When Demonization Is Elevated and a Woman Tears It Up: The Religio-Political Rhetoric of the SOTU

When Demonization Is Elevated and a Woman Tears It Up: The Religio-Political Rhetoric of the SOTU

It was hard to choose what to write about this week. Since this project focuses on the contexts around the religio-political landscape and I’ve been talking about god terms (things we see as “all good” and defend at all costs) and devil terms (things we see as “all bad” and fight at all costs, I ultimately zeroed in on two highly symbolic gestures at the State of the Union. That’s right, we’ll be talking about and contrasting Rush Limbaugh (whose entire career has involved demonization of the marginalized and their allies) being given the medal of honor with Nancy Pelosi tearing up her copy of the State of the Union speech in protest of the gaslighting represented in the evening.

Disclaimers and TL;dr (Too Long; Didn’t Read) for the Impatient

For those of you who are looking for encouragement, hang in there—we’ll get there, I promise. This is a longish article—thanks for reading all the way through.

For those of you that can’t hang in there, here’s a TL;dr: Rush Limbaugh, who was given the medal of honor at the State of the Union, is absolutely no John the Baptist, even though giving him the medal treated him that way. If anything, he’s an anti-John the Baptist. Nancy Pelosi may not be one either, but her willingness to fight against poison like Rush’s was powerfully shown in her post-speech gesture of tearing up her copy of the speech. Those of us who are fighting against poison should take courage from this brave and important gesture and continue to do what we can.

So Yeah, I Have Actually Listened to Rush Limbaugh (Albeit Against My Will)

Let me start with some historical context about my experience with Rush Limbaugh. The peer that drove me to high school my first two years gave me no choice about what we would listen to on the car radio. This meant much too often that we were listening to Rush Limbaugh for at least 20 minutes one way.

I considered myself much more politically conservative back then than I am now, and even then I considered forcing me to listen to Rush Limbaugh spew his bile a form of abuse.

Rush Limbaugh as the Original Demonizer of the Political Left

I’ve talked about this before a bit, but Limbaugh was the original demonizer of our age, especially of those on the left. The reasonable people in my moderate church circles thought he was terribly rude, but others—mostly the bullies—excused him by saying he was just engaging in “political theater.”

Whatever the reasoning, those who listened to him—as I was forced to, day in and day out—got to hear Democrats regularly literally demonized. That is to say he literally called them “Demoncrats.” Feminists—you know, women seeking equality—were of course seen as “Feminazis” (har har). The man had absolutely no subtlety.

He was sexist and racist and xenophobic and all the other -ists you can think of. It was all dismissed by calling him a “conservative shock jock.” And of course lots of listeners said these things “were jokes.” (Sound familiar?)

Note: I recently looked him up, wondering whether he was one of those people who played an act on the radio but were really great philanthropists. Nope. No genuine virtue that I can see anywhere in his history—and even if there was, I can’t imagine he would be able to overcome his poisonous radio legacy by giving away his money. As I’ve said before, when we treat people poorly it can literally make them sick. Rush Limbaugh’s words have always been far beyond “just words.”

The Effects of Limbaugh’s Rhetoric in My Life

As someone who’d been raised to see putting others down as unethical, even at the time, I was repulsed by having to listen to him. It didn’t help that the peer who was driving me regularly told me things I said were the stupidest thing they had ever heard whenever I opened my mouth. (Clearly the message was filtering through in some way.)

However gut-punching and sickening I found it all, the poison filtered through to me, too, to be honest. Despite the fact that the common wisdom in my family was to vote for “whoever had the best policies on each level,” by the time I was of voting age I was pretty sure that to vote for Democrats was a pretty evil choice.

Rush Limbaugh + the Religious Right = Not a Great Combo

To be fair, I don’t think ALL of this was Rush Limbaugh—youth conventions and Christian pop culture had, in more subtle ways, convinced me that the questions of legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage were much more important to vote on than questions of racism, poverty, etc., Matthew 25 and all those verses in the Bible about taking care of the poor and fighting against oppression and marginalization be damned. (And in many ways, the ways these seemingly “righteous” messages aligned with Rush’s made them more insidious!)

