Belief  /  Debunk

No, Rush Limbaugh Did Not Hijack Your Parents’ Christianity

White evangelicals have long been attracted to the conservative media's militant politics and regressive gender roles.

We’ve all heard the stories, and some of us have seen it with our own eyes. The kind, noble, God-fearing uncle, father, or family friend—the salt-of-the-earth Christian man who, a decade or more ago, came under the influence of talk radio.

For many, Rush Limbaugh was the gateway drug. It started as an occasional hit, maybe just on the car radio from time to time. At first, there was still some critical distance. Not all of the jokes earned a chuckle, and coarse language might induce a cringe, here or there. Over time, however, it developed into a habit, and God-fearing, eminently respectable Christian men began mimicking Limbaugh’s tone and content. Even the crass jokes—maybe especially the crass ones—became funnier. At least if they were about Hillary Clinton or other feminazis. And maybe even worth repeating, in the right company.

Many Christians now in their twenties and thirties grew up in homes where Rush Limbaugh joined James Dobson as part of the background noise. In 2016, when overwhelming numbers of white evangelicals backed Donald Trump, it seemed that Limbaugh had the edge over Dobson when it came to discipling white evangelicals. How else could one explain the apparent betrayal of “family values” evangelicalism?

Their salt-of-the-earth Christianity had been hijacked by the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

Except it hadn’t. At least not if hijacking entails taking unwilling victims by force. The truth is, many conservative Christians embraced Rush Limbaugh because they had already embraced a faith that championed an us-vs.-them militancy, the denigration of liberals and feminists, the sexual objectification of women, an appreciation for coarse language and even violence when directed at the right targets, and a thinly veiled misogyny that kept women in their (God-given) place.

Rather than oppose this trajectory, James Dobson and other evangelical leaders smoothed the path forward. Dobson rose to prominence in the 1970s as an evangelical psychologist who opposed feminism, liberalism, and hippies, and advocated instead for the reassertion of patriarchal authority. Denouncing “feminist propaganda” that depicted women in popular culture as tough (albeit gorgeous) figures who “could dismantle any man alive with her karate chops and flying kicks to the teeth,” he blamed feminists for calling into question “everything traditionally masculine,” for tampering with the “time-honored roles of protector and protected,” and for disparaging masculine leadership as “macho,” leaving men in confusion and the nation in peril. For evangelicals like Dobson, patriarchal authority was at the heart of “family values.” Fundamentally, family values politics was about sex and power.