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Late-Night Comedy as a Source of Religion News

Abstract and Keywords

Journalists, pundits, and comedians have used the term “fake news” to refer to television's contemporary political satire, including Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report, as well as important predecessors such as Saturday Night Live's long-standing parody-of-news segment, “Weekend Update.” These television programs are definitely about entertainment. Yet recent studies have also demonstrated that for many, especially among the young adult and largely non-news reading population, these programs are an important source of information on political happenings. This article examines The Colbert Report's references to religion and the program's relationship to the changing face of journalism. It considers how the show may be indicative of the ways in which religion will be approached in the news of the future, as religious and cultural pluralism becomes more normative in the United States, and as irreverence replaces deference in the emerging news media's stance toward religion and specifically toward those who would claim religious authority.

Keywords: political satire, religion, religion news, Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, journalism, television programs, The Daily Show, irreverence

The “fake news”: Journalists, pundits, and comedians have used this term to refer to television’s contemporary political satire, including Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report, as well as important predecessors such as Saturday Night Live’s long-standing parody-of-news segment, “Weekend Update.”1 Such programs are about entertainment, surely. Yet recent studies have also demonstrated that for many, especially among the young adult and largely non-news reading population, these programs are an important source of information on political happenings.2 Might such programs be a source of news about religion as well? Through an examination of The Colbert Report’s references to religion and the program’s relationship to the changing face of journalism, this chapter argues that this question needs to be taken seriously in a book purporting to examine religion and the news. Given their popularity among a small yet influential audience of educated young adults and the fact that these programs are increasingly prominent in the public realm, this chapter argues that political satirical programs, by helping to shape the contours of how people think about religion today, will influence the religion news of tomorrow.

Viewers of political satire programs assign Stewart, Colbert, and other political satirists a certain amount of authority and credibility. A 2007 Pew Research Center study found that Jon Stewart was ranked as the fourth most admired journalist among the US population, tying Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Anderson Cooper.3 Indeed, at an average of 1.8 million viewers per program, the audiences for The Daily Show are comparable to those of Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes and CNN’s (p. 98) most highly rated program, Election Center.4 Thus, while these programs primarily aim for comedy, they also may perform a role in society that is in some ways journalistic in nature, as this chapter will discuss.5

The chapter begins by reviewing three reasons why scholars, religious leaders, reporters, and journalism educators need to consider popular political satire programming such as The Colbert Report and The Daily Show as sources of news about religion, and as portents for the future. Then, the chapter presents several examples of how religion has emerged in political satire and in the political humor of Stephen Colbert. As this chapter will demonstrate, like the political leaders who come in for the greatest criticism in programs of political satire, those leaders, representatives, and organizations related to religion that exhibit hubris or hypocrisy, and that make authoritative and manipulative truth claims, are the most likely to find themselves the focus of satirical jokes on Colbert’s program. The chapter concludes by considering how The Colbert Report may be indicative of the ways in which religion will be approached in the news of the future, as religious and cultural pluralism becomes more normative in the United States, and as irreverence replaces deference in the emerging news media’s stance toward religion and specifically toward those who would claim religious authority.

The Definition of News Is Changing

The 2004 inaugural report of The State of the News Media from the Project of Excellence in Journalism began with an observation about then-president George W. Bush’s comment to ABC News correspondent Diane Sawyer. He told her that he preferred to get his news from people he trusted, who “give me the actual news” and “don’t editorialize.” The State of the News Media report then observed, “surveys suggest increasingly that the public agrees.”6 How did the journalism of major news outlets come to be labeled by the president of the United States as “editorializing,” and how did the views of friends become preferable to reports from those who are professionally charged with seeing that the public’s views are accurately informed?

Of course, many within the field of journalism still believe that journalists are society’s gatekeepers, charged with helping the public to sort fact from fiction and truth from propaganda. These advocates worry that with the current decline in economic support for the news industry, that role is under threat. But others are more sanguine, noting that journalists had long ago moved from being the watchdogs to the lapdogs of power, and that the industry was in need of serious reform. Still others, like Bush, have accepted the view that all news is constructed, and thus they believe that they can choose which news to consume based on the sources that are most likely to support their own ways of viewing the world.

