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Stephen Colbert: Public Theologian

Probably no single person has gained more from Donald Trump’s surprising victory in last November’s election than Stephen Colbert.

And unlike white supremacists, Trump resorts, North Korean despots, Vladimir Putin, and large landholders in the western United States, Colbert’s profiting from Trump’s presidency was completely unforeseeable, deliciously ironic, and wildly serendipitous.

When Colbert took over CBS’s The Late Show in September 2015, he struggled to find his way. Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s Tonight Show regularly crushed Colbert in the ratings.

Trump’s candidacy and presidency were the tonic Colbert needed. He found his muse. Sometimes The Late Show feels like it is all-Trump-all-the-time. Although, why turn away from a winning formula? Now Colbert typically wins the rating-wars. Fallon seems so-2015.

Recently, I surprised myself when I exclaimed to a colleague, “I think Stephen Colbert is the most effective public theologian working in the US today!

Public theology is the attempt to bring religious claims into public life. Sometimes it is said to involve “translation” of particular religious claims—from scripture, tradition, or Jesus, for example— to make them credible in a wider, secular society. The audience is not the church, not the academy, but the body politic. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr are said to have been among the most effective public theologians in modern Christianity. Abraham Kuyper, too. Beside Colbert, I would look at Marilynne Robinson and William Barber II as today’s best examples of effective public theology in the US.

Colbert has always been open about his Catholicism. On The Late Show, he mentions it often. He never sounds pompous, like he has all the answers. But neither is he dismissive of faith or the Church–only of his attempts to be a “good Catholic.” As frequently as faith comes up in his interviews, and as intelligently as Colbert can speak about Christianity, it is apparent that he is knowledgeable and committed.

It’s even been suggested that God, not Trump, is responsible for Colbert’s surge. There seems to be a correlation between Colbert’s more frequent mentions of religion and the rise in ratings. One recurring segment on the show is called “Midnight Confessions,” where Colbert, behind the screen of a confessional booth, comes clean about hilarious peccadilloes and seeks his audience’s absolution. Several times God has appeared projected on the ceiling of the cavernous Ed Sullivan Theater. Colbert’s God is an animated, corny, old man with a big beard and a resounding voice. Among other things, Colbert and God have discussed the effectiveness of executive orders—Trump’s and God’s, the fidget spinner as an analogy for the Trinity, and whether Trump has divine sanction to take out Kim Jong Un.

It was Colbert’s recent comments about immigration, and especially the Statue of Liberty, that made me sit up and admire his sophistication and humor, even to acclaim him a “public theologian.” Countering a Trump spokesperson who had tried to dismiss the significance of the Statue of Liberty for immigration policy, and especially the poem found on its base, The New Colossus (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” *) Colbert commented, I agree…that we’re never going to live up to it. It’s an aspirational document, like ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Or ‘All men are created equal.’ Or ‘Employees must wash hands before returning to work.’ It’s something to strive for! Just because we don’t make it doesn’t mean it’s meaningless.

To understand what an “aspirational document” is, how they function, how they inspire, and then simultaneously work it into a really funny comedy routine, takes some serious savvy.

Now more about me and less about Colbert.

I’ve never been a big fan of “public theology.” The reasons for my misgiving are probably not the best blog material. But they have something to do with it being lowest-common-denominator theology. What is lost when the sharp, little edges of particularity are worn off in the name of relevance? How much should realism and practical results be important ingredients in faithful Christian theology?  And melding the Gospel with Americanism, often unconsciously, is still another annoying tendency of public theology in our context.

Given this, why am I such a supporter of Colbert’s public theology?

It is often claimed that Catholics are better than Protestants “in public.” Catholic theology draws on broader, less particular, sources—like nature, rather than scripture. Unless I’m really missing something, I don’t think this is at all responsible Colbert’s success.

Humor has to be a key part of it. Laughter always makes space for difficult statements. It lowers defenses. It can help us hear anew. With today’s fake-news and alternative facts, many have suggested that comedy is more effective than journalism in challenging the powers and exposing hypocrisy. In addition to Colbert, think Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, and others.

If comedians are replacing journalists and investigators, then perhaps they can also replace theologians.

Or maybe not.

Maybe what I meant to say when my exuberance called Colbert “the most effective public theologian in the US today,” is that right now, I can’t think of a Christian that I admire and enjoy more than Colbert. Okay, maybe he’s not a Niebuhr or a Kuyper. He’s way better funnier!

Colbert is a public theologian in the way that every Christian is a public theologian. We live in a complex world. We evaluate. We speak. We do. We share. We choose. We invest our time and talents. We care. We love. All of us. This isn’t “public theology” in any formal way. If it doesn’t sound too trite or triumphalist, could we say that we’re all simply trying to be salt and light in the world?

If so, then at this moment, Stephen Colbert is burning bright and is very, very salty.


*Colbert’s rewrite of The New Colossus was another part of the same fantastic shtick.

Give me your wealthy, your rich,
your huddled M.B.A.s yearning to be tax-free.
Send these, your English-speaking, fully insured, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
And lift my leg upon your filthy poor.
P.S. No fatties, please.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


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