April 28, 2006

"On some level he means what he's saying, and is making fun of himself for meaning it..."

Amba on religion and "The Colbert Report":
Colbert is something far more subtle than a fundamentalist, but on some level he means what he's saying, and is making fun of himself for meaning it by impersonating a fundamentalist's absurdly over-the-top way of saying it. No wonder Harris is baffled: it's impossible to tell where Colbert is really coming from. If you assumed he was mocking religion itself and therefore agreed with you, you'd fall into a trap.
Harris is atheist Sam Harris, and you can watch Colbert's interview with him here. Enjoy all the perplexing subtleties!


Evan said...

I think Colbert is probably far more religious than we might think based on his very funny satire and the fact that he's a media personality. The best satirists are those who believe in what they're making fun of, because they know it best and they're making sport of the excesses of their beliefs. In this way, Colbert is the perfect guy to make fun of religion just as the folks behind LarkNews.com are perfect to make fun of conservatives and Bill Bryson to make fun of Americans.

Anonymous said...

Stephen Colbert is a riddle wrapped up in an enigma served on a bed of lettuce that speaks to you. Stephen Colbert is a bird chirping in an empty meadow with a song no one but you can hear. Comedy is a wreath of beautiful flowers that smell very, very bad.

Too Many Jims said...

Stephen Colbert is smart, funny, successful and, by all appearances, a nice guy. Each of us wants to be smart, funny, succesful and nice. We want to be like Colbert but we don't really know what he is like so we read into him to make him like us.

If one is truly interested in his religious views one should look forward to the day when he interviews Bill Bennett and/or Martin Sheen.

Tom C said...

Or, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." The people who watch are young liberal-moderates, the people who advertise are seeking young liberal-moderates, and the guests who pitch books, movies and speaking tours gear their messages to young liberal-moderates.

Because the same audience saw him on the Daily Show, they know it's an act. Does he sometimes skewer a poorly prepared guest? You betcha. Is he a secret fundamentalist? I doubt it.

Too Many Jims said...

"Is he a secret fundamentalist? I doubt it."

I think it is safe to say he is not a fundamentalist.

Ann Althouse said...

Tom C: Read Amba's post and my old post that she talks about. Neither of us is saying he's a fundamentalist. The point is he is a serious Catholic.

Robert Holmgren said...

Colbert comes from a large Catholic family that suffered the tragedy of the father and two siblings dying in an airplane accident. He went on to major in Philosophy at Northwestern later switching to acting--not comedy. Because of a series of fortuitous events he ended up doing comedy to support his family.

Here's the interview.

M.A. said...

Colbert's a liberal Christian. There are such things, you know, even if the media treats Christianity as though it were a subsidiary of the RNC.

Joan said...

We just started TiVOing The Colbert Report a week or so ago, so I was fortunate enough to see the Harris interview. It was hysterical, and Colbert really did run rings around Harris. My take on the interview is that Colbert was able to dismantle Harris so thoroughly because Colbert really knows his stuff, and he believes it. It was a brilliant performance, because there was Colbert tearing down a topic that his liberal audience would normally eat up, and they were laughing and applauding Colbert's take-downs, not Harris's defenses. Colbert deftly uses humor to make his points. The audience laughs because of Colbert's persona, and the way he's presenting the ideas, but the way the dynamic flows, the audience is nevertheless with Colbert!

I wouldn't be so quick to label Colbert as a "liberal Christian." He is a devout Catholic, which is fundamentally (ha!) incompatible with a lot of liberal dogma.

Joan said...

Quxxo: never thought I'd hear you quoting (paraphrasing) Spock!

Marghlar said...

Quxxo: I think its weird to post the same, not that funny, joke in multiple comment forums.

