I try to keep my nose out of religious discussions. I know just enough to know that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. When I discovered, in my poking around, that Stephen Colbert is in fact veddy veddy Catholic, I admit that I twitched. The public face of religion in the US at the moment, particularly Christianity, is conservative, patriarchal, and dictatorial. There are millions upon millions of people of casual to moderate faith living in America, and none of them tell me about it in casual conversation anymore, because they've learned the hard way that people who are not religious mainly know about yours from the loudest of the lunatics that end up on TV. For Christianity, it's evangelical fundamentalists like the Duggars.

I've managed to avoid most of that for, say, Islam, since I had no real experience with it before, and now I live in a place where I see women with scarves wrapped around their heads all the time and nobody gives them a second glance. Unfortunately, having grown up in Baptist/Mormon country, I have had personal experience with people who use their putative "Christianity" to pass judgement on others. Frankly, it's a lot harder to make bad memories go away.

Further poking around reveals that Colbert sounds rather comfortingly Jesuit. I am rather fond of the Society of Jesus, just on general grounds. Any religious order that believes that God gave you a brain because He wants you to think about stuff is A-OK by me.


The Jesuits are one of the few branches of Christianity I have a passing familiarity with, and for good reason: They specialize in education. Their idea of missionary work is to move into town, set up shop, and glorify God by building you a great big library, occasionally augmented with a world-class university. Unlike the various Evangelical institutions that have popped up in the US, Jesuit schools provide students with a fine secular education -- although unlike many strictly secular schools, they also give the option of degrees in theology, or attending seminary.

Unsurprisingly, the Society of Jesus has historically been a great supporter of both the arts and the sciences. Wikipedia has an extensive, although by no means exhaustive, list of Jesuit scientists. You will note quite a number of geologists, seismologists, physicists, and naturalists on that list, from which one may deduce that the Jesuits are not among those who argue about the validity of evolution and the fossil record.

Colbert is nerd enough to hold his own with Neil de Grasse Tyson on the many, many occasions on which the two have met; I don't know how far his technical knowledge goes, but on The Colbert Report, he's good with the science guests and their explanations at least to the level of "article in Discover magazine", which is better than a lot of talk show hosts. More recently, he's posted one of the new hi-res photos of Pluto on his Twitter feed, without even a smartass remark.

The Jesuits are also notable for their contributions to the performing arts, the relevance of which I think goes without saying. There are a number of recognizable names mixed in with the scientists on the general list on Wikipedia.

Perhaps most tellingly, the Jesuits helped pioneer the idea of social justice -- definitely the phrase, in the late 19th century, and quite possibly the practice as well. One of their tenets is that things like racism, sexism, and other forms of institutional oppression are themselves sinful, and that one should strive to end these whenever possible. They also favor praxis over doctrine, i.e., it is more important to be a good person and to promote good in the world than it is to follow dogma down to the last comma, and when you run into a situation where more good can be done by following the spirit rather than the letter of the law, it is best to be practical about your decision. The Jesuits, like the intellectuals they tend to run with, are also notoriously tolerant (read: liberal, also practical) about matters like interfaith marriages and homosexuality, where the Church has historically been conservative.

All of that, plus the over-abundance of education, means that should the need arise, the Jesuits can rationalize argue like a dinner party full of rabbis. As you can imagine, this has not always made them popular with TPTB. At least once in their history, they were nearly wiped out, because the Holy See decided they were being uppity bookworms. Fortunately, an order that likes to debate theology over a light brunch for funsies tends to be full of intelligent people. Many of them fled to Russia and Prussia, where Catherine the Great decided that books > Pope, and forbade their persecution in her realm.

(For reference, the new guy, Pope Francis, is a Jesuit, and he has already got people's panties in a bunch several times by declining most of the fancier perks of the office, and being more inclusive in some of his blessings and rituals than tradition dictates. He's issued a number of controversial statements over the past year or so that started with an implied leader of, "All right, let's be practical here." It is the first time in my life that I have ever paid attention to anything any Pope has ever done and not ended up wanting to bang my head against the wall.)

The thing that sparked this pointer to my rather vestigial religious education was Colbert's testimony to the Congressional committee. Yes, I watched the full two hour version, yes it was incredibly boring, and no I have absolutely no idea how he got anyone to agree to let him testify in character. (He gets away with some dizzying feats of culture jamming. I assume a wizard did it. Shorter version of his bits here.) He's asked several questions, about half of them being some variation on 'who the hell let you in here?', but around the six minute mark in the highlights reel is Colbert's response to a lady from California, who asked him why, of all the things he could choose to focus his attention on, he chose to talk about this one.

The query gets Colbert to drop all pretense at the character and, for a rare moment, speak entirely as himself. It's important to him. He has to think about it, and he stammers. He seems to have some difficulty speaking without the mask on, at times; the stakes are much higher, which makes his cognitive load shoot way up. You can also see it in the video he did for the It Gets Better campaign, where he is clearly out of his depth with some of the terminology, but equally clearly doing his best to convey sympathy without over-stepping, and presuming his experiences are equivalent to those of the people he's talking to. I would guess it's because the consequences of being misunderstood when speaking as himself seem much greater to him than having a character misinterpreted. And the comments he makes are very much in the vein of the Jesuit tenets about working for, and defending, the rights of the poor commoners of the world.

A generally Jesuit outlook would gibe well with what I get out of Colbert when he's in character as well. I can guess surprisingly little about his personal politics. The Colbert Report is satirizing such a specific subculture that the parody dictates the character's politics, rather than the other way around. Colbert admits to agreeing with "Colbert" on occasion, but doesn't cite specifics. He told Larry King at one point that he was "independent", which usually means 'I have taken into account the positions of both major political parties, and thrown away all the bits which I consider indescribably stupid'. (In American politics, which political party you profess membership in plays at least as heavily into personal identity as it does into public policy. It's very adversarial, and often quite juvenile.) He does, however, leak social ideology like a sieve, and occasionally spots of theology as well. Colbert has considerable freedom in deciding from which direction to skewer neo-con pundits, which is at least as important as the stuff he takes aim at. He consistently portrays them as being foolish for having pride in being ignorant, and as intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt for being socially intolerant.

(New life rule: Never argue with Jon Stewart about what you said two months ago, and never argue with Stephen Colbert about what Jesus said two thousand years ago. He is usually more sarcastic than vicious, but he comes down upon people with a breathtaking quickness when they try to use scripture to justify being self-centered bastards. I'm a secular humanist, and historically it's been bad news for my people when religious men use phrases like "borderline heretical," but in this case, I think O'Reilly deserved it. I may not know much about the Bible, but I do know that Jesus spent a lot of his time telling people 'don't be a dick'.)

The combination of blatant science nerdery and speaking as he does both for and about people who are powerless, rattled loose some faint memories of the order that keeps marching forth to educate the masses. That, plus being able to run through the Nicene Creed at the same rate of speed as he rattles off the names of his ten(!) siblings, says Jesuit to me. I may not be very accurate in the particulars, inasmuch as I get my information about this from Wiki and the occasional historical perspective of people outside the Society. If anybody who actually knows about this stuff has any insights, I'd be glad to hear them.

[Edit: Found this bit after rummaging through the rest of the woefully inadequate research I did for this piece. He professes not to be particularly pious or devout, but holy frijoles is he a brainy brainy bookworm. If you will all excuse me, I have to go cram a bunch of Catholic logicians into my head, so I can stop interrupting myself by scurrying off to Google every time he elucidates his reasoning by referencing something written by a saint.]

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