Wrapped up in the changes of the news industry (and indeed in Bush’s and the public’s declining support for the journalistic enterprise) are challenges to the (p. 99) professional practices of objectivity. According to journalism historian Michael Schudson, “the belief in objectivity is a faith in ‘facts,’ a distrust in ‘values,’ and a commitment to their segregation.”7 Critics have long argued that objectivity is an impossible standard, as journalists are always making value-based judgments about which stories to tell and how to tell them. The practice of objectivity can even obscure the truth, as David Mindich powerfully argued in his review of how the New York Times, in its attempt to provide “balance” in the late-nineteenth-century stories of lynching, may have actually normalized the practice.8 Yet people in the news industry have continued to perpetuate the belief that their work mimetically reproduces “the truth.” John Hartley has termed this the “fatal premise” of news. He saw it as fatal because once society began to question the belief in the ability of the news industry to reproduce reality, the news industry’s legitimacy began to crumble.9 And just as society came to question the unique ability of professional journalists to convey the truth through objectivity, digital technologies increasingly made it possible for others to enter the fray and tell their own stories with their own truth claims. Therefore, just as objectivity has come under fire within scholarship and in public reflection, the news industry has struggled to argue that there is a difference not only between fact and opinion but also between certain forms of journalism, with some that are better and others that are worse.

Today, political satirists have come to play an important role in helping citizens to ferret out the truth, Jones argues. Satirists do not assert the truth as mainstream news has done through notions of objectivity, nor do they create “believable fictions” as pundits, politicians, and other persons in positions of power have done. Rather, satirists use redaction—the process of taking apart and reassembling facts within a different frame to create a new meaning—to help citizens see patterns and come to their own conclusions about events and people.10 As they engage in redaction, programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show therefore are performing a function formally assigned to journalism, encouraging people to become aware of how both punditry and mainstream news are constructed to create a particular narrative, and how the facts within a narrative might be alternately assembled to create a different, sometimes competing, meaning.

In his book Entertaining Politics and in subsequent reviews of political satire programs, Jeffrey Jones has argued that there are many reasons why The Daily Show and programs like it are important to consider in relation to the changing definitions of journalism.11 Jones argues that political satirists take on the task of “adding it all up” for their viewers, which is important at a time when many reporters at the legacy news outlets seem to assume that the public has been paying as much attention to the minutia of their stories as they have.12 Programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are free to provide background information to the current event stories of the day. This kind of contextual information is rarely if ever provided in daily or nightly news. Yet without this information, it can be difficult for viewers—particularly younger ones—to understand the news.13 And when guests are invited to The Colbert Report or The Daily Show, these guests are engaged in a conversation that can take them away from their talking points and can similarly provide greater (p. 100) context for their viewers.14 Moreover, because these programs are produced outside of the institutional structure of journalism, they have no obligation to follow the news cycle. This means that programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report can ignore the tabloid topics, and may therefore actually cover more “hard news” than many other more traditional news outlets.15 They also may be freer to explore controversial topics related to religion, and to question those who lay claim to authoritative positions on such topics, as will be seen below. And when it comes to newsworthy topics with a religious dimension, political satire has the added benefit of providing insights about religion to those who did not think they cared about religion and who therefore would not choose to read or view news about religion. Thus, political satire has an added value as a source of news about religion, particularly for those with little interest in it. As leaders, institutions, and practices of religion play a role in the bigger picture of society, they too become topics that can be contextualized and therefore better understood by those with limited background knowledge of religion.

Political Satire and Religious Commentary

The second reason for considering political satire programs as a source of religion news has to do with the long history of the relationship between news, political satire, and commentary about religion. People have long learned about the foibles of religious leaders and institutions in the context of humor and critique. As early as 1759, Voltaire was utilizing humor to point out the shortcomings of Christianity in Candide, a novella that, as the author had predicted, was banned on the accusation of blasphemy.16 In the same era of the Enlightenment, Montaigne and Hume had similarly employed a satirical form of writing as a means of criticizing Christianity’s powerful role within Eurocentrist beliefs, writing in indirect and ironic fashion to avoid the persecution that would come from direct criticism of religion.17

