There isn’t a moment in my life that I don’t recall Rush Limbaugh being part of the soundtrack. It seemed like he was always on, somewhere. Growing up in the rural midwest, I spent most of my summers in trucks and tractors, by myself, for 10 hours a day. I’d start my day out listening to my favorite morning show on a rock radio station in Kansas City, and then around lunchtime, I’d switch over to AM and try to find one of the many stations that carried The Rush Limbaugh Show. He’d fill my headspace for a few hours and then I’d switch to that rock station to get back into the music.
Even before I willingly chose to listen to Limbaugh, I remember riding in the family Ford Aerostar, wondering why in the world we’re listening to this bellowing, commanding voice on this crackly radio station. Isn’t there something else we can listen to?
I never really thought much about how much I listened to Limbaugh. I never felt like his words changed how I lived or how I treated those around me. I didn’t really think he was forming or shaping me anymore than any other entertainment I consumed.
But to this day, I can still hear his voice rattling around in my head. I can play back his show’s opening theme music at any moment. The sound effect at the end of a segment, just before the commercials came on, sounds clearer today than ever before. Even though I was too young to comprehend their meaning, I can still sing the parody songs he played after the Persian Gulf War, like “Yakety Yak Bomb Iraq” and “Hello Saddam.” I can hear “feminazi” and “lamestream media” leaving his lips and hitting his trademark golden Electro-Voice RE20 microphone. I can perfectly picture his face on ESPN as he says Donovan McNabb’s success is largely because the media wanted to see a Black quarterback do well. I remember this, all too well.
The memories go on and on and on.
More than mere memories, though, these things push me to confront the reality that Limbaugh was not like any other entertainment I consumed. He was one of the chief voices that was molding me, and in a lot of ways, he changed my life.
Rush Hudson Limbaugh III was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, about a six-hour drive from where I was born. I don’t know why that mattered to me, but it always did, kind of. He was a midwestern guy who made it big, but he never forgot about us rural folks. More than simply not forgetting us, it always seemed like he was speaking for us. David Dark mentions a similar feeling as he reflects on the life of Limbaugh, noting, “He helped me believe my anxiety when confronted by the fact of other people was about them, not me. When I was tired of feeling outsmarted, he helped me feel smart again, like an espresso-shot of perceived righteousness.”
It’s that last phrase—he helped me feel smart again—that connected me to Limbaugh as a friend and teacher, not just a radio personality broadcasting from New York City. I could call myself a political junkie at a young age because I listened to The Rush Limbaugh Show. I could relate to my dad and start conversations because we listened to the same program. I started learning how to tell stories and communicate because of what I was learning from listening to this one-of-a-kind talk show host.
He helped me feel smart. Capable. Strong. Defiant. And most importantly, right. And when I listened to him, he wasn’t background noise or a TV show that I bounced in and out of. He was speaking to me. He was with me, wherever I was listening. It was an intimate friendship, but it was unique because I knew I wasn’t alone as I tuned in with millions of others across the country.
Those feelings and Limbaugh’s continued shepherding propelled me toward a lot of things. I detested the pursuit of diversity over work ethic and ability, and I was loud about it. I gleefully laughed at and shared countless jokes at the expense of others. I proudly registered as a Republican when I turned eighteen; because of that decision to join this particular political party, I was treated to a steak dinner by my family.
Perhaps most significantly, at one time, I pursued a writing opportunity for my college’s student newspaper as a resident conservative. Though I had never heard the phrase when I was in undergrad, my regular opinion columns fit the mold of being alt-right. I wrote about how stupid recycling was. I publicly shamed the student government for not giving the college radio station funding, but instead giving it to an Indian dance group, of which I poked fun at. I told of a dream I had where Nancy Pelosi was the devil. I boasted about the evils of the religion of Islam.
Well, at least I tried to boast about those evils. That column was never printed, and I was fired for my short-tempered, selfish reaction to it not running. In all of my years of preparation for this moment, I felt honored to finally have my voice suppressed by the lamestream media.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received—and advice that I still share with young friends today—came from my college academic adviser. When I needed to get an internship for my journalism degree, he looked at me and said, “What’s your dream job? Answer the question and then get that internship.”
What was my dream job? I wanted to be a radio talk show host, and I wanted to be the biggest radio talk show host.
In other words, I wanted to be the next Rush Limbaugh.
So, I scoured the internet and figured out how to contact The Rush Limbaugh Show, and because I knew someone who interned with him the year before, I also contacted The Sean Hannity Show. After all, if my dream was to be the next Rush, being the next Hannity—who has always held, joyfully, the title of second biggest talk show host in the country—was a pretty great dream, too.
