Stephen Colbert and the Death of Protestant America

Stephen Colbert, 2007
(Photo: David Shankbone)

Certain events, small in themselves, can serve as cultural bellwethers, pointing to the direction that the culture is going as a whole. Two years ago, we saw one of these in the replacement of the Supreme Court’s last Protestant, Justice David Souter (an Episcopalian), with Justice Sonia Sotomayor (a Catholic). Since that time, the Supreme Court has been made up of six Catholics and three Jews, with no Protestants. At the time, I asked whether this signalled the twilight of Protestant America.

Support for that theory was not slow in coming. Over the course of 2012,Mitt Romney, a Mormon, won the GOP primary, beating out Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both Catholics. Romney then chose Paul Ryan, a Catholic, as his vice president. He then lost to Obama, a Protestant with a Catholic vice president. Perhaps most remarkable about all of this was that it was almost unremarked-upon.

Today, I think that we’re seeing another of these bellwethers. Late-night host David Letterman recently announced his retirement: his ratings have not been faring well in the face of two new rivals, Jimmy Kimmel and now Jimmy Fallon. Today, CBS announced his replacement: Stephen Colbert. Deacon Greg Kandra was quick to point out one reason that this was significant, with the headline: “The Catholic takeover of late night TV is complete.” Letterman was the Protestant hold-out in late night. Once Colbert replaces him, networks will be hosted by Catholics.

What we’re seeing is not necessarily a resurgence of Catholicism, at least in any meaningful sense. Not all of the people we’re talking about here are model (or even practicing) Catholics, by any stretch. Rather, we’re witnessing the collapse of Protestantism. That’s born out by the data, as this 2012 Pew report shows:


In late 2012, Pew reported for the first time that a minority of Americans polled (48%) still considered themselves Protestants. Catholicism is gaining relative to Protestantism simply because we’re treading water, while they’re drowning. This is particularly true of liberal and “mainline” Protestantism, which is simply collapsing (I’ve heard Evangelicals derisively refer to the mainliners as “sideline” Protestants, and that’s increasingly the reality).

Meanwhile, it’s irreligion, not Catholicism, that’s on the rise. As the Pew report (and subsequent NY Times coverage) point out, most of these religious unaffiliated people still believe in God. It’s not so much God that people have given up on, but religion. Part of this is a trend towards social alienation: one ironic result of technology is that we’re lonelier than we used to be, more alienated from our friends and neighbors. The natural social cohesion that holds a congregation together is increasingly lacking. But whatever the cause(s), this is a reality that I think all of us, regardless of religious affiliation, have to take seriously. As I said back in 2012:

In a talk he gave this summer, Cardinal George said that he was much less worried about Protestant America, and much more worried about post-Protestant America. I think we’re going to have to start thinking much more seriously about just what this entails, because America’s post-Protestantism is descending upon us rapidly. 

These trends aren’t showing any signs of changing, but the future’s not set in stone. For those of us who take religion seriously, and view it as a tremendous good for souls and societies, these statistics are an important diagnostic tool. We’ve seen the bad news. How shall we respond, we who know the Good News?


  1. Joe, what is happening instead is Protestantism is taking a new name…Catholicism. It has gotten so large that it has taken over the Catholic world and now “Catholics” are merely Catholic in name only. Really, they are Protestants. Overall, our liturgy is Protestant, our understanding of the Sacraments are Protestant, our world view is Protestant, our understanding of sin and suffering is Protestant and our obedience to Christ and Tradition is Protestant. Today, it does not matter if the entire Supreme Court was made up of “Catholics”, it would still be Protestant, with the exception of Scalia (for what I know of him and his rulings).