These early critiques of religion were not considered journalistic because, of course, today’s concept of journalism did not emerge until the widespread and regular distribution of printed newspapers in the nineteenth century. But these early writings had a significant influence on the form that political satire would take within the pages of the early press and in the news commentary that would follow it. As Douglas Underwood has argued, the early journalist-literary figures of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce in the nineteenth century and H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis in the early twentieth century were the “natural heirs to the Enlightenment rationalism that challenged Christian assumptions about the universe.”18 Mark Twain was particularly well known for his blasts against conventional Christianity, penning such witticisms as “The best cure for Christianity is reading the (p. 101) Bible,” and “Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”19 Bierce similarly coined unique and critical turns of phrase, such as his definition of religion in his 1911 book, The Devil’s Dictionary: “Religion /n./A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the Nature of the Unknowable,” and his association of worship with Western society’s priorities: “ZEUS /n./The chief of Grecian gods, adored by the Romans as Jupiter and by the modern Americans as God, Gold, Mob and Dog.”20

By the time of the Scopes trial in the mid-1920s, journalism had firmly aligned itself with modernism and science and against conventional Christian religion, and had professionalized its practices so as to distinguish reporting from political satire and social commentary. But whereas studies of journalists have found that they are often motivated by values that many have argued are rooted in Judeo-Christian ethics, journalist-literary figures and satirists from the 1920s to the present have tended to regard institutional religion with scorn when they regarded it at all.21 Some of today’s political satirists, such as Bill Maher in his comedic documentary Religulous, adopt this position of scorn, whereas others such as David Letterman and Dennis Miller have exhibited views that range from distaste to indifference, sometimes pretending to have less personal knowledge of religion than they might actually have.22 In contrast, Jon Stewart enjoys foregrounding his Jewish identity, critiquing the universalizing claims of a “Christian nation” and mocking well-known stereotypes of Jews.23 And Stephen Colbert has placed critiques of religious hubris at the forefront of his program. These comedians and the ways in which they incorporate religious humor into their political programs mark a distinctive period in comedy and in journalism, as they enable audiences to question US culture, religion, and society in a post-9/11 context. On his program, Colbert has pointed out that since that time, American markets have been banking on fear, and comedians like him have “made a killing” on creating humor based on those fears.24 As religion has become linked with politics since that time, it has also increasingly come into focus in the contemporary writings of political satire.

How News Fits into Everyday Life

The third reason it is important to consider political satire as a source of religion news has to do with the changing ways in which people receive and share information today. Habits of reading the daily newspaper or watching the nightly news are being replaced as people use various media—mobile phones, laptops, radio—to be updated on news events. Of course, college students and young adults have always been less frequent consumers of news when compared to those who are in their forties or older.25 The difference today is that social networking sites make it easier than ever for young people to share news items with their peers. Through links on social network sites such as Facebook or Twitter, young people are pointed toward (p. 102) stories that then stand out amidst an environment in which news is constantly available. And because people are more likely to pass along humor than any other kind of link, comedy and political satire have become important first glimpses into the news stories of the day for many of today’s young adults.26 Most news is constructed for passive consumption, but programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are made for sharing—and are therefore a perfect fit for a socially networked style of sharing news.27 Socially networked communication provides a way for people to say something about themselves in relation to the things they reveal to others. By passing along highlights from programs such as The Colbert Report or The Daily Show, young people can demonstrate to others that they are intelligent, aware of the current events of the day, and capable of critically reflecting on how those events relate to the structure of society. By passing along instances of humor that address religion, they can furthermore convey to others that even if they associate themselves with some form of religion, they can be critical of religion when it is marshaled in relationship with power.28

Stephen Colbert on Religion

Religion is not an infrequent topic on The Colbert Report. As a correspondent on The Daily Show from 2003 to 2005, Colbert frequently hosted the segment “This Week in God,” a satirical look at how various newsmakers referenced religion. Religion has remained a topic of interest on The Colbert Report, sometimes serving as a source of parody and at other times a subject within segments featuring book authors.29 Colbert himself has been interviewed numerous times about his own Catholic background and its relationship to his humor. In a 2005 article in the periodical Time Out New York, Colbert noted:

I love my church, and I’m a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout. I was raised to believe that you could question the church and still be a Catholic. What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains.30

