How ’90s Christian radio enabled Rush Limbaugh’s toxic views

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Rush Limbaugh from behind in silhouette, with a laughing audience facing him.
Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh entertains the audience in 1995. | Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

The 1990s Christian radio ecosystem played a crucial role in enabling Limbaugh and conservative talk radio.

The late Rush Limbaugh’s far-reaching and toxic impact on conservative America and the Republican party is well-known and well-documented. Still, there’s one aspect of his legacy, specifically his cultural dominance in the 1990s, that’s difficult to convey in the post-internet era: Limbaugh’s pivotal role in the ascension of conservative talk radio and the pivotal role that conservative radio played in emboldening modern conservative populism.

For many years throughout the Clinton era, Limbaugh’s daily radio program, The Rush Limbaugh Show, was synonymous with conservative political media and part of a larger burgeoning conservative radio ecosystem. The show, which aired for three hours each afternoon across America, began syndicating nationally in 1988 — incidentally the same year that famed evangelist minister Billy Graham delivered the benediction for both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. If you can’t imagine that happening today, it’s due in large part to the political polarization Limbaugh himself helped engender. In fact, Graham’s brand of evangelical Christianity spread across many of the same airwaves that also aired Limbaugh’s brand of toxic conservative bigotry.

Rush Limbaugh didn’t emerge from a vacuum. He was part of a Christian-based radio ecosystem that allowed his message to thrive.

The key detail that frequently gets lost when discussing Rush Limbaugh and his influence is that Limbaugh didn’t come out of nowhere. At the time he rose to prominence, he was part of a conservative radio ecosystem priming its listeners for exactly the kind of content he provided. In particular, the late 1980s and early ’90s saw the rise of Christian evangelism as a major media force. The popularity of televangelists and megachurches throughout that period fueled the idea of modern Christians as an identifiable audience that could be targeted as a group, which paved the way for the phenomenon that was Christian radio.

Picture the typical radio diet for the average conservative Christian in the 1990s: The typical middle-American Protestant would probably have their dial tuned to a radio station that was either owned by, or partnering with, one of the many Christian radio networks that established a foothold over the decade — like Salem Media, founded in 1986 and now one of the largest radio networks in the US. Or the American Family Radio network, which was founded in 1991 and rapidly grew to encompass more than 200 radio stations across the country. Part of the American Family Association, the network frequently aired anti-gay propaganda and helped popularize the notion of “the homosexual agenda.”

That same listener might, on any given day, hear one of Dr. James Dobson’s daily advice spots on his Focus on the Family network, which broadcast daily guides to Christian life, as well as promoting staunchly pro-life, creationist, and anti-gay political stances. (Network founder Dobson was also then the head of the bigoted Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has since classified as an anti-LGBTQ extremist group.)

At its peak, Dobson’s flagship Focus on the Family spots were broadcast to 220 million people daily on 7,000 radio stations globally. These short segments were often paired with Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey, the network’s Christian children’s radio drama which began in 1987 and became a big part of the era’s Christian fantasy boom. The Christian fantasy boom itself was bolstered by Satanic Panic and the pervasive evangelical theme of the period that not only were angels and demons real, but Christianity itself was a process of daily “spiritual warfare,” which often involved putting on the “spiritual armor of God” and figuratively doing battle with outside forces.

This was a theme reinforced by many songs that played throughout the late ’80s and ’90s on contemporary Christian radio stations, which were also enjoying a simultaneous massive rise in popularity. Contemporary Christian music artists, or “CCM” artists, like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay, and DC Talk frequently received airplay on mainstream contemporary radio alongside secular music.

As a genre, CCM often wedded all of these elements — the evangelism, the adrenalin-fueled “spiritual warfare” mentality, and the politicization of contemporary Christianity — into one irresistible package. Take, for example, the biggest successes of the CCM artist Carman, who peaked in the ’90s with a popular tour that doubled as a musical concert and an evangelical revival conference. His best-known hit, “The Champion,” featured an extravagant music video that depicted Jesus and Satan in a boxing match, from which Jesus emerged victorious. (Carman died this week at the age of 65.)

It was within this pervasive atmosphere of pumped-up, aggressively combative evangelism and overtly polarizing political messages that Rush Limbaugh gained popularity. His show was another piece of the rapidly coalescing image of America’s new conservative — one in which Limbaugh’s lack of Christian empathy somehow became a feature, not a bug, of the modern conservative movement.

