Vail Daily column: Stephen Colbert’s strong Catholic identity shines
Viewers tuned in to Stephen Colbert’s debut on “The Late Show” to discover his identity. Would he revert to the flag-waving, vain, rightwing windbag that made him famous on Comedy Central’s program, “The Colbert Report?”
In the opening show’s monologue, Colbert quipped about his identity. He told viewers to “search for the real Stephen Colbert, and I hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison” (the web site that customizes adulterous affairs).
Colbert has never hidden his real identity. His strong Roman Catholic faith forms the core of how he pictures himself. He attends church, observes Lenten rituals and has taught Sunday School to children in a Montclair, New Jersey, parish.
“I’m a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout,” Colbert unapologetically told Time Out magazine. “I was raised to believe that you could question the church and still be Catholic.”
Colbert’s faith challenges brittle church doctrine. His feisty identity runs on a parallel rail to satirical outbursts that mock dogma. Colbert’s funny protests often collide with church traditions and corporate policy. In the initial “Late Show” monologue, Colbert warned CBS officials that what he said might “occasionally” lead to “making the network very mad at us.”
He’s edgy in matters of faith and corporate propriety and very proud of it. “I just want to do things that scratch an itch for me,” he confessed to GQ magazine in a recent interview…. “I like to do things that are publicly embarrassing,” he elaborated, “to feel the embarrassment touch me and sink into me and then be gone. I like getting on elevators and singing too loudly in that small space. The feeling you feel is almost like a vapor. The discomfort and the wishing that it would end that comes around you.”
Colbert quotes scripture and has committed to memory key phrases from ancient Christian creeds. He doesn’t bow, however, before each doctrine the Vatican expects believers to heed. Right belief isn’t the litmus test that defines Colbert’s religious identity.
Nor does respect for official church policy frame his devotion. In a 2007 segment broadcast on “The Colbert Report,” he got sassy with then Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that non-Catholic faiths were “defective.” “Catholicism is clearly superior,” Colbert crowed in a sanctimonious voice. Seated beside a picture of the pope, he asked, “Don’t you believe me? Name one Protestant denomination that can afford a $660 million sexual abuse settlement.”
What defines Colbert’s faith, if not proper doctrine or endorsement of Roman Catholic policy? He acts on what he believes. He’s compassionate to outsiders, people high society spurns.
In September 2010, Colbert climbed up Capitol Hill to testify about his religious convictions regarding how we as a civilized people treat immigrants. He’s not a fan of Donald Trump who wants to build bigger walls to keep rapists and riff-raff from crossing our borders. He told members of the House Judiciary Committee that immigrant farm laborers do the “really, really hard work” that most Americans avoid.
Lifting his satirical mask, Colbert testified before House Representatives about Christian faith branded on his heart. “And you know, ‘whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers,’ [‘you do it unto me’] “and these seem like the least of our brothers right now,” Colbert judged, quoting Jesus (Matthew 25:40). “Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”
Because Colbert’s faith is public and intersects politically-charged debates, he differs from Jeb Bush, who was interviewed on “The Late Show” debut. He blurted to Jeb not to count on Colbert’s vote because this Bush came across as a “reasonable candidate,” compared to racist anti-immigration stances of other GOP presidential hopefuls.
Jeb converted to Roman Catholicism. He differs from Colbert in that he keeps faith a private matter, as did Thomas Jefferson. Bush regards faith as private, a matter of the heart. Colbert believes his faith identity matters so much that it affects every area of life.
Bush discredited the Pope’s climate change pronouncement, that fossil fuels damage the Earth’s atmosphere. Bush got around Pope Francis’ letter on climate change by making faith a private matter. “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope,” the former Florida governor declared. “I think religion ought to be about making us better people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” Especially when the pope on climate change contradicts Republican economic dogma.
Although Colbert’s public faith doesn’t mesh with Jefferson’s insistence to keep faith private, they share similar bookish traits. In his youth, Jefferson withdrew from life’s hubbub and retreated into books. His interior life cultivated self-awareness. As an adult, he absorbed “a dozen books to be read, all at once, annotated, outlined, digested, owned in the mind as well as on the shelf, always going, a brilliant machine oiled to a quiet thrum that occasionally popped like a firecracker—there was nobody in the world like Thomas Jefferson” (Washington’s Circle: the Creation of the President, Jeanne and David Heidler, p. 127, 2015).
Colbert formed Jeffersonian instincts in his youth, the youngest of 11 children in a strong Roman Catholic family. Not feeling comfortable in school, he treasured times to read in solitary. Colbert’s reading honed a quick mind and creative flair that forged his Roman Catholic identity. It’s a vital part of him Colbert doesn’t hide.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.