Bewhiskered but still sporting the rimless glasses of his Colbert Report days, the Stephen Colbert who appeared in a six-minute video for the Catholic America Media earlier this year barely seemed recognizable as the shiny, fake Republican pundit he played on Comedy Central.
But discussing Pope Francis’s morning routine with Fr. James Martin, his trademark wit was soon in play. “Probably prayer,” Colbert says, musing about how Francis starts each day on a joyful note. “That—and the fact that you’re Pope.”
As he prepares to take over The Late Show this September, Colbert’s Roman Catholicism has become fairly well-known. In a recent GQ interview, he reflected on tragedies in his life and explained how his faith shapes his outlook, saying, “I am here to know God, love God, serve God.”
A 2007 Parade profile revealed that he is active in his local parish and included a brief account of his return to the Roman Catholic Church after a young adulthood marked by a fear that belief in God is foolishness.
Since then, Colbert ceased worrying about looking the fool both on camera and off. In comedy, he says, he learned to “love the bomb,” to roll with the uncertainty of improv and “let go of the pretension of not wanting to be a fool.”
This modesty is a recurring theme in Colbert’s expressions of faith, too, with the Sermon on the Mount’s injunction against worry popping up again and again in his public discussions of his Christianity. It’s a focus that makes Colbert unique among famous Christians in politics and entertainment alike.
Attractive Christianity among celebrities is a rare beast: An eager religiosity like Tim Tebow’s or Mike Huckabee’s can be viewed as judgmental or self-serving, while the perception—right or wrong—that President Obama is too silent about his beliefs has long led to accusations that his Christianity is insincere.
Colbert, by contrast, seems to navigate the intersection of faith and fame with the right combination of humility, homily and humor.
Key to this endeavor is the reflective nature of his faith-related remarks. While Colbert hardly comes off as a relativist, many of his statements about Christianity are biographical in nature, less advising others on how they should live than witnessing to the effect of Christ’s work in his own life.
In an age when charges of judgmentalism are a chief critique of the American Church, Colbert’s decision to highlight the love of God wins him a receptive hearing not afforded others.
That is not to suggest, however, that Colbert is a theological lightweight. In one of the most memorable cases in which the real Colbert broke through his satirical TV persona, he took a Colbert Report guest to task over his poor theodicy. “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan,” Colbert said. “God gave Satan, and the angels, and man free will. Satan used his free will and abused it by not obeying authority. Hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God, and his purposeful removal from God’s love—which is what Hell is. Removing yourself from God’s love. You send yourself to Hell. God does not send you there.”
“Obviously you learned well in Sunday School,” the guest responded dismissively. Colbert, who has expanded on this very Lewisian explanation of Hell in other contexts, bounced back: “I teach Sunday School, mother****er.”
That final word choice perhaps comes more from Colbert the comedian than Colbert the Catholic, but Christianity—particularly in moments of hypocrisy or extremism—is hardly off-limits in Colbert’s humor.
“I think what he models most effectively is the talent for discernment,” Catholic writer David Gibson suggests. “He shows what is important to the faith and what can genuinely be debated and disparaged.”
Raised “to believe that you could question the church and still be a Catholic,” Colbert reserves many of his comedic critiques for the misuse of Jesus’ name in political contexts: “Then I’m not talking about Christ,” he says. “I’m talking about Christ as cudgel.”
A little less clear in its intent was Colbert’s guest appearance as the “virginity thief of Staten Island” turned conservative Catholic priest on The Mindy Project—a show which is a little weird about religion (Exhibit One: “sexy” Pastor Casey and his “rap sesh with the Notorious G.O.D.”). Colbert’s character pokes fun at Christians’ unique ranking of sexual sins above all others—like, say, the priest’s own judgmentalism and unkindness. It’s a role Colbert did not write for himself, but which, toned down from Mindy’s neon hyperactivity, fits into his general comedic approach to faith.
Another funny Catholic, G.K. Chesterton, once wrote that “it is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” Truth can bear up under—and even provide occasion for—a laugh. As Colbert moves into his Late Show gig, it will be a pleasure to see him continue to provide an even more visible example of celebrity faith done right, an unobtrusive but persistent witness which can definitely take a joke.