Donate to RNS

What Stephen Colbert could teach Jews

A late night theology lesson. It took all of about sixty seconds.

Stephen Colbert, left, interviews the Rev. James Martin, Feb. 3, 2021, on “A Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on CBS. Video screengrab via CBS

With all the controversy this week over Whoopi Goldberg’s sorry-not sorry appearance on “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert, it would have been easy for us to have missed an even more recent show.

Stephen was interviewing pop star Dua Lipa, and the conversation turned to — of all things — religious faith. It is at the 4:06 mark.

Stephen mentioned that he is a Christian and a Roman Catholic, and that when he gets to heaven, he hopes that Jesus has a sense of humor. He spoke openly about sacrifice and death — with death, ultimately, being undefeated. He goes on to talk about the film “Belfast,” with its pervasive sadness, and how he related to the film, both as a Catholic and as an Irish-American.

That is Stephen Colbert.

Now, let us talk about the Jews.

When it comes to the Jews in the entertainment industry — at least, those who are in front of the cameras — I see a lot of folksy ethnicity — and that is about it.

Faith? Rituals? Family life? Communal life? Spirituality? Um, uh, God?

Crickets.

Stephen Colbert is America’s second most prominent Roman Catholic — with the first place going to President Biden. In fact, that put Stephen Colbert in the running to be the second most visible non-clerical person of faith — in the United States.

Stephen has taught Sunday school at his home church — St. Cassian in Montclair, New Jersey. Rumor has it that he is a very effective teacher. He makes his teaching meaningful for his students, doing it with a playful sense of humor.

(Just let that roll around in your head for a minute. Think of how busy Stephen Colbert is. And then, imagine that he made time to teach Sunday school — as President Jimmy Carter did, as well).

On the subject of President Biden: I will always remember the show, back in 2015, when Colbert hosted Biden. It was an emotional and spiritual tour de force.

Their conversation covered several different subjects, but at a certain point they came to the most sensitive topic of them all — the death of Biden’s son, Beau Biden, from brain cancer.

As you know, this was not the only tragedy in Biden’s life.

In fact, when you look at the life of Joe Biden, Joe Biden should change his name – from JOE Biden – to JOB Biden.

Joe Biden suffered like Job. In 1972, his first wife and infant daughter were killed in an automobile accident.

That – besides their Catholic faith – is what Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert have in common.

Because when Stephen Colbert was just ten years old, his father James and his two older brothers were killed in in a plane crash in North Carolina.

In the midst of this television conversation, Colbert dropped his usual funny persona. He took off the mask of being a clown.

He did the unthinkable. He asked Joe Biden about his faith.

On national television.

Biden opened up. He talked about his personal theology. He talked about how his faith had helped him get through the various crises of his life. He talked about his connection with religious ritual.

Biden and Colbert talked with each other about how to transcend tragedy. It was a moment of rare, profound honesty, of two souls opening to each other, displaying their humanity with no facade or filters.

It was riveting television. It was compassionate and revealing.

Colbert and Biden lifted the issue of faith to an unprecedented high level in our national conversation. 

I was in serious awe.

As I was, watching Stephen with Dua Lipa the other evening.

I await the Jewish celebrity who can speak of their faith — not ethnicity; not defense against the Jew-haters — no, faith — the way that Stephen Colbert is capable of doing.

Anyone?