    1. dThere is only a Remnant of True orthodox Catholics left.The rest are liberal-heterodox,CINOs,Cultural,Cafeteria and Ethnic Catholics.20 % attend mass and 30 % believe in the True Presence.Ever go to confession on Saturday ? Me and one or two others and that’s IT.When I was a kid there was an hour wait for confession with THREE priests.Catholic schools do not catechize Catholic children-they have set up a parallel Church-the Church of “Nice’ where nothing is a sin.Since Vatican II we have had THREE generations of uncatechized Catholics.I catechized my son like I was catechized by my FIERCELY Irish-Catholic Mother,Ursuline Nuns and Redemptorist Priests and now my son’s Faith inspires me.The REAL FIRE of the Church are former Protestants and others who have converted to Catholicism and are our best Apologists.

    2. Our Liturgy Protestant ? Our understanding of the Sacraments are Protestant ? The Mass is Eternal-we are simultaneously at Calvary,the Last Supper,and the Wedding Feast in Heaven.Speak for yourself QVP-when was the last time YOU went to mass ??? The orthodox Catholics I know would LAUGH at your ridiculous and entirely personally anecdotal statements regarding the Mass.

    3. A remnant? If true, hardly a surprise. Were we not warned by the highest authority that we could expect tares to grow among the wheat? the net to take up both good stuff and bad? both the wise and foolish virgins to await the bridegroom?

    4. I agree Mary.The worst thing to be is LUKEWARM-He will vomit those out of His Mouth.We must not bury our talent-we must invest it wisely for Our Lord.

      Of those whom much has been given much is expected.

      We can’t be Sunday Catholics,we must see the world through Catholic eyes and be the Hands and Face of Christ in this world.

      Faith without works is DEAD.

    5. Most Catholics do not attend mass. No one is saying the Faith is being watered down (not to a great extent anyway); instead it is we Catholics who are being watered down to a lukewarm unconvinced un-catechized generic church-of-nice Catholic-in-name-only anti-Vatican non-prishioners. That might be a good approximation of most Protestants a generation ago. Now we are the new Protestants, battling the Vatican for the right to have married priests, gay priests, women priests, sacred dance, and whatever else sounds interesting and modern. Once we get the church we like, then we’ll drop it like a hot rock.

  2. Joe, this is an interesting article. I cannot help but feel like you are trying to make a victory for the Catholic Church based upon a micro view of tv hosts, which is based upon far too small a sample size for even baseball stat fans to approve of, and macro view of the American population, which is so large that you are missing several key points. It is not the “Death of Protestant America”, but rather the “Death of Christian America” we are looking at with these trends. First, the Catholic numbers are able to seem stable because of immigration and the Latino and Mexican-American birthrate. If one were to look at European-American Catholic trends, then one would be horrified to see those who still claim to be Catholic and those who actually attend. Second, the “none” group is overly populated by lapsed European-American Catholics and a large number of Mainline Protestants. Many who read this are all too familiar with the issues facing the Catholic church. It is rather arrogant and wrong to celebrate the demise of any Christian group, especially when all Christian groups are facing tough times ahead in Post-Christian American.

    1. Rev. Hans,

      I don’t see how this can be seen as celebrating the demise of any Christian group. Like I said in the post, Protestantism is giving way to irreligion, a trend that I lament (not celebrate) in the post. No need to shoot the messenger on this one.

      My main point isn’t to celebrate or lament it, but simply to point it out. The cultural landscape is shifting dramatically in ways that are going to impact both your and my ministry for the foreseeable future. I was intentional in the post to talk about the death of “Protestant America,” not “American Protestantism.” That, I suspect, will remain much longer. But I suspect it will look very different than it does today. In the past, the values of the nation as a whole reflected the values of Protestantism fairly closely. The culture itself was Protestant. In the future, it is far from certain that this will be the case. To that end, Protestants may find themselves in the same situation in which many orthodox Catholics already find themselves: trying to explain a belief system that many people find utterly foreign, and having to push back against the culture to a greater extent.

      So I’m not prophesying the immanent death of American Christianity (or American Protestantism or American Catholicism, etc.). Rather, I’m simply observing that Protestant America – the moral and cultural landscape that we’ve taken more-or-less for granted for a couple centuries – has shrivelled up and died in front of us.