Joan: I guess that depends on your definition of "devout", which probably depends on what you think it means to be a good Catholic. I know a good number of liberal Catholics, who would all say that they are "devout" in the sense of believing deeply in their faith. However, most do not buy into all Catholic dogma, especially on issues such as papal infallibility and birth control. I'm not sure we have any basis for knowing Colbert's personal views on a lot of "hot button" issues -- but I think its a fallacy to assume that they are the Church's positions just because he says he is a Catholic.

I bet if you added up the number of Catholics who supported the Iraq war, and the number who are pro-birth control (both positions rejected by the Church), you'd get a majority of American Catholics.

Thus, I'm not sure that liberalism is anaethema to the modern American conception of a devout Catholic. It might be different than you own, but that's a different question, right?

Marghlar said...

My own (non-religious) take on the interview is that Colbert is parodying closed-minded, illogical defenses of faith -- and thusly mocking the tendency of public religiosity to shrink from discussing the hard issues that surround an individual's choice to have religious faith. I'd be willing to bet that the religious Colbert thinks that the Right's anti-intellectual religiosity is not representative of his own faith.

Re: evan saying "The best satirists are those who believe in what they're making fun of..." -- I'd agree, if you modify it to "understand what they're making fun of." I think Colbert, who is religious, understands the Religious Right far better than most liberals. That is different from agreeing with them. I thought Colbert's interview was mocking the Religious Right, not mocking religion. Indeed, as Ann has noted in the past, Colbert has shied away from an attempt to mock religion in and of itself.

Joseph said...

I thought the interview was great, but I don't think its fair to say that Colbert was attacking or dismantling or running rings around Harris any more than he does to any of his guests. His style is superquick and the way he disguises whether he's serious or tongue-in-cheek or both makes it hard for any interviewee to get his or her substantive points across. Although I like his style, I think being an interviewee could be excruciatingly frustrating. The most successful interviewees are ones that do not try to get any substantive point across and just go with the flow.

Even so, Colbert spent most of his energy making fun of things like the flawed circular logic of faith and the absurdity of citing the Bible as evidence of its own authenticity. I thought Harris and Colbert ended up on a similar page in their condemnation of the kind of faith that has led to the horrors outlined in Harris's book, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to modern Islamic terrorism. On the metaphysical question of whether believing in the something that came from nothing, Harris conceded that that kind of god was not the god Harris feared, but that it also wasn't the dominant kind of faith. The more interesting discussion would have been why each of them has looked at the something-from-nothing question and come to different conclusions, but they didn't get there.

As far as how liberal a Catholic Colbert is... He sat in for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show when Stewart's wife gave birth in 2004. Colbert got to interview the guest, Ralph Nader. At the end of the interview, Colbert with uncharacteristic frankness said that he didn't care who won the election, Kerry or Nader, as long as it wasn't Bush.

I'd also recommend Colbert's other principal work: Strangers with Candy.

Too Many Jims said...

"He is a devout Catholic, which is fundamentally (ha!) incompatible with a lot of liberal dogma."

Certainly if the human experience is reduced to sex related things (e.g. pre-marital sex, homosexuality, contraception, abortion) then much "liberal dogma" is incompatible wth Roman Catholic dogma. However, if we were to include other aspects of the human experience (e.g. war; aggregation of wealth by a few; the death penalty; how society treats the poor, infirm and imprisoned) then much "conservative dogma" is incompatible with Roman Catholic dogma.

Of course any of this presumes that an individual Roman Catholic holds the same views as Roman Catholic dogma. Presume away.

Joan said...

Joe, I agree that Colbert's treatment of Harris was no different from the way he treats his other interview subjects. It was one of the first Colbert interviews I'd seen, though, and I was very impressed by his style. I still am!

I don't want to get into an extended discussion of Catholicism here, and whether Americans self-identifying as Catholics agree or disagree with the Church's doctrines. For the most part, American Catholics are poorly catechized and thus their opinions on subjects like papal infallibility are meaningless, because many of them don't know what they're talking about.

