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.
Other evangelical leaders echoed and amplified these themes. In their popular Christian sex manual The Act of Marriage (1976), Tim and Beverly LaHaye made explicit the connections between sex and power. They instructed women to “clean up, paint up, fix up” before their husbands came home in order to fulfill their husbands’ sexual needs. “God designed man to be the aggressor, provider, and leader of his family,” and these roles were tied to his sex drive; you can’t have a man’s “aggressive leadership” without his aggressive sex drive, and that was by God’s design. Women ought to seduce their husbands; those who failed to do so faced consequences: “Few men accept bedroom failure without being carnal, nasty, and insulting.” Men had needs, and it was women’s duty to meet those needs.
Together, Tim and Beverly helped construct the foundations of the Religious Right. Beverly founded Concerned Women for America (CWA) in 1978, a powerful evangelical organization devoted to anti-feminism and family values politics. In 1981, Tim founded the secretive Council for National Policy, which continues to operate as a hub of conservative politics to this day. He also co-authored the enormously popular Left Behind series and authored an array of nonfiction titles including The Unhappy Gays: What Everyone Should Know about Homosexuality (1978), The Battle for the Mind (1980), and The Battle for the Family (1981).
LaHaye was particularly concerned about the role of the “liberal, humanist” media in corrupting the nation through “anti-moral” programs like Three’s Company, Dallas, and Saturday Night Live, as well as through television and print news. He blamed American news stations, for example, for their biased coverage of the Vietnam War, for “twisting” news reports “to make America appear the aggressor” and causing young people to become disillusioned with their own country. He also took aim at Time and Newsweek, instead recommending conservative magazines such as Human Events and Conservative Digest, and he called for a fourth television news network “committed to rendering a conservative view of the news,” along with a conservative wire service and chain of newspapers.
Rush Limbaugh stepped up to meet this need. Limbaugh rose to prominence after the 1987 repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, which had mandated honest and equitable on-air treatment of controversial issues. The repeal ushered in the era of conservative talk radio, and Limbaugh’s bombastic style set the tone.
The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 heightened Limbaugh’s appeal, and evangelicals were among his devoted fans. Conservative evangelicals shared Limbaugh’s disdain for Clinton, and especially for his wife, Hillary. It was clear that Hillary Clinton failed to conform to the submissive and sexualized role that was a woman’s proper place, and she became a target of vicious ridicule and misogynistic attacks.
In 1996, Fox News joined the fray, where overbearing male commentators shared the screen with women whose qualifications appeared to include a sexualized hyper-femininity, and where a decidedly conservative slant framed the news of the day.
Neither Limbaugh nor Fox News billed themselves as Christian, but white evangelicals were drawn to their militant politics and regressive gender roles. The fit wasn’t a theological one, at least not in terms of traditional doctrine; it was cultural and political. Limbaugh and Fox News both hawked a nostalgic vision where white men still dominated, where feminists and other liberals were demonized, and where a militant masculinity and sexualized femininity represented “traditional values.”
White evangelicals were drawn to this brand of conservative media, and this media, in turn, shaped conservative evangelicalism. Rush Limbaugh undoubtedly influenced countless white evangelicals, many of them profoundly. But this was not the case of politics hijacking religion; the affinities ran deep.
Only by acknowledging these affinities can one understand contemporary American politics. Religious and secular conservatives alike are bound together by a common cultural and political identity; by an opposition to feminism, liberalism, and “political correctness.” Most fundamentally, by a shared commitment to white patriarchal power.
Within this framework, civility, political compromise, and pursuit of the common good smack of emasculation and weakness. Crassness, callousness, righteous violence, and even sexual aggression, on the other hand, are signs of God-given, testosterone-driven masculinity. They are, in other words, the way things ought to be.