How evangelicals moved from Christian radio to Rush Limbaugh

Yesterday morning one of our readers wrote this on my Facebook page: “There was a generation of Christians who used to listen to Moody or Family Life radio all day, and sometime around 1990 they decided to listen to Rush five times a week instead. And here we are.” It remains the best short take I have seen on how Rush Limbaugh won the hearts of so many conservative evangelicals.

After my family left the Catholicism and joined an evangelical congregation in the 1980s, we spent a lot of time familiarizing ourselves with the evangelical subculture. Christian radio was one method of assimilating to evangelicalism. We had a small radio in our kitchen and my mother always had it tuned to WFME, the New York City affiliate of Family Radio out of Oakland, California. I remember the unique voice of morning host Omar Andeel offering the “morning Bible quiz” as we all frantically ran around the kitchen getting ready for school and work. After everyone got out the door and things reached a calm in the Fea household, my mother spent the day doing household chores and listening to James Dobson, John MacArthur, Warren Weirsbe, and Bob “Walk With the King Today and be a Blessing” Cook on Family Radio. Harold Camping‘s evening call-in show, “Open Forum,” was also a fixture in our house. My father was a regular listener in his pick-up truck and, much to the chagrin of his fellow carpenters, used to play Family Radio at the construction site. I think he saw it as a form of evangelism.

By the mid-1990s, now on the verge of an empty nest, my parents were listening to Limbaugh, Hannity and, later, Mark Levin. (“Johnny, did you know he is a constitutional lawyer!”).

For about a decade after I left the house my parents did not have broadcast television. They did not want to pay for cable and my father couldn’t get many channels with the rabbit ears. (He insisted it had something to do with the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers). Instead, they would sit in the living room and listen to Hannity, Levin, and other conservative talkers. At around 7:30pm they usually popped a movie into the VCR or DVD. They were in bed by 10.

While my parents still kept tabs on Dobson, MacArthur, and Wiersbe, they now got much of their understanding of the world from conservative talk radio. They currently live in a retirement community (they will turn 80-years old this year) and get free cable television as part of their membership. Fox News runs most of the day.

I don’t know if VOX writer Aja Romano reads this blog, but it appears she has landed on a similar argument about the transition from Christian radio to conservative talk radio. Here is a taste of her piece, “How ’90s Christian radio enabled Rush Limbaugh’s toxic views“:

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: Thetypical 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.

Read the rest here.

Indeed, the transition from Christian radio to Rush Limbaugh was seamless. Of course the success of Limbaugh’s show also shaped Christian radio. By 2000, many of these Christian radio stations were offering a full line-up of Limbaugh-style shows. Today Christian talk radio and conservative talk radio are essentially the same thing.