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Reading Catholicism in late-night TV

| Sunday, March 20, 2016

LateNightTV_WEBLAUREN WELDON | The Observer

Stephen Colbert’s first week as the host of the Late Show easily distinguished him as a different sort of late-night host… at least when compared to the existing easily-digestible major network late-night lineup. For one, Colbert interviewed major politicians, like Joe Biden and then-Presidential candidate Jeb Bush, and game-changing CEOs, like Elon Musk and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, rather than just celebrities. Not even Conan O’Brien, the Harvard-educated elder statesmen of late-night, welcomed such weighty guests, let alone broached serious topics with them.

Colbert – finally having a chance to play Stephen Colbert, the person, and not Stephen Colbert, the character — had no such reservations.

I remember watching Colbert’s interview with Joe Biden and feeling something. Something that I had never felt while watching an interview — let alone a talk show “interview.” Colbert delicately coaxed the Vice President to talk about the death of his son, Beau, and his potential presidential bid. At the end of the touching interview Colbert eloquently stated, “I think that your experience, and your example of suffering … and service, is something that would be sorely missed in the race.  Not that there aren’t good people on both sides running, but I think we’d all be very happy if you did run … ”

That made me pause. Not only to collect myself because of the segment’s heart-wrenching nature, but because of the personal aspect of the request. Colbert felt that the Vice President could bring something to the campaign trail that no one else could.

In order to understand what Colbert saw in Biden that Colbert didn’t see in anyone else, it’s important to recognize one of the “real” motivators behind Colbert’s actions.

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I am a Catholic, from a Catholic family, who has gone to Catholic school off and on now for 16 years. In all that time, I’ve found that there are very few Catholic celebrities in Hollywood who make a young kid proud to be Catholic. Stephen Colbert is one of those illusive icons — “the cool Catholic.” He is unabashed about his faith, going so far as to have a “Catholic throw-down” with actress Patricia Heaton during his short time heading “The Late Show.”

In the world of late-night television, though, what makes Colbert remarkable is not his faith, but his willingness to talk about it.

Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee are all current or former Catholics.

In an interview with NPR a few years ago, Fallon said, “I just — I loved the Church. I loved the idea of it.” But when asked if he still went to Church, he admitted, “I don’t go to — I tried to go back … I went to church for a while but it’s kind of, it’s gotten gigantic now for me.”

Larry Wilmore still goes to church every Sunday, but even he conceded to the Wall Street Journal that “I don’t agree with everything the Church says or does, but I like its traditions. But then, I’ve been at odds with the Catholic Church since I was a kid.”

Wilmore’s disagreements center around the Church’s stance on gay marriage. Samantha Bee, on the other hand, has developed real antipathy towards the religious institution, boasting, “I’m a lapsed Catholic … A terribly lapsed Catholic, so it is joyful for me to [satirize the pope and the Church]. That is pure pleasure for me, I will say … I don’t have any of that Catholic guilt. I’ve worked my way through that.”

These perspectives seem to be representative of larger trends in American Catholicism. The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape study found that the number of Catholics in the U.S. decreased by roughly three million people when compared to their last study in 2007. While that decrease is likely in part due to the drop in Hispanic immigrants in the wake of the 2008 recession, it reveals that without an influx of immigrants to bolster the statistics, the Church in the United States is shrinking.

The downward trend has also coincided with an increase of doubt among believers. The number of Catholics who admit to be “absolutely certain” that God exists dropped 8 percent, from 72 percent to 64 percent, while those who were “fairly certain” increased from 21 percent to 27 percent.

Yet, with doubt has come an increased dependency on religion for moral direction. The percent of Catholics who look to “religion most for guidance on right and wrong” climbed from 22 percent to 30 percent. The amount who relied on science also increased, though from 7 to 10 percent. (It should be noted that most of the increase came at the expense of common sense, which fell from 57 percent to 48 percent.)

The economic crisis did more than shake Catholics’ faith and reduce their fellow believers, it also caused a ripple in their political beliefs. Four percent of Catholics, who have traditionally skewed Democratic, switched over and now lean Republican. Understandably, this transition has led to greater percentages of the faithful interested in smaller government and less environmental regulation.

The two most popular Catholic social issues defy this trend, however. Support for abortion stayed firm at 48 percent, while opponents of legal abortion rose incrementally to 47 percent. Acceptance of homosexuality exploded in the opposite direction, as 70 percent of Catholics felt that homosexuality “should be accepted,” up 12 percent from 2007. Fifty-seven percent even admitted to being in favor of same-sex marriage.

“I grew up Catholic, in a culture that saw homosexuals as sinners in the eyes of God. But because I went into show business, I worked with homosexuals at a very early age. I had evidence in front of me that the people I knew were good, and that was against the values of the society I was brought up in.” Apparently, “society” is coming around to Larry Wilmore’s way of thinking, at least when it comes to homosexuality.

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Colbert is an outlier among the late-night crowd. He has the liberal lean of the other hosts, but expresses religious fervor that they don’t. He will openly invite Bill Maher back to the faith one night and relentlessly attack Ted Cruz on his stance on gay marriage the next.

“The Late Show” host beseeched Joe Biden to enter the 2016 presidential race because he identifies with him. Both lean Democratic, support gay marriage and are open about their faith. They are representative of a new movement within Catholicism. The same movement that Pope Francis has helped publicize all over the world. American Catholics may be shrinking in number, but they are focused less on social issues and more on faith.

There may be fewer Jimmy Fallon’s and Samantha Bees filling the pews every Sunday, but there are certainly still believers like Colbert. At least, that’s what late-night TV tells us.

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