Forgive us if we pack the streets around Ed Sullivan Theatre next spring, searching the sky for plumes of white smoke. True, the transition from David Letterman to Stephen Colbert hardly calls for a conclave, and the future of the Late Show has little to do with the life of the Church worldwide. Even so, it feels like a momentous occasion for Catholics, who despite constituting the largest religious body in the country, usually search in vain for signs of communion in popular culture (that second-largest religious bodylapsed Catholicsoffers a more populous field of celebrity ambassadors).
It remains to be seen, of course, how much of Colbert’s current character will transfer to his new position: whether there will be any on-air recitations of the Nicene Creed, or apologies for the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, or recurring appearances by Fr. James Martin, S.J. We would do well not to set our expectations too high. But if it would be misguided to expect an evangelization of the Late Night airwaves, it would be equally foolish to ignore what all the speculation along such lines suggeststhat Stephen Colbert, even before his CBS debut, is the public face of progressive Catholicism in our eccentric chapter of American history.
Many commentators have already intuited as much in pondering the merits of Colbert’s (Or his fictional persona’s? Or his future de-fictionalized persona’s?) particular brand of faith. One intriguing angle of the discussion yet to be broached, however, is the significance of his Southern identity. It might at first blush seem strange that a cultural icon of American Catholicism hails from low-country South Carolina, a region that despite recent growth remains sparsely populated by folks of the papal persuasion. But to the extent that Colbert does function as a liberal spokesman for the nation’s faithful, he stands in a venerable tradition of Southern churchmen.
In the years before mass immigration and civil war, when the Catholic Church in the United States still bore a markedly Southern accent, it was Bishop John England of Charleston (17861842)the founding prelate of Colbert’s home diocesewho served for many Americans as the face of an exotic faith. Admired across denominational lines for his conciliatory eloquence, England embodied the promise of harmonious relations between a supposedly retrograde religion and a forward-thinking new republic. The ranking layman of the Jacksonian Era, Chief Justice Roger B. Taneyscion of Chesapeake tobacco plantersreinforced this message of Catholic compatibility with the ambitions of Young America. Even as the Church’s center of gravity shifted to the immigrant strongholds of the Northeast and the Great Lakes region, the nation continued to look southward for faces of Catholic acclimation, such as Cardinal James Gibbons, who grew up in New Orleans and first wielded his crozier in the rural missions of North Carolina.
Why was the South so well suited to fill the demand for congenial Catholic voices? The standard explanation holds that their inability to retreat to insular, self-sufficient “ghettos” made Southern Catholics more appealing on the national scene. Forced to find their way in a largely non-Catholic world, they grew adept at expressing their moral vision in terms accessible to outsiders. The flowering of Catholic fiction in the mid-twentieth century bore witness to this dynamic. Readers who wished to penetrate the inner workings of a self-contained parochial universe could listen to the musings of J. F. Powers’ upper-Midwestern clerics. Those who wanted to explore broader applications of Catholic soteriology attended to the harsh twang of Flannery O’Connor’s “good country people” or the more gentlemanly drawls of Walker Percy’s cosmic wanderers. In political matters, meanwhile, the Southern Catholic voice remained optimistic about the basic congruity of civic aims and Christian commitments. It was yet another South Carolinian, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who emerged as the Church’s leading architect of moderation and consensus amid our late-century culture wars.
Where does Colbert fit in this lineage?
From what we can glean of his non-fictional agenda, Colbert would seem to have inherited the amicable posture of his forebears. His liberal politics indicate a basic trust that the progressive instincts of American democracy do not conflict with the demands of Catholic faith.
We shall see, however, whether that hope survives the upheavals of the present. Colbert’s precursors tended to overlook basic tensions between Catholic doctrine and social reality in America. As early as the 1850s, Catholics to the North could be found criticizing “accommodationist” attitudes t0 the South. A conciliatory attitude toward American culture had, it seemed, put Dixie’s bishops out of synch with Rome and the wider Catholic world. This was certainly true of England where slavery was concerned and of Gibbons when it came to the perils of American imperialism (not to mention Little Rock’s brazen Bishop Fitzgerald, who cast one of two votes against papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council!). It was arguably true of Bernardin’s ambivalent attempt to hold the old Democratic coalition together. Should Colbert use his platform to promote a mix of momentary liberal fixations and timeless Catholic truths, a similar judgment may one day be rendered of him.
Given demographic changes in the South, we might also ask whether Colbert’s mode of “accommodationist” Catholicism qualifies as a Southern charism. As migrations from the North and Latin America continue to converge in the Bible Beltstripping that epithet of its Protestant, if not its pious connotationsa new attitude seems to be taking hold among the Southern faithful. Catholic millennials may have a TV hero in Colbert, but older and more traditional Catholics flip the channel to EWTN, an export of the Birmingham suburbs. Atlanta’s grand Eucharistic Congresses now offer our closest approximation to the triumphalism on display in Chicago or Philadelphia a century ago. And while the New Catholic South could hardly be called a “ghetto” in the makingindeed, it has in part been born of alliance with the region’s evangelical culture, as seen in EWTN’s adaptation of televangelist techniquesit does seem poised to take a voice of assertive leadership within a Church increasingly circumspect about the trajectory of national politics. If Colbert inherits the mantle of the charming, liberal Catholic spokesman from the South, he may be the last to wear it for a while.
Drew Denton is a doctoral candidate in church history at Emory University and a catechist in his local parish.