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Stephen Colbert wears his religion in his punch lines

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Like everything Stephen Colbert does on television, it's set up as a joke.

A nun and a television host walk into a studio. They discuss the recent papal censure of American nuns for "perpetrating a feminist agenda." The host takes a hard line.

"The pope has said, 'Knock it off with the social liberalism,'" he says. "You're not socially conservative enough, at least admit that."

"What I'll admit is that we're faithful to the Gospel," says the nun. "We work every day to live as Jesus did, in relationship to people at the margins of our society. That's all we do."


FOR THE RECORD:
The Colbert Report": In the Sept. 9 Calendar section, an article about how religion is dealt with on "The Colbert Report" identified the show's official chaplain as Father John Martin. His name is James Martin. —


"That's a cheap applause line, Jesus," the host says with a dismissive wave. "But if we're just concentrating on helping the poor, that's leaving the rich people out. Guys like me need more help … the poor shall inherit the kingdom of heaven...."

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"You need help to be generous," says the nun. "There's enough to go around if we would only share. It's this American ideal that we should hoard and hold onto the individual things that we have that creates the problem."

"Jesus said, 'I got mine, Jack,'" the host interrupts.

"Jesus broke the bread and gave it to everybody and said, 'Eat and be filled,' and there was enough. If we share."

"Well," says the host, with a shrug. "I'm not going to debate the Gospel with a nun."

But it's not a joke, or at least not really. At a time when the term "God-given," as used in the Democratic platform, caused enough controversy that it was removed and then reinstated, it's the one place on television where liberal Christianity is given a place at the table. The Passion of the Colbert. No one in popular culture talks about religion the way he does.

According to the old saw, polite people do not publicly discuss sex, money, politics or religion. Which is why comedians, our socially appointed purveyors of necessary rudeness, spend so much time talking about sex, money, politics and religion.

In these days of partisan rage and general raunch, it's easy for comedians to talk about the first three. Religion is trickier — through some quirk in our cultural evolution, one's thoughts about a Supreme Being and the nature of worship have become more closely guarded than our habits in the bedroom. There has been no Kinsey report on religion.

Fortunately there is instead "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, which is having a very good year. During the last election, Colbert took performance art to a new level by running for president; this year he established his own "super PAC," raising hundreds of thousands of dollars while exposing the absurdity of campaign financing laws, which super PACs were invented to flout.

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But for all the adulation Colbert and his team have received for their seven-year run of grade-A political satire, the most consistently revelatory aspect of the show is its theology.

The man, in reality and character, is a devout and out Catholic, observer of Lent and teacher of Sunday school. Unlike other comedians of his persuasion — liberal though disguised as conservative — Colbert does not hide, ignore, downplay or make light of his faith. On Ash Wednesday, he shows up with the obligatory smudge on his forehead. He has been known to recite bits of the Nicene Creed on air. He has appointed a smart and articulate Jesuit, Father John Martin, as official chaplain of his show.

He plays his Catholicism for laughs, of course — one Lent, it was what he chose to give up — but, as is befitting the father of three, he is able to keep hold of the baby while disposing of the bathwater. Colbert's humor is not so much an attempt to separate politics from religion as it is a reminder that what many people call religion simply isn't.

On the same show in June on which he hosted Sister Simone Campbell (who went on to speak before last week's Democratic National Convention), he also interviewed Martin Sheen, ostensibly there to promote his role in the then-upcoming "Spider-Man." Here's how some of that exchange went:

Colbert: "You're a super lefty liberal, you're like Sister Commie who was here a few minutes ago. You've been repeatedly arrested for activist activity.... Who inspired you to be such a liberal?"

Sheen: "It had something to do with what that same Gospel Sister was talking about. We are called to be a voice for the voiceless, to be a presence for the marginal. So if you have capabilities and you don't have to work full time, you're required to be on the line and work for the common good."

Colbert: "I should pepper spray you right now. Just for good measure."

On television, discussions of religion most often fall into clearly delineated camps — the sticky sentiment of the divine intervention drama ("Touched by an Angel," "7th Heaven"), the therapeutic forces of personal spirituality personified by Oprah Winfrey and the moral preachings of the conservative right via tea party members and news coverage of the current political conversation.

There was a time when Sheen's brand of liberation theology drove social and political conversation. Now Colbert is its most visible proponent — if he wasn't married and didn't make so many jokes about "lady parts," he could be this generation's hot radical priest.

The brilliance of "The Colbert Report" is its refusal to dismiss or denigrate the religion with jokes that equate faith with idiocy or churchgoing with bovine surrender. Instead Colbert attempts to extricate what he sees as the essential message of Christianity from the piles of intellectual rot and political carpet bags that have been piled on and around it in the last 10 years.

In May, Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University joined Colbert to discuss the "brave financial ministry" of Rep. and now vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan. Reese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had called Ryan's proposed budget cuts essentially un-Christian.

"We believe a budget is a moral document," said Reese when asked to explain. "It represents the values of a country, of a nation and the values of this budget are that we would rather cut taxes for the rich than help the poor, and that simply is unacceptable."

By arguing basic catechism — Jesus may have said it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, but he said "nothing about job creators" and "he said love thy neighbor, but I got some pretty well-off neighbors, so if I let them keep their tax cuts aren't I loving my neighbor?" — Colbert elbowed aside any conservative interpretations to clear the runway for Reese's message.

And a very good joke: "The way we love our neighbor who is rich," Reese said, "is to encourage them to be good Christians and help those who are in need. And pay their taxes. Jesus did say pay your taxes."

"I don't remember that part," Colbert answered, shaking his head. "But if we did keep the wealth in the hands of the wealthiest people," he concluded slyly, "wouldn't that be good for the kids who want to go to Georgetown, which costs like $800,000 now? Isn't that a little hypocritical?"

"That's why we're also upset about the cuts to Pell grants," Reese said with a laugh.

"I teach Sunday school, sir," Colbert interrupted in high dudgeon, "and Jesus said nothing about Pell grants."

Now, there are many comedians who can make a good joke about the morality of conservative policy or Ryan's budget or even the contradiction of a priest working for a tony university. But there's only one man alive who can pull off a line about Jesus and Pell grants.

Instead of running for president, perhaps Stephen Colbert should consider running for pope.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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