In fact, Rush’s extreme positions combined with the Religious Right’s Culture Wars convinced me that I was being reasonable—some may even say righteous—by voting for Republicans while disclaiming Limbaugh’s horrible pronouncements.

The Heirs of This Combo

As I think I’ve explained before, this is the same position I see many Trump-defenders in my home community maintaining today.

And none of that would be possible without Rush’s presence on the extremes, belting out his black bile.

Taking Stock of My Previous Cognitive Dissonance

I can see now how much cognitive dissonance I was holding back when I held similar views.

See, I hated Rush, even back then. I knew his pronouncements were evil and wrong. I actually processed them, and the pronouncements that accompanied them about my intelligence, as abuse.

I Too Was Infected with the Poison of Fear

And yet, and yet—his rhetoric had STILL infected me with fear of the Other. It would be years and years before I would stop fearing feminism and all of the other targets and start to finally see how the Bible actually called me to detach myself from the Religious Right’s narrow window on “righteousness” that aligned itself, disturbingly enough, with Rush Limbaugh’s poison.

See, Rush engaged in fascistic rhetoric. And fascistic rhetoric is EXCELLENT at othering those who are seen to be enemies, and turning those who are seen to be different into enemies if they weren’t already.

Rush Limbaugh as a Forerunner of the Current Rhetoric and Policies on the Right

I can see now how our current times, and their divisions on the religio-political landscape, were seeded back then, decades ago. After all, back then, the rhetoric about the Clintons was already beginning. Rush was seeding the ground for all of those “but Hillary” defenses that are still clogging up discussions of the 2020 elections STILL, somehow, 30 years later.

No wonder the current occupant of the Oval Office gave him a medal. He wouldn’t have won his office—or maintained it—without that 81% of white Evangelicals voting bloc that was raised up through and alongside Rush’s poison.

Not Really John the Baptist at All, Though

It’s only natural he would give the man who acted as a sort of topsy-turvy poisonous John the Baptist one of the highest honors in the land—for creating hate, especially against the “least of these” and their allies.

And boy, how that ought to rub against the John the Baptist narrative for those who know it—after all, John the Baptist’s rhetoric actually got him killed, as did Jesus’s, by speaking truth to power. Definitely not elevated by the powers-that-be for bringing in fear and hatred of the marginalized and their allies.

The Mystery of the Religious Right Claiming the Moral High Ground

As I’ve said before, what is surprising to those who have been tracking white Evangelical religio-political rhetoric then and now is the shift from claiming to be the Moral Majority to trying to maintain some sort of moral high ground while cheering on folks like Rush Limbaugh at the same time.

The truth is that Rush’s rhetoric again laid the groundwork for this, as did the “Moral Majority” themselves through their espousal of the “Culture Wars.” After all, what they did was eventually fuse righteousness—and “god terms” to be defended at all costs, with a particular political side.

And they didn’t do this based on carefully comparing biblical analysis and a broad sweep of theology and carefully applying it to specific political positions, mind you, as I gradually realized the “other side” was doing. They did it by applying their own forms of fascistic rhetoric, which has led up to leaders of the Religious Right adopting Limbaugh’s devil terms, saying that progressives and liberals are the scariest, most demonic people and that righteousness are only found if you vote on their side.

A side that has taken up with–and extended–Rush Limbaugh’s style of fascistic rhetoric as though it were the gospel.

The Subtle Othering of the Religio-Political “Moderates”

As I’ve said before, my people from my moderate denomination still separate themselves from this rhetoric as idolatrous, but at least some of the members have their own form of white Evangelical-centrism, fearing “those liberal Christians” along with political liberals alike. If you step over the line toward the progressive side for either reason, there is a feeling that you’ve betrayed something, even if you do so by following what you see as biblical values.

And through carefully framed propaganda in the name of “fair and balanced” “entertainment news,” we get to the point where people from my upbringing remain profoundly silent about Rush Limbaugh being given the Medal of Honor also previously given to actually moral folks protesting injustice (rather than causing it). You know, like Rosa Parks.