The advice I was given proved fruitful. In the summer of 2007, I packed my bags and flew to New York City to intern with The Sean Hannity Show at 77 WABC. I didn’t know what to expect from the city, but I had the highest of expectations for my time with the show and station. A friend underwrote my unpaid internship experience, which allowed me to fully immerse myself in the culture not just of Hannity’s world, and not even just the world of 77 WABC, but the world of politics.
When I boarded the plane for my first trip to New York, I was wearing a suit and a red-white-and-blue tie. As soon as I landed at LGA, I figured out how to grab a taxi and made my way to an apartment at 118th and Amsterdam, a place I found, sight unseen, on Craigslist. I dropped off my bags and ran back to the street to find another cab. The suit, the tie, the urgency, it was all because I was making my way to a bar for a private party for Sen. John McCain, about a month after he made the formal announcement that he was running for president.
I didn’t deserve to be at this party, but the friend who underwrote my internship was well-connected, and he made sure I was there. I didn’t talk to too many people, but I proudly declared I was in New York to work with Sean Hannity whenever I could. I managed to shake the senator’s hand before the night was over.
A few days later, my internship started. 77 WABC was not only the station from where Hannity’s program broadcasted, but at the time, it also featured the inimitable morning show duo of Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby, the legendary John Gambling, and the one and only Rush Limbaugh. I was in heaven.
At some point during that internship, I made my way to Washington, D.C., to sit in on one of the elusive Wednesday Meetings hosted by Grover Norquist. I got to meet the “Kingmaker,” as some friends called him, and I was bolstered like never before in my political worldview. After the Wednesday Meeting, I shared a cab with Thaddeus McCotter, who was then serving as a U.S. Representative for Michigan, and headed to a strategy luncheon with Free Congress.
Limbaugh changed my life because I wanted to be him, and thanks to that dream, I found myself saturated in the conservative politics that completely shaped who I was up to that point. I wasn’t just interning with Hannity; I was close to the action, at least relatively speaking for a college kid from the midwest. I created the structure for my first-ever radio show while in New York City, and managed to record it in the 77 WABC studios where Limbaugh once sat and broadcast it on WBAR, Barnard College’s studio station, for a couple of months. When I returned to college for my senior year, I hosted The Right Track on KSDB and, as you might suspect from the name, I was doing my best to imitate Hannity, Limbaugh, and all of the other voices in my life that lifted up what I held to be gospel. This was even captured in the image for my Blogspot website.
I interviewed Gregg Jackson, author of Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies: Issue by Issue Responses to the Most Common Claims of the Left from A to Z. I talked with Norquist about his book, Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives. I had Sam Brownback, who was getting ready to run for president, on my show; I eventually became the president of the Kansas chapter of an organization called Students for Brownback. Robert Spencer opened up on the air about his book, A Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t.
And all the while, I was getting deeper and deeper into the world of conservative politics. When I returned to college, thanks to my connection that placed me in that room with Norquist, I started working with Americans for Prosperity to launch a student group centered around their deep conservative values. I got plugged into a broad network of conservative bloggers and internet radio hosts.
Every step of the way, I received affirmation upon affirmation of my dream.
Perhaps most reinforcing, though, was when Hannity recorded a few clips for me to play back on my show: “This is Sean Hannity, and if you’re listening to The Right Track with Chuck Armstrong, then you, my friend, are a great American.”
When I wrote that egregious column that led to my dismissal at the student newspaper, I dug my heels in. I refused to repent for calling Islam a religion of violence. I had no desire to compromise and re-write, or even slightly tweak, the column. Instead, I took to The Right Track and lambasted the paper and editor. I released a press release about the censorship I was facing and got it in front of Hannity and Bill O’Reilly and Mark Levin and others. Everything I did, I learned from that intimate friendship with Rush Limbaugh.
From college, I moved to Kansas City and worked for several radio stations. Though I was working in a digital department, I desperately wanted to be on-air. With a desire to be on the rock radio station, but knowing the intricacies of talk radio’s playbook and how to speak the language, I initially pursued the latter. I had lunch at Applebee’s with the program director of KMBZ and soon I was hosting a two-hour, weekend show called 980 at Night. I spewed hateful rhetoric for anyone who didn’t espouse American values. I ridiculed President Obama every chance I could, even interviewing the Teleprompter of the United States for a ridiculous segment. I stood on the streets and protested in favor of the Tea Party Movement. I leaned in to everything I had learned over the years. Eventually I had the chance to guest host for the daily evening show and felt stronger and more affirmed in my beliefs than ever before.