There's also a tremendous amount of confusion between what the Church advocates for individual's behavior and what the Church advocates for a nation's governmental policies. It is right and just for us, as individuals, to support charitable causes. There is no doctrine that says it is right and just for a government to take money from its citizens for the sole purpose of redistribution.

The fundamental incompatibility between Catholicism and liberalism concerns abortion. No Catholic in good standing can support abortion, which the Church identifies as intrinsically evil. I know many self-identified Catholics do support abortion rights and advocate for the continued legality and easy availabilty of abortions. That's something they will have to reconcile when they're judged.

Marghlar said...

Joan: I think that what I was trying to get at is that the question, "What does it mean to be a 'devout' Catholic?" can have different answers depending on one's assumptions. You say that you don't credit many American Catholic's beliefs because they are "poorly catechized," but that only begs the question -- is training in, or belief in, church dogma a central part of what it means to be a Catholic in America? A lot of Catholics would say that one can be devout without agreeing with all Church positions, even on such hot topics as abortion. That is to say that their Catholicism is defined more by a set of practices and community, than by a discrete set of beliefs.

A comparison might be with much of modern day Judaism, in which the cultural and ritual aspects are the shared experience, with a pretty wide variety of underlying beliefs.

In the end, this comes down to what we mean when we use the term "Catholic." Does it mean perfect adherence to all church doctrine? (If so, how many qualify)? Does it mean an understanding or belief in all dogma? Does it mean self-identification as a Catholic? Or something else?

To help deal with this question, answer this one: Is Justice Scalia a Catholic? He professes suport for the death penalty, which is just as contrary to Church teaching as is abortion:

"As a Roman Catholic, Scalia disagrees with the recent teaching of the Catholic catechism and Evangelium Vitae “that the death penalty can only be imposed to protect rather than avenge,” and therefore is almost always wrong.

This view is not a “position that Christianity has always maintained,” Scalia said. “There have been Christian opponents of the death penalty just as there have been Christian pacifists, but neither of those positions has even been predominant in the church.”

Is it possible for a good Catholic to support the death penalty? If so, then why not abortion rights?

Given the flexibility in what it means when we say "Catholic," I'd say that there is room in the phrase "devout Catholic" for people with liberal beliefs -- depending on how the terms are being used. I'd also add that I think it is possible to be both a liberal and opposed to abortion rights. I think it is rare, but I think it exists.

Harkonnendog said...

Colbert is some kind of genius. I can see a generation of wickedly smart comedians coming after him. You'll never know when they mean it or they don't- you'll ride the cognitive dissonance like a surfer- you'll enjoy the joke and not need the punch line. Watching him I sometimes turn away the way a baby does when it has too much input and is overwhelmed by confusion.

Man that guy is good.

Too Many Jims said...


Does the Catechism not also teach that contraception (as one example) is also intrinsically evil? Now, I have never seen it advocated that not only must Roman Catholics refrain from using contraception but also they must advocate for civil laws which would prohibit the intrinsic evil. One could formulate a guess for why that is.

Anonymous said...

Apropos Stephen Colbert, here last night's interview with Bill Kristol in which Stephen slyly gives us a wink and a nod and shows us that he is really a neo-neo-con. If you listen closely, I think he gives all of us on Althouse another shout-out that only we will understand.

Warning to Marghlar, there is policy and politics in here, it may be a bit too much for you.

Marghlar said...

Touchy, touchy quxxo. I said I'm all for the policy -- and I love Colbert precisely because he makes fun of politics so effectively.

I actually think Bill Kristol comes off rather well on that, and kind of agree with him about Sudan.

But yeah, similarly with what I said on the other thread, I'm a lot less interested in the whole characterization of neo-cons as a sinister cabal than I am interested in whether or not the Iraq war, and other proposed interventions, are a good idea. I think Iraq was a mistake, but that's a different issue than the whole neocon conspiracy meme that the folks you linked to are so excited about.

Joan said...