  3. And, of course, if we separate out Evangelical / Fundamentalist / Non-Denominational “Protestants” (whose traditions are not rooted in the Reformation) from “Mainline” Protestants, the kind which made Protestant America, Protestant, then the collapse is even more shocking. One wonders whether American Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Episcopalianism, etc will even exist at all in 50 yrs.

    1. That question has been vigorously asked in Mainline churches since the 1970’s. I think we will still be around, but we mainline churches will be radically different and most likely just side-liners.

    2. What keeps the mainliners from total collapse seems to be the people who were raised Evangelical / Fundamentalist / Non-Denominational “Protestants”. Some are attracted to the liturgy of, for example, the Episcopal and Lutheran Church, others are simply burned out from their more conservative upbringing. (Catholics should not assume that conservative Protestants are theological or philosophical allies. Despite common “Culture War” positions, there are major significant differences between the two.)

      One reason for the collapse mainliners didn’t have that many children of their own back in the 1970s and the children they did have simply don’t have much interest in the church they were raised in.

      Evangelical / Fundamentalist / Non-Denominational “Protestants” are treading water (and this has been discussed at length on Evangelical blogs). Millions come in, and millions go out.

      The English speaking Catholic Church in the US is following the same pattern as the mainline Protestants, but is about a generation behind. Mostly Spanish speaking Catholic immigrants keep the Catholic Church treading water.

      However, I see this pattern changing. The cultural history of English speaking Catholicism in the US is about assimilation to the larger Protestant culture. US Catholics have long had an inferiority complex toward their Protestant neighbors (going back to the British Isles) and traditionally looked to “blend in”. The election of JFK in 1960 was a sign that US Catholics had “made it”, while the changes of Vatican II and the 1960s allowed them to get rid of all the old “smells and bells” and act like their Protestant neighbors.

      What is happening is that the generation that wanted to assimilate (think Biden, Pelosi, Sibelius, etc.) is dying off. Younger people who want to assimilate to the wider culture are simply leaving the Church. Those who stay are staying because the want something different. Second, the inferiority complex that is ingrained in Anglo-American Catholicism is non-existent in Latin American Catholicism. In the long run, I believe American Catholicism is headed for revival, although this will take time.

  4. Farmer’s markets will begin to open up around the country in a couple of weeks and these are one of the bests types of locations to meet, and talk with, many of these ‘fallen away’ protestants. I normally go to 1, or more, of these farmers markets (CA) per week through the Fall season, armed with hundreds of Catholic Radio cards and bumperstickers. The experience is incredible. So many accept the radio cards and even take them for their family and friends. So many say they listen to, and like Catholic Radio. So many stop to talk and are highly intrigued by subject matter covered almost every week on this blog, especially on the historical proofs for the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the history of the canon of the New Testament and scriptural proofs against ‘sola scriptura’..etc… Most of these people, who are mainly minorities in my area, are as uncatequised in anything Protestantism as Catholics are in Catholicism. Almost universally, they don’t seem to care about what faith they belong to but definitely convey a strong love for Jesus, almost as if a particular faith doesn’t matter at all. When directed towards an internet study on topics such as the Eucharist, they almost always show enthusiasm and gratitude for my directing them to these sites. It’s almost as if they are emerging from a sort of intellectual desert and can now view on the horizon an oasis of interesting Christian history and theology to consider. And, then on top of this, they have the potential to actually turn on the Catholic Radio station… and who knows what kind of great Christian information, or topic, they might stumble upon? Maybe even an interview with Joe Heschmeyer 🙂

    So if you want to reach out to these ‘fallen away’ protestants, grab a few hundred Catholic radio cards from your local station, and go and stand out on a corner at almost any one of the many farmers markets during late Spring, Summer and Fall. Many of the passers-by seem to be hungry for deep spirituality. I guess like the rest of us.

