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Behind Colbert’s right-wing funnyman: quiet faith
Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service
October 15, 2010
5 MIN READ TIME

Behind Colbert’s right-wing funnyman: quiet faith

Behind Colbert’s right-wing funnyman: quiet faith
Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service
October 15, 2010

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.

While Beck’s

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

before.”

RNS photo courtesy Scott Gries/Comedy Central

Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert has used his “Colbert Report” to gently make fun of religion and religious institutions, even as he remains a man of deep and devout Catholic faith.

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

were “defective.”

“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

settlement.”

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.”