Rush Limbaugh, liberal heretic?

The joke was old, old, old and Rush Limbaugh knew that when -- tongue firmly planted in cheek -- he tweaked it for his flock at the Conservative Political Action Convention. So Larry King dies and goes to heaven, where the CNN star urgently asks St. Peter: "Is Rush Limbaugh here?" Not yet, says his host. Finally, their tour reaches heaven's largest room, where a flashing "Rush Limbaugh" sign hangs over a giant throne. King is confused.

"I thought you said he wasn't here," King asks, in Limbaugh's take on this joke. St. Peter replies, "He's not, he's not. This is God's room. He just thinks he's Rush Limbaugh."

The political question today is not whether Limbaugh thinks he's God, but how many religious conservatives still believe that the radio superstar is on the side of the angels. After all, a rich entertainer who for years has proclaimed he has "talent on loan from God," and that his beliefs are the "epitome of morality and virtue," can expect to hear murmurs in a few pews after his third divorce and waves of headlines about Viagra and mysterious bottles of painkillers.

"Of course, Rush does have his faithful listeners," said philosopher John Mark Reynolds, head of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, an evangelical campus near Los Angeles. "But the people at your local Baptist church are not the people that Rush hangs out with. When they go out to play, they don't do what Rush does when he goes out to play. ... Still, it seems that his base doesn't care. What else could he do to offend them that he hasn't already done?"

No one would dispute that Limbaugh is a powerful Republican voice, just as no one can dispute that Oprah Winfrey's strong voice helped President Barack Obama defeat a crowded field of experienced Democrats. But in recent weeks, the White House has campaigned to anoint Limbaugh as -- to quote chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel -- the "intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party."

Ever since, conservatives have been firing salvos at one another in bitter debates about Limbaugh's political sins and virtues.

As a Christian conservative, Reynolds is asking a different question: Are Limbaugh's beliefs truly "conservative," as this term would be defined historically or philosophically? In an online essay entitled "Rush Gave a Bad Speech," he underlined a frequently quoted passage in the CPAC address.

Conservatives, stressed Limbaugh, do not view the "average American ... with contempt. We don't think that person doesn't have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government.

"This is a core. I want the best country we can have. We want the most prosperous people. We want to be growing. ... We want this country to be so damn great and we just cringe to watch it -- basically capitalism -- be assaulted and our culture be reoriented to where the people that make it work are the enemy."

Reynolds noted that the speech was built on the "dubious notion that 'the people' are always good and that they will always do what's right, if the state will just get out of their way. This is completely different than the conservative belief that we must maintain checks and balances because we live in a sinful, fallen world and it's wrong to trust either the people or the state -- or the church, for that matter -- with total power."

Limbaugh's vision of unfettered human potential and his complete trust in corporate America is especially jarring, noted Reynolds, in light of the economic crisis unfolding on Wall Street and in communities nationwide.

The bottom line: Limbaugh seems to have little or no sense of sin, which is a vital component in classic conservatism.

"Why isn't it," asked Reynolds, proper "for conservatives to say that pillaging our laws and economic institutions is wrong and a sin and that the government has a valid role to play in seeking justice? We should be able to say that it's wrong to tell lies and it's wrong to defraud the government.

"But you don't hear Rush saying anything like that. Instead, you hear these Utopian views that are not truly conservative. In fact, they are the opposite of conservatism."