  5. As a Catholic and long-time late night tv fan, it’s kinda cool that Fallon, Kimmel, O’Brien and Colbert are all Catholic (fyi, to me, Late Night with Letterman and Late Night with Conan were the best late shows, along with Carson’s show of course). But I hope and pray that these hosts, who have a very noticeably liberal slant in their show’s content, stay focused on trying to make fun, interesting and entertaining shows for its broad audiences, and not as a chance to offer up not-so-sublte preaching on topics like same-sex marriage, for example. Catholic Answers Live this week had the full 2 hours reserved for callers of all faiths or non-faiths who were in favor of redefining marriage. 2 apologists defended the Church’s teaching. It was good radio. But the interesting part is that many of the callers were practicing Catholics. So having Catholics talk to and possibly influencing millions of viewers every night could be a good thing, but only if the hosts aren’t Catholic in name only.

  6. “The natural social cohesion that holds a congregation together is increasingly lacking.”
    This cohesion was the foundation of civilisation. Without it the world would not have seen it. Civil cohesion existed then, when your grand parents claimed to walk ten miles to school and it exists now while your children complain to walk even two.

  7. Imagine the positive influence those marginal Catholics would have on society if they actually practiced the Faith? Catholic politicians, justices and media-types are for the most part timid because they are merely liberal religionists. We need to pray that they find a spine, overcome their hangups and try harder (with the Lord’s help!) at being faithful. At the same time, we need to pray for those of little faith or no faith and invite them, again and again, home. It’s one thing to complain and criticize. The faithful must demonstrate love of our wayward brothers and sisters. We must ensure that the Liturgy is celebrated faithfully and beautifully. If we cannot get the Liturgy right, there is no way our efforts to evangelize will be oriented to Christ. That is to say, our efforts will be useless if the Mass and the teaching therein is watered down.

  8. I saw an interesting article or blog, I forget where, but it talked about why “Catholics in name only” stay in the Church. It still baffles me why Pelosi or take your pick stay. Or why the hardcore liberal Catholics stay….women priest advocates (although not a hard line teaching), but you get the point. Anyway, I am curious how many Catholics stay, but vehemently disagree with core Church doctrine. And for instance, if one disagrees with the Church’s teaching on infanticide and votes pro choice (therefore is an accomplice), but stays because of the Eucharist they must also discard the teaching of being in a state of grace while receiving the Eucharist. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want them to leave. That would be even worse. It is up to us and the Church to lovingly try to help them see the wisdom of the Church. Just thought I’d bring this up.

  9. Dear Joe, Great article. I think the rise of so many Catholics to the Supreme Court and late night television speaks to something more important but also very neglected today; the power of the Catholic imagination and our understanding of reason. Both of these positions require a vivid imagination (for humor and discernment of facts to come to a decision) and both benefit from the Catholic understanding of reason as being more than just scientific or empirical. At least at some level, the late night talk show hosts were engaged in Catholic practices that engaged their imaginations (see Jimmy Fallon’s description of going to Mass with his grandfather). The act of creating comedy and writing court decisions both include the working of the imagination, something the Catholic Church has traditionally recognized as important to the formation of one’s life of faith. We could also say the same thing about the Jewish faith and Jewish culture. They too value stories, the imagination and hold in high esteem the intellectual life.

  10. This means nothing. There are many ardent Catholics who do not follow ALL the teachings of the church. Only when we have true-blue Catholics who follow ALL the rules-whether they agree with them or not will it be okay.

  11. Other than basing this assessment on American world view, which really is quite narrow in its origin and calls this survey into question, means very little in the overall scheme of things.

    One talking point being the decline of liberal mainline protestant churches, is conservative Protestants are rejoicing that liberalism and a watered down gospel are being dealt a death blow.

    Another talking point is the influence Martin Luther is having on the Catholic Church. More and more Catholic theology reflects the key role of Jesus Christ, and how grace is vital in the life of the Church. This can be attributed to Luther and other reformers, who after 500 years are having a positive effect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *