percent), old-fashioned (78 percent), and too involved in politics (75 percent).

Now there is nothing wrong with supporting conservative politics. But, as I told a woman who was urging her fellow Christians to boycott sponsors who pulled their ads from Limbaugh’s show, when you publicly support a man who uses crass language to shame a woman, you are making it hard for non-believers to see anything lovely or redemptive about Christianity. 

2. Women 

A second blind spot that I suspect is influencing evangelical support of Rush Limbaugh relates to women. 

I’d like to think that if Limbaugh had used a racial epithet, like the n-word, my evangelical friends would be more reluctant to support him, despite Blind Spot #1. But because Limbaugh used misogynisticepithets instead, there seems to be more hesitancy among some evangelicals to condemn him. 

This is because evangelicals, for all our good work in fighting sex trafficking and the exploitation of women around the world, often fail to see the sexism that pervades our own church corridors. 

This example is not nearly as severe, but it drove me crazy to see John Piper follow his public call for a “masculine Christianity” with a week’s worth of posts about overcoming racism. Yes, evangelicals have come a long way when it comes to race, but can’t he see that we’re still decades behind when it comes to women!?  Had Piper said that “Christianity has a white feel,” every evangelical in his or her right mind would have been up in arms. But because he said that “Christianity has a masculine feel,” even those who disagree with him shrugged it off as a difference in biblical interpretation rather than a problem with how he, and many evangelicals, view women. 

I never before considered myself the kind of woman who sees sexism around every corner, but I must say, my experience speaking and writing about women in the Church has been eye-opening. For expressing my egalitarian views among evangelicals, I’ve been called crass, ugly names (not unlike the names Limbaugh called Fluke), dismissed as “emotional” and “whiny,” written off as a “just another liberal feminazi,” and declared a “threat” to the Church. I’ve written on controversial topics before, but never has the criticism been so personal and so vitriolic, and I can’t help but wonder if it is because I’m writing about the concerns of women. 

 This is not to say that every evangelical is deeply misogynistic. Far from it. But I think that the lack of female leadership and influence in evangelicalism has resulted in a blind spot that keeps some from recognizing just how painful and damaging these kinds of words and attitudes can be. Fortunately, I see this changing in a big way, and am hopeful that the future will be brighter for evangelical women. 

3. Sex

The most common response I heard from evangelicals supporting Rush Limbaugh was that because Sandra Fluke was sexually active, she essentially “had it coming.” Maybe Limbaugh’s language was a bit strong, they said, but his disgust at her “promiscuity” was justified. 

This attitude represents one of the most damaging and least-talked-about blind spots within evangelicalism—the one that refuses to acknowledge the fact that being sexually active does not make a woman a slut. 

Currently, evangelicals tend to force young adults, especially young women, into simplistic sexual categories. They are either “pure” or “impure,” “whole” or “damaged,” “virgins” or “sluts.” There does not seem to exist a vocabulary within evangelicalism with which to talk about men and women who are sexually active, but not promiscuous. 

But like it or not, nearly every study you find shows that unmarried Christians are just as sexually active as unmarried non-Christians. With the majority of young adults waiting until their late twenties to get married, it’s getting harder and harder to wait until marriage for sexual intimacy.

Now, I’m not saying that this is okay, or that evangelicals have to abandon their convictions regarding sex and marriage just because times have changed. But if evangelicals feel that the word “slut” is the only appropriate one to use for a woman who is sexually active, then we have a real problem on our hands. This is damaging, hurtful language that objectifies women and will only push them away from the Church. (Note: It should be noted that Fluke wasn’t just addressing the use of contraceptives for sex, but also for treatment of medical conditions. She shared the story of one friend who lost an ovary because she could not afford birth control pills.

Regardless of your views on whether insurance companies should be required to provide coverage for contraception, all Christians should agree that there is no place for Rush Limbaugh-style vitriol in public discourse.

My hope is that the blind spots that keep many of my evangelical brothers and sisters from seeing his words and actions as contrary to the way of Jesus will be brought to light through the process of discernment, and that I too will be open to the wise critiques of those who perhaps have a better view of the blind spots that keep me from loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and loving my neighbor as myself. 


UPDATE #1: I've been encouraged to see some evangelical leaders like Al Mohler speak out against Rush Limbaugh's comments:

UPDATE #2: I'm going to go ahead and close the comment thread on this post because a few folks seem rather eager to prove my point there, and I'm tired of reading and deleting this stuff. (In just one day, through comments and email, I've personally been called a "slut", a "whore," a "feminazi," a "whiny feminist," a c**t, and a "dirty tramp." I expect a call from the president shortly.)  Of course, most of you have been wonderful, as always. Thanks so much for your insightful contributions to the conversation and for your support. I expect the trolls will clear out soon.

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