Take a look at this clip from a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In the clip, Colbert mocks Republican presidential candidates who argue for admitting Syrian Christians as religious refugees. At least I think that’s what he’s doing. Unfortunately, in attacking the GOP, Colbert, who often speaks publicly of his devotion to Catholicism, uses Syrian Christians as a cheap prop.
Republican candidates want to admit Syrian Christians, but not Syrian Muslims, Colbert says, because they think Americans can “relate to average Syrian Christians.” After all, Syrian Christians are “basically Methodists.” For example, he continues, with the cutesy irony that has made him rich and famous, consider Syriac Orthodox Christians. They say something called the Ramsho prayer every evening—“Ramsho prayer,” incidentally, is how you say “Vespers” in Syriac—and read their Bibles in Aramaic. He continues with what he apparently thinks is a hilarious sendup of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II. Flashing a picture of the patriarch in his liturgical robes, Colbert jokes that the vestments make Ignatius look like “Golden Snake Santa Pope,” a comic figure who would fit right in as King of Mardi Gras. Colbert’s piano-playing sidekick joins the audience in guffawing.
Now, I’m sure Colbert, who often makes jokes about his own Church, thinks this is all good-natured fun. How clever! These GOP candidates know nothing about real Syrian Christians, and if they did, they’d be shocked, those ignoramuses. But it’s in very bad taste. The whole joke turns on showing how weird and unrelatable Syrian Christians are. That’s why the audience is laughing so hard. (You want us to admit these people?) The Syriac Orthodox have suffered for centuries and are enduring one of their worst trials right now, and Colbert is using them for a cheap gag. The joke is particularly unfortunate with respect to Ignatius himself. I’ve talked to people who know him personally, and Ignatius is a saintly man. (But what about those silly clothes?). For many years, he was the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop in New Jersey. He could have continued to live a pleasant life here in the United States, but returned to the hellhole that is Syria last year in order to lead his flock.
Syrian Christians, and Mideast Christians more generally, have a public relations problem. The fact is, they are culturally different from Americans, and it is genuinely difficult for many American Christians to relate to them. That’s one reason why the United States has done so little to help them in the current crisis. Mocking them as weirdos doesn’t help. Those golden snakes on Ignatius’s staff are an ancient symbol of wisdom. Colbert should display some of it himself.
Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.