Rush Likes It?

Rush Limbaugh called the author’s book “highly portentous.”

Rush Limbaugh called the author’s book “highly portentous.”

Imagine my shock. I was sitting in my office looking out the window, when a friend called and said — very slowly so I couldn’t miss the urgency — “Go to your radio and switch it over to AM and turn it to 1100. Rush Limbaugh is talking about you and your book right now.”

And so he was.

It’s odd enough for someone who leads a relatively private life to hear your name on a national radio show, but odd to the thousandth degree to hear your name uttered by someone whose political rantings make your hair stand on end. Rush Limbaugh was not only talking about me and my book, Stalking the Divine — he was praising it! Actually, he was reading a favorable review from a conservative viewpoints website called EnterStageRight in which the reviewer said I had managed to transcend the “dreary genre” of books by “self-absorbed Baby Boomers” with “a compelling exploration of one person’s spiritual journey.” After reading the review, Rush went on to opine that books like mine are highly portentous — a sign that me-me-me boomers are finally seeing the light, returning to conservative values, and stirring up a new wave of doom for liberalism.

Rush and I share exactly one opinion — we both like my book — so, to wrench an old adage, I nearly fainted from his damn praise. But friends told me that any publicity is good publicity and that I should be grateful, and, indeed, my Amazon numbers took a delightful swoop. I did have to quickly reread my book to assure myself that I hadn’t inadvertently said something right-wing. Rereading it, I was also convinced that my book couldn’t be irreversibly tarnished by Rush’s enthusiasm — that if anyone actually read it, they’d know I’d have nothing but scorn for the Rush regimen of demagoguery and distortion.

Still, all this bothers me in ways that are bigger than my book. My publisher, Hyperion, has hired an Internet publicist who tells me that conservative viewpoints websites are very interested in my book — but that those with liberal viewpoints are not. Conservatives seem to assume that a “faith journey” type of book — at least, one which travels Judeo-Christian paths — is of political interest in that it implies an embrace of politically conservative values. Fine — they can think what they like — but do the liberal media actually agree that the right has fatally staked the religious turf? If so, they’re discounting the religious left — the millions of people whose faith inspires and supports progressive action around the world.

Even as I was bolting from the Catholic Church back in the 1960s, I gave a backward, admiring glance at people like Philip and Daniel Berrigan, priests who were opposing the Vietnam War with such radical actions as destroying draft registration files. There are many other examples. Think of all those Ursuline nuns who march around the School of the Americas every year and get themselves arrested to protest U.S. support of right-wing militarism in Latin America. Think of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, 275 faith-based institutional investors with a $100 billion portfolio who use their shareholder clout to challenge corporate policies, and work for peace, economic justice, and environmental protection.

I started to rethink faith around the time that I became involved with a Cleveland program sponsored by the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, called Women’s Reentry. The program helps women leaving prison make new lives for themselves and their children, and the people behind the program have what I consider to be a politically radical mission, driven by deep compassion as well as deep faith. They’re not only helping these women find jobs and services, move to safe, drug-free housing, and learn to be better parents; they’re also investigating the societal roots of these women’s sorrows — their poverty, the history of incarceration in their families, the fact that 80% of them were sexually abused as children. In addition, they’re educating the public and lobbying about the profoundly political issue of incarceration — how the poor and minorities overpopulate our prisons, how harsh sentencing laws and the war on drugs has turned our country into the world’s largest prison, with two million people behind bars.

These faith-inspired activists don’t represent conservative values. I can hardly compare myself to them, either in my limited activism or in my flimsy faith — I’m still really tiptoeing around its edges. But I’m sure that, like me, they cringe when they read that Bush staffers snark at tardy colleagues with comments about being “late to Bible class.” I often suspect that that when the Bushies open their Bibles, it’s just to find another clever name for a warhead or a military action. On the other hand, when millions of other believers open theirs, it’s to renew their liberal values and find the inspiration to continue the struggle for peace and justice.

Kristin Ohlson has written for the New York Times, Salon, Ms., Oprah Magazine, Discover, New Scientist, Tin House, Food & Wine, Poets & Writers, and Sojourners. Stalking the Divine was published by Hyperion in August 2003, and a personal essay will appear in a new anthology, Life As We Know It: A Collection of Personal Essays from