He made similar statements when speaking with Terry Gross on her National Public Radio program Fresh Air.31 Then, in 2010, when Colbert “broke character” during his testimony before a House subcommittee about the plight of migrant workers, he referenced Christian scripture. He had been asked why he was using his celebrity to advocate for migrant workers, and he replied:

I like talking about people who don’t have any power. It seems like the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work, but don’t have any rights…. And, you know, “whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers,” and these seem like the least of our brothers right now…. Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.32

(p. 103) Making a direct connection between the Christian tradition of justice and the need for him to use his celebrity to bring attention to the lack of rights among migrant workers, Colbert’s quoting of Matthew 25 was somewhat surprising but was consistent with his deep convictions about religion and his approach to satire as that which might reveal what Young and Tisinger call “the gap between what is and what ought to be.”33

Colbert’s humor focuses on leaders within religion and the news media who exhibit hubris as they claim the right to define for others what they should believe in relation to religious commitments. He has been especially astute in criticizing religious, political, and media personalities who are opposed to social programs. On March 2, 2010, for example, Glenn Beck announced on his radio broadcast, “Look for the words social justice or economic justice on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice … they are code words.” On the March 18 episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert reported on and then wittily responded to Beck’s comments, saying, “Yes! They are code words … (dramatic pause) … for helping people … code words used by communists and by Nazis. I know when I think Hitler and Stalin … (dramatic pause) … I think social justice.” Colbert thereby highlights the irony in Beck’s claim that social justice is somehow inherently associated with the evils of certain communist and Nazi leaders of the past.

Colbert similarly criticized the Christian Coalition’s decision to force Rev. Joel Hunter to step down as candidate for president-elect of their organization after Hunter urged the evangelical movement to “broaden its agenda to include fighting poverty.” In his segment “The Word,” which juxtaposes ironic written statements on the screen during Colbert’s monologue, Colbert noted:

So the Christian Coalition [members] are afraid that they will be called liberals. I don’t blame them. After all, there’s nothing more Christian than refusing to do good works because you might be called a name, especially the name liberal! Because one thing we know for sure, Jesus was a conservative!

Colbert continued: “After all, [Jesus] hated welfare. Why do you think he was so upset when Judas took that government hand out [screen text: ‘Thirty pieces of government cheese.’]?” Later in his critique, Colbert went on:

Now, if Jesus was so anti-poverty, how come he didn’t end poverty? I mean he raised the dead, he made the blind see, and he made the lepers less lepery [screen says: “Apply Directly to the Forehead”]. No. Jesus instructed us that the poor will always be with us [screen says: “Like a Bad Penny—But without the Penny”].

The monologue encapsulates Colbert’s simultaneous creation and parody of his conservative religio-political persona as he references the justifications some conservative Christians employ when they defend capitalism and simultaneously reason against a commitment to social justice. In bringing together these ideas, Colbert clarifies for viewers why Christian conservatives would be concerned about a potential leader who advocates an agenda of social justice, and why they would resist this particular linkage so strenuously.

(p. 104) Colbert continues:

Now some of you are going to say, “Stephen, but Jesus said we should sell all our things and give the money to the poor.” Exactly! Jesus contradicted himself a lot. It’s hard to know what he meant sometimes [screen says: “Need Mel Gibson to Translate”]. Which is why it is so important that the Christian Coalition keep their focus on two things, reproductive rights and gay marriage [screen says: “Add Flag Burning for Holy Trinity”]. On those subjects, Jesus was very consistent. He never said a thing about either of them. So it’s easy to know what he thought … [it’s] whatever the Christian Coalition says he thought! You can trust that, ‘cause no one thinks more right than them.34

In this passage, Colbert highlights an irony: leaders of the Christian Coalition claim to be the most orthodox followers of Jesus Christ, yet rather than focus on poverty, which is a frequent topic within the scriptural record, they focus on topics that have no direct reference within that record. Colbert thereby calls attention to the tenuous claims of authority upon which the coalition bases its arguments. In so doing, he enables viewers to examine the claims of authority that conservative religious leaders make about a host of related social issues.

