25th Oct 2010

Stephen Colbert’s Sunday School

You don’t have to be into the comedian’s truthiness shtick to appreciate his moments of Truth.

by Kathryn Jean Lopez 

“I hope that applause is for my mother’s womb.”

I certainly enjoyed when Stephen Colbert slipped that in during a recent appearance on ABC’s The View.

The Comedy Central star’s appearance got attention because the comedian walked off the set, as a joke. He was mimicking the much-talked-about recent appearance by Fox News man Bill O’Reilly on the show, where Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar stormed out because they disagreed with comments he made about the Ground Zero mosque controversy. I was grateful for the whole controversy and comedic follow-up because I probably would have never heard Colbert talk about his mother otherwise.

After the spoof of the O’Reilly incident, show co-host and den mother Barbara Walters got Colbert to be serious. She asked him about his childhood. He’s one of eleven. The womb line was in response to audience applause after he rattled off the names of his ten siblings, quickly and without hesitation. His father and two of the eleven died in a plane crash in 1974 when Stephen was ten years old. Walters asked: How did your amazing mother do it?

And with that, Colbert dropped the shtick and focused on something anyone who watches his show regularly has seen glimpses of: his faith.  He’s a Catholic who unmistakably believes that should mean something. That there should be something different about you if you are. The one who has hope lives differently, after all.

And, so, on The View, he presented the Cross. He told Walters and the women around the interview couch about his mother and her “very strong faith.” “She taught us to still love life and not be bitter,” he said “And to realize that everybody suffers and if you can accept your suffering then you’ll just understand other people better. And, strangely enough, you have to be grateful for pain.”
It was a beautiful, faithful use of an opportunity given to him. That’s a beautiful habit of his.

Colbert’s  interview with Walters rekindled my annoyance with a recent Washington Post profile of him. “Stephen Colbert offers a ‘thoughtful Catholicism,’” the Post announced. The implication was clear. This sort of “thoughtful Catholicism” is something unusual. That institution that has built and nurtured some of the greatest universities and culture is the home of men and women who follow blindly. That the incubator and propagator for the convergence of faith and reason is somehow without the latter.

The hook for the Washington Post piece was the spectacle of Colbert’s recent appearance on Capitol Hill. He testified in character, at the invitation of Democratic congresswoman Zoe Lofgren at a subcommittee hearing on migrant workers. It was a circus. And then, during the course of the question-and-answer session, he said, “‘Whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,’ and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now. A lot of people are ‘least brothers’ right now, with the economy so hard, and I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them or diminish it or anything like that. But migrant workers suffer, and have no rights.”

This was typical Colbert: injecting religion into discussions. He does it in such a way that it’s not co-opting. It’s not necessarily attaching a political or policy view to it. It’s not offensive or even preachy. It’s sometimes completely unclear where he’s pointing to in the discussion other than Heaven. The one thing that is clear, however is that he believes it is good to be good and, the Catholic Church knows something about the Good. Religion is just explicitly present in a completely different way, as far as talking heads shows tend to go.

When the misunderstood Come Be My Light was released in 2007 with the revelation that Mother Teresa lived a prolonged spiritual desolation, Colbert responded with a late-night catechesis. He brought on Father James Martin from America magazine who was able to explain what Mother Teresa was talking about in her letters — not the same “crisis” situation Time magazine and the new atheists greeted it as. Colbert gave Father Martin grief, inviting Jesuitical jokes and all, as he does. But they were talking about realities of spiritual life during a late-night comedy show.

A repeat guest, Father Martin has been dubbed Colbert Reportchaplain” by the show’s host.

In a commencement speech Colbert cited one of his father’s favorite sayings: “The only sadness is not to be a saint.” He wound up joking about it – encouraging medical school graduates to lower their patients’ expectations about them – because that’s what he does. He jokes, but he typically doesn’t demean. He may just get you thinking about God in your daily life, as he clearly is.

In an interview with the magazine Time Out New York, Colbert said: “I love my Church, and I'm a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout. I was raised to believe that you could question the Church and still be a Catholic. What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That's totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ. His kingdom is not of this earth.” In the Washington Post piece that first part was quoted but not the second. In other words, they quoted what was convenient to the “thoughtful”-as-compared-to-the-run-of-the-mill Catholic meme. But it’s not clear that his “question” is dissent.

In fact, he seems to be hitting on something a lot simpler and dramatic: integrity.

In a Rolling Stone interview, Colbert said: “I am highly variable in my devotion. From a doctrinal point of view or a dogmatic point of view or a strictly Catholic adherent point of view, I’m first to say that I talk a good game, but I don’t know how good I am about it in practice. I saw how my mother’s faith was very valuable to her and valuable to my brothers and sisters, and I’m moved by the words of Christ, and I’ll leave it at that.”

Colbert may feel the need to point out that he was not raised by papal zombies might have something to do with the environment he operates in, and is typically being interviewed in. He seemed to suggest as much during an NPR interview: “I do go to church, which makes me kind of odd for my profession. You know, most people can’t understand why I do, other comedians.”

He went on in that interview to say “ I was actually my daughters’ catechist last year for First Communion, which was a great opportunity to speak very simply and plainly about your faith without anybody saying, `Yeah, but do you believe that stuff?’ which happens a lot in what I do.”

“[T]he misuse of religion for destructive or political gains” might get to the heart of why I was troubled by that Washington Post profile of Colbert’s “thoughtful Catholicism.” It was a missed opportunity to simply observe a man trying to be whole.

I’m not going to try to claim Stephen Colbert as one of my political brethren. That would be disingenuous. And the Washington Post ought not claim him as an evangelist of their acceptable religion either. But listening to Colbert here and there over the years, he sounds very much like my brother in Christ, trying to integrate Sunday morning with the rest of his life. We should consider that newsworthy more often, encouraging one another, who all face the same Judgment Day and are all offered the same eternal reward.

God bless Stephen Colbert — and his mother on the eve of her ninetieth birthday. May we all be so thoughtful.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She speaks frequently on faith and public life. 

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)