Mourning the Silence—and Slamming—of My Friends

At the same time at least some of these peops were LOUDLY saying that a woman wearing white ripping up a speech filled with white nationalistic rhetoric decried by Amnesty International was “the most childish thing of the night.”

All of this is strong evidence that these folks have let their moral centers be shifted by the rhetoric of Rush and his supporters. I’m so incredibly sad about that—and really angry about it at the same time. Because these people are swallowing poison, and I wish they hadn’t chosen to. I wish they would spit out the bile in a safe way and regain their senses.

How I Mourn the “Moderates” Taking the Side of Limbaugh Against the “Demoncrats”

See, between Rush Limbaugh’s legacy and white Evangelical-centrism, Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, wearing the right of “those Feminazi suffragettes,” could never be seen as on the side of what is right and good.

No, she is a Democrat—and that means she must, from this viewpoint, be a horrible human being to be fought at all costs. From this perspective, dismissing her action as “childish” is actually being kind, you see.

The “reasonable ones” will still distance themselves from the extreme rhetoric, mind you, as I did in my young adulthood—they will acknowledge that her actions weren’t actually illegal. And yet—and yet—she is clearly not to be taken seriously.

Mourning—and Then Letting Their Reactions Go, Knowing They Aren’t the Audience

The thing is, honestly? I don’t believe that their interpretation needs to bully me from seeing her actions very differently. Because her actions were not for these “reasonable moderates” who have been drawn into being deeply right-wing by this point.

On the contrary, these right-wing folks weren’t the audience for Pelosi’s action at all.

The Ripping of the Speech Was For Those of Us on the Other Side of the Line

No, they were for those of us who have long been disgusted by this unholy union of Religious with Right. For those who had wandered away from that increasingly fascistic, cultish, tribalistic, white supremacist, nationalistic use of rhetoric and policies, only to discover that the liberals were shockingly not all about “killing babies.”

That powerful action—the action of ripping up her copy of the speech—was already put in a gif alongside the image of Captain von Trapp tearing up the Nazi flag by the next morning for a reason.

True Respect and Tearing It Up

See, as I’ve mentioned before, true respect isn’t just about one person kowtowing to another person’s view of what “respect” ought to be. True respect is about a negotiation of meanings.

Bullies and tyrants in power have long used words like “respect” to get people to accommodate to what they want. They have used them to diminish others on “the other side” while excusing their own. They aren’t about listening or collaboration–they are only about winning and the other side losing. (Sigh.)

(Speaking of excusing their own, did you know that the current occupant of the Oval Office has been actually tearing up legal documents in illegal ways? It’s well documented.)

Mislabeling the Action as “Aggressive”

Bullies and tyrants often use words like “aggression” rather than assertiveness when they see measured non-verbal protests like Nancy Pelosi’s. Any objective view would see that she wasn’t being either “childish” or “aggressive,” but assertively speaking truth to power.

See, as I’ve discussed before, assertiveness shifts proportionally to the emergency level of a situation. If we were living in ordinary times, it might seem extremely inappropriately aggressive for someone to fling another over their shoulder and carry them out of a building (and indeed, that could be a really aggressive act!). But if that building were on fire, and the person carrying the person was genuinely saving the other from danger, then it becomes an assertive act.

The Power of the Act in Context

In the context of the fact that she knew her act was legal (while the current head of the administration HAD been doing the same thing illegally), in the context of the fact that the speech was a dangerously propagandistic pack of lies, in the context of knowing the impeachment acquittal was coming the next day, Nancy Pelosi’s measured act of tearing up the speech while wearing suffragette white was a powerful one.

Encouragement for Us to Be Encouraged in the Midst of Our Fears

Her act was encouragement for those of us who have been depressed by seeing Rush’s divisive, fear-based rhetoric elevated in that way. By having seen the farce that was made of the impeachment. For those of us who had studied fascistic rhetoric and feared for good reason that attempts at retribution and further grasps at power would be taken.

We needed to see that action. We needed to remember that despite our fears, despite the elevation of Limbaugh, despite the propaganda that’s had such a strong effect, the power has not been wholly consolidated yet.