What part of "I don't want to have an extended discussion" do you guys not understand? Simply put: while the death penalty, the war in Iraq, and contraception are not approved by the Church, they are not in the same category of intrinsic evil as abortion.

Contraception is allowed by the Church, via so-called "natural family planning." The artificial contraception debate rages on among observant Catholics.

Scalia is Catholic. There are some issues (like abortion) which are non-negotiable, but many, many others fall well within the sphere of "formation of conscience": you have to make up your own mind about these things. That doesn't mean picking and choosing what you like or dislike, it means learning the law and its intent and then coming to your own decision on it.

As to the definition of Catholic, I'm sure there are many "cultural" Catholics who, by nature of their practices and beliefs, are out of communion with the Church. But it's not my job to tell them that. You can't really be Catholic if you don't follow the rules. (And nobody, but nobody, can perfectly know or follow all of them, that's not the issue.) Catholicism is very different from Judaism in that respect.

Marghlar said...

Joan: I don't get it -- opposition to the death penalty in almost all circumstances is part of the Catechism, right? On what basis do you distinguish it and abortion? Remember, abortion prior to quickening was only a venal sin for a long period of church history...

What is the criteria for which beliefs are central, and hence cannot be believed by a proper Catholic, and which ones aren't?

(Sorry if I'm dragging this out, but you have to realize that its provacative in the extreme to pronounce that a number of people who claim to follow a religion in fact are not proper members, and then refuse to discuss the issue...if you are tired of this, feel free not to respond. But I am curious as to how we tell the difference between acceptable disagreement and sacrilege.)

Simply put: the Church says not to kill people except in extreme self defence, and it seems like all of this flows from that simple premise. Ergo, we don't kill the unborn, we don't kill criminals as punishment, and we don't make wars except in self-defense. I have trouble seeing why abortion is such a special category.

And shouldn't there still be room for Catholics to believe that abortion is a sin, but not think the government has to enforce their religious beliefs as law? Why can't a catholic think it is a sin to abort a fetus, but nonetheless not think it proper to impose their own beliefs on the polity?

Joseph said...


One answer to your query is papal infallibility. If the pope says abortion is worse than capital punishment its because god himself thinks so. Period. And you best not question the pope. Well, you can question past popes who were often proven wrong, but not this one.

chuck b. said...

I don't think Colbert's all that. My categorical God apathy might get in the way of appreciating him as much as you all. (It gets in the way of appreciating a lot of things I guess.) As it is, I think he's much funnier delivering scripted material, and even better when the camera is close up on his face. He's got great facial expression.

Joan said...

Marghlar, the problem is that you are over-simplifying what the actual doctrine is, and it's too complicated (and I am too poor an apologist) to get into it here. You say that abortion was "only a venial sin" for some time; that's something I've never heard before, and I don't have time to research it now. I do know it's vastly inconsistent with current doctrine, which is that life begins at conception.

Joe, you're under the delusion, shared by many, that every utterance of the pope is infallible. The pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra; see here for more information.

There are catechetical passages that speak in support of the death penalty and war. The criteria are not as narrow as you suppose, and again, the behavior of an individual is distinguished from the behavior and policies of a governmental body. At any rate, abortion is a special case because the victim is always wholly innocent.

Catholic are not compelled to call for legislation that supports Catholic doctrine. They are called upon, however, to not vote for laws that are clearly in opposition to Catholic teachings. There's a difference.

Marghlar said...

I think we are kind of talking past each other here...I know that the Catechism supports the death penalty and war in a narrow set of criteria -- my point is that a huge proportion of American catholics (including Scalia, based upon his public statements, which are retributive, not preventive, in orientation) go way beyond that, both in their beliefs, and in their support for public policies.

