Of Luther, Limbaugh, And Losers (Relax, It’s A Joke)

On this date in 1546 Martin Luther went to be with our Savior, Jesus. Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh died and we hope that he too was received into the loving arms of the Savior. Both men were in desperate need of the unconditional favor of God, in Christ, toward sinners. Luther died a member in communion with the visible church. In recent months Limbaugh had become more open in his profession of a personal faith in Christ. His relationship to the visible church, however, is unknown. The Cyprianic dictum is true: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus est (outside the church there is no salvation; Confessio Belgica, art. 28; English). Indeed, to long-time Rush listeners (of which I was one), it was clear that until relatively he seemed to know little about Christianity or Scripture. In the early years of his nationally syndicated program he became noticeably uncomfortable when callers directed the discussion to Christ and faith. He said explicitly that he did not want the program to devolve into a bible discussion show. His was show about culture and politics. His brother David, a lawyer and professor, is an outspoken evangelical Christian and has published volumes in defense of the Christian faith. It is hard to imagine that, as he wrote them, he did not have his big brother in mind. One hopes that these volumes had their intended effect upon Rush and many others.

The title of this essay, of course, is tongue in cheek but because people seem utterly to have any sense of humor about themselves anymore I had to kill the punchline in the header lest I become besieged with self-righteous emails and other communications. Luther and Limbaugh were both sinners, they both said a lot of things, some of which were problematic in themselves and some of which are regularly misrepresented by critics who have clearly never read Luther or listened to Limbaugh. Both were given to a notable degree of bombast (at least in public), earthy language, and hyperbole in making their points. “Losers” is the sort of epithet to which both of them were prone. Neither of them scores high on any test of middle-American “niceness.” Both came from small towns and ordinary people. Neither harbored illusions about themselves or others. Both of them made a huge difference during their lives. We are still studying, learning from, and benefiting from Luther more than five centuries after his birth. He was easily one of the most important figures in the last millennium and arguably one of the most important figures in the last two millennia. That is a quite an achievement for a boy from Eisleben.

Limbaugh was from Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It is the quintessence of middle America. His father was a successful attorney and owned the radio station where Rush began his radio career in 1966. Luther’s father was in the mining business. His grandfather was a farmer. He came from earthy, plain-speaking folk. His family had enough money that he was ablt to go to university and became a doctor of theology. He was highly educated in formal terms. Limbaugh, however, dropped out of college after a brief stint in order to pursue his radio career. I understand both paths. Rush was ten years older than I but we listened to the same personalities on WLS. Larry Lujack, the long-time morning personality on WLS was one of the principal influences on Limbaugh’s radio persona. Anyone who had paid close attention to Lujack could hear his influence on Limbaugh, who applied the top-40 formula to talk radio. Where Lujack played perhaps 2–3 records an hour (if that), Limbaugh took 2 or 3 callers. Lujack pioneered a rambunctious, often hilarious, style of quasi-talk radio, which frequently walked a fine line between humor and bad taste.

Luther and Limbaugh were alike in other ways. Both were, to a greater or lesser degrees, insecure. Part of it comes from being from plain people and being elevated to celebrity. No one from the Plains is allowed to have self-esteem. When I was a boy the only movement concerned with self-esteem was the movement of teachers, coaches, and classmates to burn it with fire. I have sensed in Luther some of the insecurity of not coming from means, of not being well born and raised in the upper crust. Yesterday, Glenn Beck told a story about one of the executives from Limbaugh’s syndication company sitting down with him to talk about Beck. Limabugh assumed that his show had run its course and that he was about to be fired. That sort of insecurity fueled Limbaugh’s bombastic on-air persona. It fueled some of Luther’s rhetorical excesses.

Both men, however, believed passionately in the truth and they were willing to speak up and take the slings and arrows for doing it. Luther literally put his life on the line for speaking up in defense of justification by divine favor alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), according to Scripture alone (sola scriptura). When he was arrested by the King’s soldiers as he made his way back to Wittenberg, after his appearance before the crown and the curia at Worms, he was certain that he was going to be killed. As it happened, he was just getting warmed up and he would go on to turn the world on its head by speaking up plainly, sometimes coarsely, in defense of the gospel. All of us who are free from the Romanist corruption of the gospel, who know the glory of salvation sola gratia, sola fide, who know the liberty conferred by sola scriptura should give thanks for that corpulent Augustinian monk, who drank too much. The Dutch have a saying, God strikes straight blows with crooked sticks.