But I always wanted to get back to New York City. I applied for every job I could, eventually landing one I was actually qualified for—in the digital department—back at WABC. In 2010, I moved to New York.
Though I will leave many stones unturned and stories untold, it took about two years, a corporate takeover, and a new position for me to realize how utterly broken inside I was at WABC. The takeover wounded me as I saw many friends and colleagues lose their jobs and the culture of the office change. But, because of the layoffs, I was elevated into the chair of program director for WABC—a new dream of mine after realizing how difficult pursuing on-air success was, though I never imagined it would happen so quickly. I was given the responsibility to launch and guide Geraldo Rivera’s first radio show of his career, and I was communicating regularly with Hannity about local ratings and promotions. I sat down and talked with Levin like we were buddies. I was ridiculed on-air and in emails by Don Imus. I coordinated the broadcast of Mike Huckabee’s new radio show. I met, for a nanosecond, former Prime Minister Tony Blair. I helped execute a massive broadcast from the site of the World Trade Center for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Though I played virtually no role in it actually happening, WABC even sponsored a big event with Limbaugh at Town Hall on 43rd Street—his first event in New York City in six years—and I was front and center for it.
Every once in awhile, I had the chance to be on-air, guest hosting a morning news show that led into Imus in the Morning, a show I grew up watching on MSNBC everyday before heading to school.
And in a surreal moment, near the end of my tenure at the station, I found myself on a dinner cruise at the invitation of Rivera, roaming the waters of Manhattan, rubbing elbows—or pretending to—with Roger Ailes.
I was living the new and improved and unthinkable dream. And it crushed me.
For much of my time at WABC, I listened to the station from 7am-6pm daily. And though each host and show was different, they all fed me the same things I grew up listening to, the same things I wanted to embody, the same things that affirmed me, the same things I was contributing to and profiting from.
Besides Limbaugh and Imus, the other regular voice guiding me in my childhood and later years was that of Jesus Christ. My dad had been a pastor since before I was born and he continues to faithfully and humbly serve a small church in an unincorporated town a few miles from where I grew up. Inside the church stands an American flag on one side and a Christian flag on the other.
The reality of the two flags standing inside the church never meant much to me. I never considered what it meant for a nation’s flag to be visibly elevated equally with a Christian flag, and I never questioned why my faith needed a flag in the first place. Throughout much of my life, the equivalence of these two ideas—Christianity and American pride—went unchallenged. If anything, they were celebrated, like honoring the Fourth of July in a church service, praying before that steak dinner after I became a Republican, or using my faith to belittle those who held different values or a different faith than me.
Like everything else that emboldened me, this, too, seemed supported by all those talk show hosts. The connection of faith and conservative politics, even when not explicitly stated, was always present.
But now, as I found myself sitting, for a brief moment, in the captain’s seat for the biggest talk radio station in the country — building relationships with people I never imagined I would even know in my wildest dreams — I was burning out. Burning out from listening to the same thing over and over. Burning out from propping up vitriolic voices that hated the first Black president of the country. Most of all, though, I was burning out from finally trying to reconcile my job and my dreams with my faith, and I was coming up short.
All of a sudden, I no longer felt affirmed. I no longer felt strong. I no longer felt defiant. I no longer felt right. I was depleted.
This was the beginning of a significant change in my heart. No more was I absurdly questioning why President Obama wouldn’t show the American people his birth certificate. No more was I pushing for the arrest of undocumented Americans while turning a blind eye to their heinous treatment. No more was I rolling my eyes at or fighting against those who labored for racial justice. No more was I celebrating my work ethic while ignoring my privilege.
I don’t know exactly what happened, but something changed. That deconstruction of my racist past and alt-right formation began nine years ago. God placed new friends in my life, He led me toward new professional relationships and challenges, He pointed me toward ministry, and He put new, strong, diverse voices in my ears, and He continues to do so as I remain on the journey to this day.
I don’t work in the radio industry anymore, though I still love and appreciate the medium. As I’ve grown in my pastoral ministry during this journey, I’ve seen how God has used my experience with radio to shape me. The art of telling stories and making connections, lifting up the beauty of community and camaraderie, all play a big role in ministry. Even the very practical act of balancing multiple things at once in a studio—callers, breaks, timing, interviews, news, weather, traffic, social media, breaking news—has come in handy during Sunday services where we strive to move seamlessly through the day’s liturgical movements.