Colbert’s parody of conservative Christianity’s focus on gay marriage is another such issue. On April 16, 2009, The Colbert Report aired both part of a public service announcement produced by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and then a parody of that ad. Although the NOM organization had been notoriously secretive about its ties to conservative religious organizations, Colbert made several comments that referenced the group’s connections to religion, first using a religious reference to introduce NOM as “one group that is fighting to keep this ArmaGAYdon at bay,” later praising the NOM ad as it was “like watching [the conservative Christian television program] The 700 Club and the Weather Channel at the same time,” and still later ending his own parody with the following disclaimer: “Paid for by generous donations from an anonymous group that may or may not be the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

The original public service announcement, called “The Gathering Storm,” aired on mainstream television as a direct response to Iowa’s and New York’s decisions to lift the statewide bans on gay marriage. Referred to as an “Internet camp classic” by New York Times columnist Frank Rich, the commercial showed a diverse group of people standing apart from one another in the midst of ominous clouds, with lightning striking in the background.35 Colbert aired the first part of this message, which begins with different people saying, “There’s a storm gathering.” “The clouds are dark, the winds are strong.” “And I am afraid.” The message then focuses on a white woman who says, “I’m a California doctor who must choose between my faith and my job.” Moving from the excerpt to an in-character rant about the spread of gay marriage amendments from Massachusetts to Iowa to New York, Colbert then introduces his own commercial in response, called “The Colbert Coalition’s Anti-Gay Marriage Ad.”

Colbert’s commercial starts out just as the NOM message does, with people speaking to the camera in front of storm clouds and lightning. “There is a storm gathering,” the first person states. “A giant gay storm.” “With rough winds blowing (p. 105) in from the east.” “And even rougher winds blowing in from the west. Before long they will be blowing each other.” “And I am afraid.” Later in the commercial, an unhappy-looking white man standing next to his wife complains, “We’re a perfectly normal, totally happy heterosexual couple, and I don’t need gay couples flaunting how much fun they’re having.” He looks away and adds wistfully, “following their heart,” parodying the closeted gay conservative Christians who speak out against gay marriage (most notably former Christian Coalition head Ted Haggard, who had been outed the year before).36 The same unhappily married man later stumbles through his lines as he admires a well-built African American man getting soaking wet in the storm. The married man says to the camera, “I’m afraid about the church…. And how it’s gonna get all—uh, wet.” He then says to the man whose sculpted chest is now visible through his drenched shirt, “Do you work out? You’ve got a really good body.” Finally, at the end of the commercial, Stephen Colbert appears as the clouds lift and a rainbow emerges, echoing the original message’s sudden change of weather. Whereas the weather change in the original ad accompanied the announcement of the formation of the National Organization for Marriage, Colbert says in his ad, “But there is hope. Join the Colbert Coalition, A rainbow of proud people, coming together in a commercial.” The use of the rainbow, a symbol of the gay rights movement, ironically comments on the fact that many disagree with the assumptions informing the original NOM commercial, as Colbert’s parody highlights the misinformation, stereotypes, and fear of homoeroticism that underlie the opposition to gay marriage among conservative Christians as articulated in the NOM commercial.37

Each of these examples highlights the ways in which Colbert’s humor turns on a historical understanding of Christianity and its relation to social justice that is at odds with conservative politics. The humor draws attention to the incongruities in the statements of those who claim to both support Christianity and oppose social programs while mocking the hubris of the authority claims of conservative Christian organizations.

Religious intolerance also becomes a source of humor in The Colbert Report. When the 2010 midterm elections saw Oklahoma banning state courts from considering Sharia law to reach their decisions, Colbert’s persona characterized this as “great news.” He continued:

You can’t be too careful, because there are 15,000 Muslims in Oklahoma: a full four-tenths of one percent of their population. Now sure, Oklahoma has a larger population of cows. But I say we keep an eye on them, too. Just in case any of them are practicing MOOslims.38

Islam is often the focus in Colbert Report segments that highlight religious intolerance. In a “Word” segment titled “It’s a small-minded world,” Colbert highlighted a story of an American Muslim that Disneyland had hired over the phone. When she arrived for work, she was told that wearing the hijab didn’t “fit in” with the Disney “look.” When she would not remove her hijab, she was escorted to a secluded stockroom. As Colbert explained:

(p. 106) You see folks, when you work at Disney, you’re not just an employee. You’re a cast member. And you don’t wear a uniform, you wear a costume. And Noor Abdullah was hired to play the role of Girl in Ticket Booth. Now, we all know that character has an elaborate back story. She’s not a Muslim, and—that’s it.