All I am trying to say is that a lot of American Catholics seem to feel comfortable holding views that are at best in tension with the Catechism, and more probably at odds with it. And that makes me think that it is reasonable to say that such people are still Catholics, even if they don't fit all the criteria laid down by the Vatican. If they say they are Catholics, and they haven't been excommunicated yet, I'm willing to take them at their word. Ergo, I think you can be a Catholic (maybe not, according to the Vatican, a good Catholic, but still a Catholic) and believe that either A: abortion is proper under some circumstances or B: that even though abortion is a sin, the State should not intervene in the middle of a religious debate by prohibiting it, absent a secular reason to outlaw it. Ergo, I think it is possible to be a pro-abortion rights Catholic. Maybe a sinner by virtue of those beliefs, but still a Catholic.

I guess its largely a semantic dispute -- you are saying that such people aren't following the right rules according to God, but I'm saying that such people might disagree about what those rules are, and that if a whole lot of them still call themselves Catholic, we either need to bifurcate our terms or be willing to take them at their word.

As far as the abortion = venial sin, that was due to the 600 some year period (ending I think in the early 19th century, but my memory might be fuzzy) during which the church taught that life begins at quickening (approx. the middle of the second trimester), not at conception. Hence, abortion wasn't considered murder, but a lesser sin.

Joan said...

Marghlar, with the decision to order pizza for dinner, a little slice of time was freed up, and I looked into the abortion issue further. I think you're confusing the status of the sin of abortion with the effect of having performed an abortion. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, at one point the penalty for aborting a child after quickening was excommunication. At the time, excommunication wasn't imposed on those who aborted a child before quickening, but that doesn't mean they were not in a state of mortal sin. You don't automatically get excommunicated for committing a mortal sin.

The Catholic Church never taught that life began at quickening, according to the same article. Aristotle and other early philosopher/scientists may have promulgated that idea, but it was never espoused by the Church according to the sources I've read, including the article linked above, and this page of the Catechism, which also discusses war and the death penalty.

Marghlar said...


A quick look on the web (sorry I don't have a more authoritative source) turned this up, which supports my earlier assertion:

Pope Innocent III (?-1216) wrote a letter which ruled on a case of a Carthusian monk who had arranged for his female lover to obtain an abortion. The Pope decided that the monk was not guilty of homicide if the fetus was not "animated."

Early in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III stated that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of "quickening" - when the woman first feels movement of the fetus. After ensoulment, abortion was equated with murder; before that time, it was a less serious sin, because it terminated only potential human life, not human life.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also considered only the abortion of an "animated" fetus as murder.

Pope Sixtus V issued a Papal bull "Effraenatam" in 1588 which threatened those who carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with excommunication and the death penalty. Pope Gregory XIV revoked the Papal bull shortly after taking office in 1591. He reinstated the "quickening" test, which he said happened 116 days into pregnancy (16½ weeks).

In the 17th century, the concept of "simultaneous animation" gained acceptance within the medical and church communities in Western Europe. 9 This is the belief that an embryo acquires a soul at conception, not at 40 or 80 days into gestation as the church was teaching. In 1658 Hieronymus Florentinius, a Franciscan, asserted that all embryos or fetuses, regardless of its gestational age, which were in danger of death must be baptized. However, his opinion did not change the status of abortion as seen by the church.

Pope Pius IX reversed the stance of the Roman Catholic church once more. He dropped the distinction between the "fetus animatus" and "fetus inanimatus" in 1869. Canon law was revised in 1917 and 1983 and to refer simply to "the fetus." The tolerant approach to abortion which had prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church for centuries ended. The church requires excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy.

I'm no expert on the history, but this is roughly similar to what I had remembered. Roughly a six hundred period, ending in the 19th Century.

Enjoy your pizza!

Too Many Jims said...

I am not here to tell anyone how to be a good Roman Catholic.

And I suppose I should apologize for not distinguishing between "contraception" and "artificial contraception" except, well, that is not how the Catechism makes the distinction. The Catechism makes the distinction between "contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle."

