When comedian Stephen
Colbert brought his act to Capitol Hill last month and stole the spotlight with
his satirical shtick, no one was more surprised than lawmakers.
“You run your show,” House
Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers scolded him, “we run the committee.”
When Colbert finally let his
well-coiffed hair down and got serious about the “really, really hard work”
done by migrant farmworkers, even more people were surprised when the funnyman
gave a glimpse of his private faith.
“And, you know, whatsoever
you do for the least of my brothers, and these seem like the least of our
brothers right now,” Colbert said, quoting Jesus. “Migrant workers suffer and
have no rights.”
It was a different kind of
religious message than Colbert typically delivers on Comedy Central’s “The
Colbert Report,” where he often pokes fun at religion — even his own Catholic
Church — in pursuit of a laugh.
Yet it was the kind of
serious faith that some of his fellow Catholics say makes him a serious, covert
and potent evangelist for their faith.
“Anytime you talk about
Jesus or Christianity respectfully the way he does, it is evangelization,” said
Jim Martin, the associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America, who has
appeared on Colbert’s show four times.
“He is preaching the gospel,
but I think he is doing it in a very post-modern way.”
It’s a contrast to Glenn
Beck, the kind of right-wing media icon Colbert loves to skewer.
recent Restoring Honor rally in Washington was headed by a conservative
broadcaster who embraces theological patriotism, Colbert’s March to Keep Fear
Alive on Oct. 30 will be helmed by a man of more private faith who leaves his God-and-country
religion on the set.
Colbert has said that he
attends church, observes Lent and teaches Sunday school. “I love my church, and
I’m a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout,” he told
Time Out magazine. “I was raised to believe that you could question the church
and still be a Catholic.”
His on-air persona is a
bloviating holier-than-thou conservative whose orthodox Catholicism is part of
what makes him funny. On air, Colbert has chided the pope as an “ecu-menace”
for his outreach to other faiths, referred to non-Catholics as “heathens and
the excommunicated” and calls those who believe in evolution “monkey men.”
Diane Houdek has tracked
Colbert’s on-air references to Catholicism on her blog, Catholic Colbert. When
he recites the Nicene Creed or Bible verses from memory, as he did in 2006, it
shows how foundational his faith is, she said.
“He is moving in an extremely
secular world — it is hard to get a lot more secular than Comedy Central,”
Houdek said. “Yet I feel he is able to witness to his faith in a very subtle
way, a very quiet way to an audience that has maybe never encountered this
It’s particularly powerful
to Catholics, Houdek said, when the lines blur between Colbert’s personal faith
and that of his on-air alter ego. She pointed to a 2007 segment in which his
character reveled in Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that non-Catholic faiths
“Catholicism is clearly
superior,” Colbert crowed beside a picture of the pope. “Don’t believe me? Name
one Protestant denomination that can afford a $660 million sexual abuse
It wasn’t just funny, Houdek
said, but “powerful.”
“He really made a strong
criticism of the church.”
Colbert’s personal opinions
about Catholicism are not usually so clearly displayed, and his range of guests
offers little clues. His Catholic guests have ranged from the theological left —
openly gay Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan — to the far right — Catholic League
president William Donohue.
Houdek said she regularly
fields comments from readers who believe they’ve found a fellow traveler in
Colbert. “You can’t pin him down,” Houdek said. “He becomes kind of a Rorschach
test for what the viewer’s beliefs are.”
Colbert’s show also tackles
the difficult questions Catholicism and other religions try to answer. With
Martin as a guest, he has wrestled over poverty, the value of suffering and the
role of doubt in faith.
“He manages to raise the big
questions very deftly,” Martin said. “I think that is a great catechesis for
many people because he might be reaching Catholics who never go to church and
he is speaking to them in language they can understand.”
Kurt C. Wiesner, rector of
All Saints Episcopal Church in Littleton, N.H., writes a blog about religion
and popular culture. Watching Colbert’s congressional testimony, he saw
something that reaches beyond Catholicism.
“He offered a human witness,
without a doubt,” Wiesner said. “He gave witness to what Christians are often
called to do, but the message isn’t be a Christian like him. It is that one’s
faith calls us to be engaged with our fellow human beings.”