Colbert went on to discuss another Disney employee who had been asked to wear a hat over her hijab, and he compared the resultant look to that of a pimp. He then suggested that Disney could be helpful to other Muslims, too, noting, “Americans may fear an Islamic cultural center, but who wouldn’t love a Mickey Mosque?” showing an image of a mosque with mouse ears.39 Such humor is intended both to underscore Disney’s intolerance for religious difference and, perhaps, to highlight Disney’s history of adopting and transforming narratives from other cultures, imposing its own “brand” on those other cultures in the process.

Conclusion: The Rise of Irreverence

Like his predecessors in the political satire of a century ago, Stephen Colbert and other political satirists are not viewed as journalists in the “high modern” sense of those who report on the events of the day. But it is important to note that as commentators, they are not aiming to deceive or mislead, either. Colbert, Stewart, Maher, and others have used humor as a means of expressing criticism for the way things are in the hope that things could be different and better. Thus, although they do not set out to cover everything important in the day’s events, they do play a role in helping people to recognize what is worth questioning or critiquing in the news of the times. And as they call attention to the hypocrisies of those who wield power, and in particular those who would marshal religious authority to do so, they play a role in society that parallels the classical definition of the watchdog role of the press, as Serra Tinic has pointed out.40 Thus, in many ways, today’s political satire and its critiques of conservative Christianity’s claims to authority are not a revolutionary form of journalism so much as a revisiting of an older tradition of political commentary. In fact, in fifty or more years, it may be that the era of professionalizing journalism through notions of objectivity marked an unusual moment in journalism’s history.41 This, too, suggests that close attention should be paid to how today’s political satirists approach subjects such as religion, particularly given the prominence and frequency of political satire and the authority of today’s political satirists.

Conservative Christian leaders and organizations that seek to assert a particular narrative to influence public opinion are favorite targets of Stephen Colbert. Through redaction, or a reassembling of a conservative Christian narrative through the construction of a parodic counternarrative, Stephen Colbert and other political satirists allow conservative Christian leaders, groups, and viewpoints to indict (p. 107) themselves. By viewing how these leaders and groups would establish an authoritative yet manipulative and self-serving truth, viewers can call into question not only the religious leaders’ version of a narrative, but the very authority the leader presumes in the first place.42 In this way, The Colbert Report both repeatedly refutes the conservative Christian claim that its view of the world is somehow closer to “the truth” than other forms of religion and challenges its accompanying quests for political power. Colbert, and satirists such as Rob Corddry, Samantha Bee, and others who have followed in his footsteps, may therefore be creating an important meta-narrative about conservative Christianity, suggesting that its leaders may simply be making these truth claims with more volume and insistence but not necessarily any more veracity or authority than anyone else.

In a democratic society in which many sources of news and commentary are available, there is a great need for people who can guide the population through the truth claims of those leaders who are in religious, as well as in political, organizations. Yet even as of the writing of this chapter, the situation in the United States is undergoing change. Today, there is increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage among the US population, and it is nearly a nonissue among a younger generation of voters.43 Religious organizations with political ties were not credited with the Republican Party’s success in the 2010 midterm elections. Such trends might indicate that conservative Christian partisan groups and their influence are on the decline. Yet recent evidence suggests that the emergent Tea Party, a group that received a great deal of coverage in the 2010 midterm election, seems to have a strong self-selection bias among conservative Christians. Tea Party members overwhelmingly identify themselves as Christian (81 percent), and nearly half (48 percent) are part of the religious Right or conservative Christian movement.44 As political satirical humor follows the trends in power, this suggests that future redactional segments of The Colbert Report and other programs might by necessity become more nuanced in how they cover the relationship between conservative Christian religion and political power.

As political satirists such as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart rise to prominence, their particular approach to religion comes to carry a certain weight. And as they tend to highlight certain kinds of stories, and in a certain kind of tone, they signal a shift in how people might come to expect that journalists and other redactors might approach religious organizations and their claims of authority. Even in the recent past, the legacy news has approached the dominant US religion of Christianity with deference, highlighting stories of individual faith practices and private devotion. Yet rather than approaching religion from a position of deference, these satirists approach religion with irreverence. Religion comes to attention in these programs for its relationships to and abuses of power, and in the role that the dominant US religion of Christianity has played in relation to the perpetuation of misunderstandings and religious intolerance.

