As a pastor for almost 50 years, I’d like to put forth the proposition that Rush Limbaugh was one of the most effective preachers in America—if not the world.
“Hold on!” you might protest. “I don’t even know if Limbaugh attended church, much less is a preacher!”
I understand that completely. Rush, of course, was not a preacher in the classic sense, in that he did not open up the Bible and tell people that Jesus Christ is the answer. But he was a master communicator, who exercised unprecedented influence on a massive audience and had one of the greatest “bully pulpits” in history, the EIB Network, heard on over 600 radio stations, addressing a daily audience of 14 million.
Rush had the fervor and passion that, frankly, a lot of actual preachers could use a whole lot more of. In a day when other networks are laying off employees and cutting back in their news divisions, Rush Limbaugh continued to grow more powerful and influential . . . and many of his critics could not seem to understand why.
This is evidenced by the plethora of “me too” pundits who tried to replicate what Rush did so naturally—and yet failed so miserably. So why did Rush flourish when so many others floundered? Why was Rush Limbaugh such an effective communicator? Although Rush was as conservative as they came, you can’t really attribute his phenomenal success merely to his strong right-of-center point of view. Others on radio hold very similar views but can’t garner a fraction of his audience.
His skills transcended his worldview, whether you agreed with him or not. So, what were those skills?
No. 1: Rush Limbaugh had passion.
One of the best definitions I have ever heard of good preaching is “knowledge on fire.” And that principle applies to communication in general. There are some who seem to be full of fire but have little or no knowledge of what they are even saying. They resort to cliché sound bites and mindless venting. Others have a great storehouse of knowledge but are difficult to listen to because they’re just plain boring. Rush managed to communicate his message with a fiery passion that resonated powerfully with his listeners. You could hear it in his voice and in his choice of words. And you were never bored.
He kept listeners engaged for three hours every day.
That is no small feat.
I heard him say once that what he looked for in a guest host above all was passion. Rush had that in abundance.
No. 2: Rush made the complex understandable.
Rush was very adept at taking complex ideas and breaking them down to where the average person could process and understand them. It’s not that he “dumbed it down,” but rather that he explained things in a way that his listeners could process more easily.
One problem with some preachers and other communicators is they often speak over people’s heads. I greatly admired William F. Buckley and his writings, but for me personally, I had difficulty at times understanding exactly what he was saying. I would get a little lost in the maze of his beautiful words and phrases.
I have heard it said that the job of the preacher is put the cookies on the lower shelf, so the kids can get to them. Rush did that well.
No. 3: Rush was funny.
Even if you did not always agree with his positions, you have to admit Rush was funny. His parodies set to song and his wry observations brought a smile to your face. Limbaugh knew humor is a powerful tool to disarm the listener. He could make people laugh just by the way he cleared his throat.
Limbaugh was often accused of being arrogant for saying that he “had talent on loan from God,” as if that is a prideful thing to say. Fact of the matter is, he was exactly right. We all have talent on loan from God, and it’s a good thing to remember it.
No. 4: Rush held to his beliefs, whether they were popular or not.
It’s a temptation for communicators to change with the times and sometimes with the whims of a fickle or divided audience. People have so many outlets from which to get their information, ranging from news sites, blogs, video on demand, podcasts, as well as traditional outlets like TV and radio.
Yet Limbaugh’s audience continued to grow because people knew that he would speak his mind, no matter what. Limbaugh was the first person I heard use the phrase “style over substance”—the idea being that people will often be caught up in the emotion of a topic or not clearly think through what they really believe.
We have plenty of empty suit politicians (and even some preachers, I dare say) that excel at style over substance. They eat up an hour of our time and leave us with little to nothing to think about. Rush did his homework, and though he made what he did look effortless, you knew there was a “method to his madness.” He was simply a professional who (as he often said, “With half my brain tied behind my back”) made what he did look easy. But as anyone who has ever hosted a three-hour radio program knows, it is very difficult.
Ronald Reagan was criticized and even dismissed by some as an imbecile during the final days of his presidency. Now, with the passing of time, even Reagan’s critics have to acknowledge that he helped to bring about an end to the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The world is a better place because of it.
Rush admired President Reagan and followed a similar track. This belief and passion he had continued to serve him well, for you need to know what you believe, and live accordingly.
One last thing—Rush Limbaugh put his faith in Jesus Christ and spoke of it openly toward the end of his life. Announcing that he had cancer to his massive radio audience, Rush said,
“I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said. “It is of immense value, strength, confidence. That’s why I’m able to remain fully committed to the idea that what is supposed to happen will happen when it’s meant to.”1
I am thankful that I will see Rush someday in Heaven. I hope I will see you there too.
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