Limbaugh’s radio show emboldened a new era of conservative populism

While each of these radio networks was ostensibly Christian-focused at their outset, they each played a major role in bringing conservative talk radio to the forefront of America’s cultural conversation. All of them increasingly added the format to their lineups, interspersed between their other programming; they aired conservative talk radio shows alongside other content, cross-promoted conservative talk radio stations on their sibling CCM radio stations, and sometimes converted mixed-content Christian radio stations fully over to political talk radio. (This fate befell my own hometown radio station multiple times over the decades, as it flipped back and forth between CCM and talk radio.) Salem Media then went on to expand into dozens of conservative talk stations, and Dobson eventually left Focus on the Family to found his own even more overtly political radio network, Family Talk, which emphasizes talk radio.

By promoting talk radio’s partisan political discussions alongside their Christian “family-focused” messaging, all of these networks merged the Christian idea of being at war with spiritual “outsiders” with a conservative political theme that’s still dominant today: painting left-of-center democratic politics as immoral.

This framing was often explicit. When evangelicals of the ’90s urged their fellow Christians to engage in spiritual warfare, they often meant that they should all be working against Democrats and Democratic policies. For example, in the Christian fantasy bestseller of the era, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness series, a variety of left-leaning concepts and policies, from globalization to the welfare system, were presented as being part of an overarching Satanic influence. The books depicted demons as being physically attached to leftist political enemies of the church, while occultist New Age conspirators controlled democratic politicians. (Sound familiar?)

In other words, Clinton-era Democrats weren’t just Christian conservatives’ political enemies. They were The Enemy.

So when Rush Limbaugh — with his braggadocio, mockery of his political opposites, and confident assertion of his own righteous authority over any subject put before him — hit the airwaves and began broadcasting for three hours every day, five days a week, conservative Americans responded to him very similarly to how they would respond to Donald Trump decades later: They lauded him as a much-needed, truth-speaking foil to godless liberals.

A built-in assumption of Limbaugh’s righteousness allowed him to go unchallenged for years in spouting bigotry, including outright racism and homophobia. He constantly asserted the moral vacuity of Democrats while couching his own arguments in populist appeals, played for laughs, such that they could be more easily overlooked as jokes. Like Trump, it didn’t matter that he himself wasn’t particularly moral or spiritual or good — what mattered to his audience was that he held the ostensibly immoral and unholy up to a lens for public scrutiny and collective ridicule.

For a case study of this approach in action, look to one of Bill Clinton’s cabinet appointees, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the nation’s first Black Surgeon General. At the time of Elders’s appointment, Americans really weren’t outraged by her, and Republican senators had no real reason to block her nomination. But then Limbaugh viciously and relentlessly attacked Elders throughout the ’90s and beyond, labeling her “the condom queen” and using a thick, racist accent to mock her pro-abortion-rights and pro-sex-education stances. Limbaugh’s radio show arguably played a major role in fomenting negative public opinion against Elders, until Clinton ultimately fired her in 1994. “Goodbye to the Condom Queen,” a Newsweek headline crowed at the time.

I couldn’t find any widely available audio from the period in which Limbaugh mocked Elders, but I remember it vividly: As a teen who spent years listening to Limbaugh with family members, I remember his crude mockery of her — like her entirely reasonable suggestion, “I would like to make every child born in America a planned and wanted child.” In Limbaugh’s racist, exaggerated accent, this became a catchphrase he repeated over and over — “ever’ chil’ a planned and wanted chil’” — until Elders became one of his go-to examples of liberal insanity.

Limbaugh’s audience tolerated his bigotry not because it wasn’t abhorrent — I remember it so clearly because of how much it disturbed me at the time — but because they saw liberalism as even worse. Aspects of his “comedy” that appear horrific to modern-day listeners were frequently seen as acceptable because he framed the liberal lifestyle as being so immoral that displaying empathy toward it was laughable. This includes his now-infamous “AIDS updates,” a recurring segment in which he mocked dying gay AIDS patients. Limbaugh did eventually express regret over the segment and ended it by 1990 — but by then the damage was done, and his pattern of greeting liberal excess with savage mockery was both well-established and welcomed by his fans.