News organizations had certainly paid close attention to abuses of power among religious organizations in the past, but the standard tone of report had been (and still is) one of scandal and moral outrage. In the political satire of today, however, (p. 108) the tone is more frequently one of glee. The story of religion news in relation to political satire, therefore, is the story of an increasing critique of certain religious institutions in Western society. What comes into focus as a source of parody and satire is the hubris of certain religious leaders, institutions, or organizations. Religion becomes a focal point within these programs of political satire when its leaders or institutions lay claim to what in today’s religiously plural world is considered an overreaching authority, or a power to define things, whether that includes the way others should live or how others should act. Claiming access to knowledge about the right way to do things is a problem in a pluralist society—and it is in this area that popular programs of political satire are particularly savvy not only in sharing information about but also in skewering religion. This is, of course, not the only role of religion in society, but with an assist from today’s prominent political satirists, it is arguably the most public one.

In an increasingly individualistic culture, where how one practices or subscribes to religion is seen as a choice, perhaps any attempt to impose one’s version of truth on others will continue to come under fire. Based on the news as it presently appears within programs of political satire, one might expect that the news of religion will continue to be reduced to its happenings and its controversies, and the stories of moderation and private devotion will become nonstories except among the sectarian press. And perhaps, after all, the removal of religious deference from the news agenda is not such a bad thing. It could be that satire, and perhaps especially satire regarding religion, is a return to a true calling of Western journalism as it holds accountable those laying claim to religious authority. After all, the disappearance of deference in favor of irreverence toward religions that lay claim to power may be a productive stance in a pluralistic society. And as Colbert’s persona bumbles his way through the worst of the United States’ religious hubris and insensitivities, perhaps the public is invited to reconsider and tend to its own proclivities for similar human failings.


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                              (1) . Norm MacDonald, who anchored SNL’s “Weekend Update” from 1994 to 1997, opened each segment with, “I’m Norm MacDonald, and now for the fake news.” refers to Daily Show host Jon Stewart as a “Fake news icon.” See Leonard Doyle, “You Can’t Be Serious: How a Comedian Became the Most Influential Voice in American Politics,” The Independent, August 19, 2008,

                              (2) . “Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political Universe: Perceptions of Partisan Bias Seen as Growing,” Pew Research Center for People and the Press, June 8, 2004,; “Today’s Journalists Less Prominent,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, March 8, 2007, See also Julia Fox, Glory Koloen, and Volken Sahin, “No Joke: A Comparison of Substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Broadcast Network Television Coverage of the 2004 Presidential Campaign,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 51, no. 2 (June 2007): 213–27.

                              (3) . “Today’s Journalists Less Prominent,” Pew Research Center, March 8, 2007,

                              (4) . Ibid.

                              (5) . “Journalism, Satire, or Just Laughs? The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Examined” (a report on the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, May 8, 2008),

                              (6) . The Excellence in Journalism Project, “The State of the News Media,” 2004,

                              (7) . Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978).

                              (8) . David Mindich, Just the Facts: How Objectivity Came to Define American Journalism (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

                              (9) . John Hartley, “Communicative Democracy in a Redactional Society: The Future of Journalism Studies,” Journalism 1, no. 1 (2000): 39–47. Cited in Jeffrey P. Jones, “Believable Fictions: Reactional Culture and the Will to Truthiness,” in The Changing Faces of Journalism: Tabloidization, Technology and Truthiness, ed. Barbie Zelizer (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 127–43.

                              (10) . Jones, “Believable Fictions.”

                              (11) . Jeffrey Jones, Entertaining Politics: New Political Television and Civic Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004).

                              (12) . Jones, Entertaining Politics.

                              (13) . Geoffrey Baym, “Using the ‘Fake News’ in Journalism Education” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Denver, CO, August 2010).

                              (14) . Jones, Entertaining Politics.

                              (15) . Baym, “Using the ‘Fake News’ in Journalism Education.”

                              (16) . Ian Davidson, Voltaire in Exile (New York: Grove Press, 2005).