But more than anything, God has used my experience to break me out of the captivity of my blind, blasphemous, unkind, and dangerous formation. Bishop Raymond Rivera defines captivity as “a state of separation from God and bondage to self,” and there is no doubt in my mind that this describes my experience for so many years.
Out of this very real captivity, though, God led me toward starting a new church focused on fearlessness and antiracism. And while I have a lifetime of work to do to be worthy of this calling, I know the lifetime that precedes me has equipped me for this journey. This felt obvious to me during Donald Trump’s presidency, but it became painfully and frighteningly clear on January 6, 2021, when white men stormed the U.S. Capitol, co-mingling their love for America with their faith in Jesus Christ, all in the name of power and the god of Christian nationalism.
I am ashamed of the things that I allowed to hold me captive—the things I’ve said and written, the jokes I’ve told, the people I’ve derided, the systems of oppression I’ve contributed to and benefited from. Though I fully believe that a person can change and that God works miraculously in and for his Creation, it doesn’t completely remove the shame from that previous life I lived.
I felt that shame on January 6. And I felt that shame on February 17, 2021, when the passing of Rush Limbaugh was announced.
I glory in no one’s death, a lesson taught to me by a dear friend who pierced my heart when Times Square erupted with cheers and applause for the death of Osama bin Laden. Limbaugh’s passing is gut-wrenching for his friends and family, and some of my friends and former co-workers knew him better than most. His life and work may make his death complicated, but it doesn’t make the reality of death any less sorrowful. No one deserves to be dehumanized, even if that person contributes to dehumanizing others.
My shame didn’t come because I celebrated his death; I did not. And my shame didn’t come because I was all of a sudden reminded of who he was in my life; I’ve never forgotten.
My shame came from the lionization of Limbaugh in ways that felt all-too-familiar. Relativizing statements like, “I don’t agree with his politics, but he saved radio,” or, “Content aside, he was a genius,” made me shudder. Yes, Limbaugh revolutionized radio and was a once-in-a-generation communicator, but at what cost? And what does it even mean to put politics to the side for anyone? For many, questions like these are irrelevant, and if you begin to raise them, you might as well be dancing on the grave of the deceased.
Perhaps even more stunning, though, were those who lifted up Limbaugh as some type of Christian worthy of imitation. I saw more than a few people lift up his work as being blessed by God, all because he defended American values. Though no one can make a judgment on Limbaugh’s heart, the fruit of his heart was public for all to hear, at a minimum, 15 hours a week, and that fruit should never be equalized with the love, teachings, and Lordship of Jesus.
Is it possible to critically think through Limbaugh’s life without holding him in contempt and without glorifying him?
I believe so, because I believe if there’s any hope for progress in our world, it won’t come from places of contempt or blind praise. It will come from a place of deep respect for history and for neighbor. It will come from a place of humility and vulnerability. It will come from a place of lament and repentance.
I believe so, because if there’s any hope for me, then this has to be true.
The point of all of this isn’t to implicate any talk show host or besmirch anyone’s name. That’s not my role in this world. I think we must be honest about injustice and harm that is done, though, and there is no question that the discipling institution of talk radio has perpetuated much of both over the decades.
That’s why I’ve shared this story, much of which, quite frankly, is personally damning and embarrassing. In many ways, this is a form of repentance for me, bringing to light that which causes me shame, but not letting it consume me as I turn away from it. No matter how damning or embarrassing, though, it is my hope that this repentance and critique pushes us closer to communion, as Willie James Jennings asserts. Critique and confrontation can and should seek to dismantle systems of oppression, but they should not seek to write off or erase any human being.
Jemar Tisby writes as much near the end of his latest book, How to Fight Racism: “Social media certainly makes it easy to pile on someone for their mistakes. From a racial justice perspective, though, deplatforming or cancelling does not refer to the person’s very being. It concerns only their work and their influence. If someone openly traffics in racism, then they should not be given the privilege of a large audience of influence. Deplatforming should always make room for change and growth. Everyone deserves a chance to learn and repent.”
Sadly, Limbaugh no longer has the earthly chance to learn and repent, though I believe he has—or will—in some way, come face to face with his life’s work, as we all will one day. What will his legacy be for us? How will we learn from his life to shape who we are today and what we say and do tomorrow?
“May Rush Limbaugh know joy and the root of joy,” David Dark graciously wrote on February 17, “and be delivered from suffering and the root of suffering.” As long as we are on this earth, may we all pursue this same knowing and deliverance, too, whatever it takes.