Liberal comedian Stephen Colbert's joke-testimony to Congress may have been a low moment for the House of Representatives, but apparently, to reporters, it makes him a symbol of holiness. Kimberly Winston of the Religion News Service hailed Colbert in an article that appeared in Saturday's Washington Post.
"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 the Rev. Jim Martin, 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 postmodern way."
Martin's magazine is a liberal magazine, but none of the holy-Colbert experts or their projects are defined as liberal. Mocking the Catholic Church as a den of child abuse is apparently one way Colbert shows how devoutly Catholic he is:
"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." It's particularly powerful to Catholics, ["Catholic Colbert" blogger Diane] 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."
The reporter should not be surprised if Catholics might find that joke sounds very much like what an "extremely secular world" would be seeking in its comedy. Winston concluded (with an Episcopalian expert) that Colbert's Hill speech was an ecumenical wonder:
The Rev. 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."
Winston even put Catholic activist Bill Donohue on the "far right," but militant homosexual Andrew Sullivan only on the "left" of religion matters:
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).