                              (17) . Krystle Hernandez, “Literary Analysis: Comparing Montaigne’s Essays and Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,”,

                              (18) . Douglas Underwood, “Transcending the News: Religious Ambivalence Among the Famous Journalist-Literary Figures and Literature as the Uncertain Path to Immortality,” Journal of Media and Religion 6, no. 4 (2007): 241–71.

                              (19) . R. Kent Rasmussen, The Quotable Mark Twain: His Essential Aphorisms, Witticisms, & Concise Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998).

                              (20) . See Rasmussen, ibid. Also online:

                              (21) . Douglas Underwood, From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008). See also Mark Silk, Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).

                              (22) . Katy Perry on The Late Show with David Letterman, YouTube, August 24, 2010,

                              (23) . When Rick Sanchez was fired from CNN for calling Jon Stewart a bigot, denying the oppressed history of Jews, and then suggesting that the networks were run by Jews, Stewart’s rejoinder was this: “All he has to do is apologize to us, and we’ll hire him back.” “Jon Stewart Breaks Rick Sanchez Silence, Responds,” Huffington Post, October 3, 2010,

                              (24) . Stephanie Brehm, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: Exposing Religious Incongruity (unpublished master’s thesis, Florida State University, 2009).

                              (25) . David Mindich, Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). See also Todd Gitlin, Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001).

                              (26) . Deborah Fallows, “How Women and Men Use the Internet” (a report of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, December 28, 2005),

                              (27) . Baym, “Using the ‘Fake News’ in Journalism Education.”

                              (28) . See Jill Dierberg, Evangelicalism and the Colbert Report (unpublished dissertation, University of Denver, forthcoming).

                              (29) . For a content analysis of the use of religious humor in the “This Week in God” segment of The Daily Show, see Stephanie N. Brehm, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: Exposing Religious Incongruity (unpublished master’s thesis, Florida State University, 2009). See also Lynn Schofield Clark and Jill Dierberg, “Religion and Authority in a Remix Culture: How a Late Night TV Host Became an Authority on Religion,” in Reader in Religion, Media, and Culture, ed. Gordon Lynch and Jolyon Mitchell (London: Routledge, 2012).

                              (30) . Article from Time Out New York excerpted on the blog The Largest Minority, December 5, 2006,

                              (31) . Stephen Colbert interview with Terri Gross, Fresh Air, National Public Radio, November 19, 2008.

                              (32) . Dan Zak, “Stephen Colbert, in GOP Pundit Character, Testifies on Immigration in D.C.,” Washington Post, September 25, 2010, This article does not include Colbert’s reference to Matthew 25 in the New Testament, but it is available in his testimony. See, e.g., “Stephen Colbert Cites Matthew 25,” in the blog The Deacon’s Bench, September 25, 2010,

                              (33) . Dannagal G. Young, “Dispelling Late-Night Myths: News Consumption among Late Night Comedy Viewers and the Predictors of Exposure to Various Late-Night Shows,” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 11, no. 3 (2006): 113–34.

                              (34) . The Colbert Report, December 5, 2006.

                              (35) . Frank Rich, “The Bigot’s Last Hurrah,” New York Times, April 19, 2009.

                              (36) . Dan Harris, “Evangelical Leader Denies Accusation of Paying Former Gay Prostitute for Sex,” ABC News, November 3, 2006.

                              (37) . In September 2010, a campaign titled “NOM Exposed” was launched by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Courage Campaign, according to Wikipedia’s entry on NOM. The campaign has exposed funding connections between NOM and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the conservative Catholic body Opus Dei, the Knights of Columbus, and Focus on the Family. Online:

                              (38) . The Colbert Report, November 3, 2010.

                              (39) . The Colbert Report, October 5, 2010.

                              (40) . Serra Tinic, “Using the ‘Fake News’ in Journalism Education (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Denver, CO, August 2010).

                              (41) . Jones, Entertaining Politics.

                              (42) . This is an insight building upon Jones’s analysis of how filmmaker Errol Morris uses the same strategy in his documentary filmmaking. Jones, Entertaining Politics.

                              (43) . CNN Opinion Research Poll, released Wednesday, August 11, 2010.

                              (44) . J. J. Sutherland, “New Poll: Tea Party Overwhelmingly Christian and Socially Conservative,” The Two-Way: NPR’s Blog, October 5, 2010,