May We Not Forget the Agency We Still Have

Because here’s the thing. The current administration’s poison-based rhetoric does not hold all of Congress in thrall quite yet. The administration does not control all states’ rights. The administration does not control what happens in all local municipalities.

Nancy Pelosi’s gesture was, without a word, a strongly important reminder of all of that. It was a call to others to continue to assertively use our Constitutional rights to assertively protest the attempts to consolidate power under the name of “reasonable partisanship.”

Speaking Truth to Propaganda and Authoritarian Tendencies

I don’t think it’s going too far to say it was, in many senses, a defense of the Constitution, of the right to protest, and of the founders’ intent for decentralized representative democracy over and against the kind of tyrannical rule they were emerging from.

Because let’s face it, an administration who is elevating a man like Rush Limbaugh the Demonizer, and trying to cast him as an angel, is not on the side of what is right and good (since such people require there to be sides in the first place!). However much they try to maintain the fiction of it, this is not some normal “middle-of-the-road” administration whose rhetoric occasionally lops over the boundary.

Fighting the Gaslighting That Seeks to Poison Our Realities

This is an administration who is actively fighting against the common good and poisoning the well by associating the common good with the most devil term version of the word socialism. This is an administration that is brazenly corrupt and uses fear as a tactic to get people to kowtow.

This is an administration whose head has acknowledged that he’s never once tried to repent to God for anything (so much for John the Baptist’s biblical cry to leaders to repent, eh?).

Conservative or not, I knew in high school that Rush Limbaugh was the exact opposite of John the Baptist in all real ways. For God’s sake, even C. S. Lewis’s imaginary devil Screwtape would have decried his tactics as too overtly demonic. The current administration and its enablers have been calling that poison heavenly ambrosia.

And that is simply wrong. Nancy Pelosi’s action reminded me that many others are also aware and willing to take genuine John-the-Baptist-like action calling out those who would try to convince me Rush Limbaugh’s poison should be glorified in any way.

Some Biblical Words I’m Finally Understanding in This Religio-Political Apocalypse

Let me just end with some strongly assertive words from the Bible my peops raised me to take very seriously.

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20 NIV)

Note: I’m not saying Nancy Pelosi and her peops are perfect or need to be defended at all costs. I don’t buy into that logic. What I’m saying is that having emerged from the Religious Right milieu, I can see how that group has been drawn into worshiping a golden calf, and it makes me profoundly sad. I honor those who, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did in the book of Daniel, choose not to bow down to the immoral use of power.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to keep our heads about us and honor those who are genuinely doing what they can to let their words and actions both speak for truth and justice in these poisonous upside-down times. May we have the strength and ability to be inspired by their actions to continue doing the same. We can do this thing.

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4 thoughts on “When Demonization Is Elevated and a Woman Tears It Up: The Religio-Political Rhetoric of the SOTU

  1. I find it interesting that whenever someone’s blog gets a comment he/she does not agree with or that challenges, the comment is facilely deleted. What this reveals is some who claim to be Christian can’t deal with controversy and respond negatively toward those they should be willing to dialogue or discuss. Wasn’t Jesus an exemplar model of how those who love God can deal with one another and even with those who are on opposite sides of issues? How can we grow and deepen in even our faith when we are so closed-minded to our narrow views. I’m a published writer with articles that appeared in op-eds in quite a few major national newspapers and in many diverse Christian magazines, newspapers, and journals. Some of my articles have even been translated into other languages, I have found. But now I’ve come across two women with their personal blogs, and they want to challenge the world, but they do it by deleting other voices. Very sad, especially for a Christian witness, not to speak of intellectual or intelligent discourse. Perhaps I should write an article about the lack of evidence of open-mindedness and civil discourse, sadly by Christian women. Where’s the willingness to be engaged?

    1. Respectfully, it’s not my job to give a platform to aggressive voices spreading falsehoods that wound others. My site has a readership that has been hurt by language such as that you used on Sunday. Respectfully, I find their health more important than your right to hurt them, whether you meant to or not. Thanks!

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When Demonization Is…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 13 min
4