Writing in 1994, the well-known conservative columnist Joseph Sobran argued that there was no liberal equivalent to Limbaugh because liberalism’s “shrill ridicule of the normal is essentially humorless”:

The key to Limbaugh’s humor is his robust sense of the normal. Humor might almost be defined as the revenge of the normal on the official. Liberalism, having been official for lo these many years, has tried to outlaw many traditional sources of humor with epithets like “bigoted” and (heaven help us) “homophobic.”

Sobran’s mocking attitude reveals how Limbaugh’s humor typically came off to listeners at the time. And Limbaugh’s “normal,” casually bigoted view of the world aligned with conservative Christianity’s view of the tenets of liberal democracy as sinful. That these worldviews were being promoted alongside each other on the same radio stations, by the same radio networks, made them increasingly difficult to extricate from one another.

All the while, as Limbaugh was rarely chastised for his bigotry due to the conservative feeling that liberalism was worse, many in his audience were being encouraged and emboldened. His followers called themselves “Dittoheads” as a way of emphasizing that Limbaugh’s view of America was one that every properly minded listener agreed with — and that view inevitably included Limbaugh’s prejudices. As the Orlando Sentinel noted with unwittingly chilling foresight in 1993, “Some laugh off Limbaugh’s extreme remarks — his ‘femi-Nazi’ tirades, for instance — while others take him very, very seriously.”

Again, there are clear parallels between support for Limbaugh and the justifications that many Trump voters found for their support of Trump in 2016, despite his outspoken and ongoing racism and bigotry. Trump attracted voters with a high level of racial resentment, even as other supporters and many in the media tried to frame Trump voters’ main concerns as being primarily economic.

Like Trump, Limbaugh managed to cull an extreme level of patriotic, populist zeal from his listeners. As a teen growing up in a conservative Christian household, when my family tuned in to Limbaugh and his daily floods of enthusiastic callers across the country, politics felt like a fun national sport that my team was winning. And I was primed to view the stakes in terms of winning and losing because contemporary Christian culture had me viewing everything in terms of epic spiritual warfare, of battles won and lost for the “good” team.

When Newt Gingrich unveiled his “Contract With America” in 1994, a litany of proposed GOP initiatives for the coming midterm elections, Limbaugh talked it up constantly on his show — by then the most popular radio show in the country by far, with weekly estimated audiences of between 14 million and 20 million. Though pundits have since downplayed its political importance, the “Contract” felt to me at the time like a major historical movement: an actual, concrete victory campaign, with Limbaugh helming the cavalry charge. When the Contract subsequently helped deliver the House to Republicans in 1994 for the first time in four decades, incoming Republican Congress members thanked Limbaugh explicitly for helping them win.

“Talk radio, with you in the lead, is what turned the tide, Rush, and we know that,“ Rep. Barbara Cubin (R–WY) told Limbaugh at the time. “You were the voice that everyone else could follow.”

Speaking to Fox News’ The Story after Limbaugh’s death on Wednesday, Gingrich was effusive on this subject: “Without Rush, I doubt if we would have won control of the House in 1994 … his impact was more than the 20 million listeners a week, it was all of the people they would go talk to. My guess is that the ripple effect of Rush was 80 to 90 million people every single week because people would go out and say, ‘Did you hear what Rush said today?’”

Gingrich’s assessment is accurate: The Limbaugh Show did have a water cooler effect — at least in my own family, where we discussed what Rush said and thought about the issues of the day alongside the news itself. Before social media bubbles, Limbaugh’s fandom was a self-contained bubble of its own. And the sense of collectivity and community it engendered allowed a specific strain of unchecked, inexpert, self-cultivated conservative talk radio to flourish, thus paving the way for today’s polarized and highly partisan landscape of politicized commentary, spanning everything from Joe Rogan to Infowars.

In the 25 years since Limbaugh’s peak, the subsequent massive rise of conservative talk radio has helped further divide an already divided country. Though Fox News and its links to Donald Trump have been in the spotlight much more frequently of late, the effect of conservative radio on America’s political discourse cannot be dismissed. Long before the 2016 election, the format played a huge role in shifting the views of once-centrist Republicans — a shift I witnessed in my own family — toward the far right.

Many of us haven’t listened to Rush Limbaugh in decades, but we’re all still feeling his influence daily, like it or not.

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