Limbaugh was not Luther but he was a classic American figure. He carved out not only a broadcasting career, but an empire in defiance of small-minded consultants, sales managers, and GM’s, who lived in fear of a critical letter or phone call. Like Luther, however, he defied his father. Luther’s father wanted him to study law. Luther wanted to study theology. Rush’s father wanted him to go the college and follow the family tradition of going into the law but Limbaugh loved the crackle of AM radio and the magic of being able to DX, i.e., to turn the dial from one end to the other at night and to hear far away stations. He could sit in his bedroom in Cape Girardeau at night and be transported in a moment to New Orleans where he could pick up WWL or to (not as far away) St Louis where he could hear KMOX or to Kansas City, where he could hear the great top-40 station, WHB. He made his own path, even though he must have seemed like a failure, since he did not hit it big until 1984. From Cape Girardau he made it to a suburban Pittsburgh station (WIXZ) and then to KQV, a successful top-40 station in Pittsburgh. As “Jeff Christie” he was beginning to form the on-air persona we know so well. There were the beginnings of “excellence in broadcasting” and talk of Marconi awards. Radio is (or was) a peripatetic business and after a few years he found himself in Kansas City working in sales for the Kansas City Royals baseball club and doing commentaries on a local station, KMBZ. He was controversial but he was offered one final shot at a career in radio KFBK in Sacramento. There he finally found management that understood what he was trying to do and he was wildly successful, so much so that after a few years the show was syndicated. He moved to New York, to do the new show from WABC in New York and as Paul Harvey used to say, now you know the rest of the story. All the headlines announcing the death of Rush Limbaugh, the conservative ideologue are wrong. He was first and foremost an entertainer, who used his prodigious gifts as an entertainer and populariser to catechize millions of Americans into mainstream conservatism (tinged with populism). There is a reason Rush was on, at one point, 600 radio stations—single-handedly saving AM radio—and William F. Buckley’s television show was on PBS.

Those who have never read Luther will tell you that he was anti-semitic, incontinent, and the progenitor of Nazism. To be sure, when the Jews did not respond to the Reformation message as he anticipated, Luther railed against them in bitter disappointment. His language was beyond intemperate but he did not denounce Jews for being ethnic Jews but for for their unbelief. Those who have never listened to Limbaugh will tell you that he was a bigot. He faced cancel culture long before the rest of knew what it was. He crossed the line from time to time but who could avoid it while hosting a three-hour talk show five days a week for thirty years? No one probably hears your faux pas but 20 million people heard his. They saw him get addicted to prescription drugs before we knew it was a national epidemic. He did all that in public and for most of the last 20 years he did it while being deaf. Radio is an aural medium. Radio hosts wear headphones to hear the show. Remarkably, he was able to flourish in an aural medium with a cochlear implant, which made the whole world sound like the tinny little transistor he owned in 1966. His track record in marriage, 1 for 3, was hardly a model for others to follow. If you are offended, however, by the comparison of Luther and Limbaugh I suggest that you do not know either of them very well. I doubt Limbaugh knew much of Luther and who knows what Luther would have made of Limbaugh but I suspect that he would have understood what he, in the secular sphere, was trying to do and would have appreciated the style in which he tried to do it.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Nicely done, sir. I appreciate your own background in radio coming through here as well. Both men have impacted (still are in the case of Luther) me greatly and for the better. God uses clay pots, some with chips and scratches, to show us His sovereignty. It is interesting how Luther’s impact was partly due to the technology of printing, as Rush’s was by radio technology. In the coming dark days we might well see our own versions of samizdat revive the printing trade to keep the Church alive, and old fashion radio transmission and receivers to keep us all together.

  2. John:

    Good point. After all Rush was so incredibly HOMOPHOBIC that he probably had to pay Elton John millions!

    Also, Rush never was much of a WCF guy. If he were, he would have read the part about Elton John music and how one must never allow Elton John to perform at weddings.

  3. I do believe there is a difference between Luther and Rush. Luther proclaimed God’s truth; from what I have heard listening to Rush, I cannot say the same about him. Luther’s speech and writing could be nasty, not unlike Rush’s. I would take Luther any day over Rush. I carried recorded music in my car to have something to listen to avoid listening to him.

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