You say "The artificial contraception debate rages on among observant Catholics." Really? Only observant catholics who blatantly flaunt the Catechism. Incidentally, contraception is "intrinsically evil" according to the Catechism (See http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm at paragraph 2370).

Joan said...

Jim, you may find this site interesting for a look at how some observant Catholics view the contraception debate. Again, it all goes back to the formation of conscience.

Marghlar, that is an interesting site you linked. It's hard for me to assess how the quoted passages relate to actual Church doctrine through the ages. I will certainly look into this issue further.

Anonymous said...

To be a Catholic means a very specific thing. It means following the teachings of the Church. People can call themselves anything they want but it doesn't mean they are the thing. Whether someone is a Catholic can only be judged by God.

Marghlar said...

Johnny: I think you've rather missed the point. We are all trying to assess what Colbert's statements (that he is an observant Catholic) mean for the scope of beliefs he might hold. Thus, there is a real relevance to determining what the range of beliefs is that people currently call "Catholicism" in America. It helps us get a handle on what he might think about a lot of social issues. That's where this conversation started.

God may have a list of who is and who isn't Catholic -- but none of us have any access to that list. In the meantime, we have to do our best to give a worldly definition to the term, no?

Anonymous said...

I think the point is this: It's interesting that Stephen Colbert is Catholic. That's he's Catholic means something. The question is: What?

Anonymous said...

It occurs to me that my comments may not be clear. Replace "Catholic" and "Church" with any religion you choose.

Marghlar said...

Johhny: I absolutely agree that that is the question.

All I was trying to say is that I don't think we can just say: C is a Catholic. All Catholics think B. Ergo, C thinks B.

Modern American Catholics are too diverse as a group for that to apply across the board anymore. That's all I was trying to say. I'd probably agree that Colbert's Catholicism makes him more likely to believe any number of things that are at odds with the liberal image of the Daily Show and his current project.

Too Many Jims said...


That is an interesting link. If you replaced the words "artifical contraception" with abortion it would be equally interesting.

Jazz Bass said...

he knows his stuff and his faith is obvious, even in his devil's advocate/fun of fundamentalism persona.

go, Ace, go

Anonymous said...

There are those who, out of tradition or lack of imagination, consider themselves to be Catholic even though they no longer believe the teachings of the Church. I doubt Colbert is one them.

What I find annoying about people who call themselves subscribers of a certain faith when in fact they are not is that it is dishonest and cowardly. If you do not believe that Jesus is God, the the Son of God, the Word made flesh, you are definitionally not a Christian. So why call yourself that? It's a free country. There are lots of religions to choose from. You can even make up your own. You can even be an atheist. You can even say, "I just don't know."

How narcissistic it is to attempt mold the faith to suit your taste because you like being a member of a club. Any faith worth having will be inconvenient and difficult. Easy religions are horseshit.

To all you cafeteria Catholics and fuzzy Christians out there: You are free! Make a choice. You're all grown up now.

The Raving Atheist said...

Colbert is most likely an atheist-leaning agnostic. He is certainly not a Christian, much less a "devout Catholic." He does not believe that Christ was born of a virgin, that He was martyred and rose from the dead, or that believing in the crucifixion story cleanses one of one's sins and results in eternal life if you consume bread and wine that turns into Jesus' body and blood. He has never said anything close to that in an interview, and it is clear by the way he mocks Catholicism and religions with similar dogmas in his routines that he thinks they are all crazy superstitions. Many Catholics have a sense of humor and poke fun at the Church, but not in the way that Colbert does.

Colbert's claiming to be a "devout Catholic" in interviews is part of a big put-on. He knows that no reporter will "question his religion." He's probably amused that everyone is falling for it, and happy that those who do think his "devoutness" gives him extra "depth."

Marghlar said...

RavingAtheist: go back and listen to his voice when he quotes john 3:16 during the interview with begala. Sounded like a man of faith to me.