Is it okay to be funny about faith?

If you are a public official and you think about saying “you just can’t trust those damn [insert religious group here],” you probably shouldn’t finish that thought.

E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State University, has resigned in the fallout from comments he made about Notre Dame and Catholic priests.

In the controversial remarks, Gee talked about battles his university has over athletics with other institutions, and referred to the University of Notre Dame’s “holy” fathers as “holy hell” and said that “you just can’t trust those damn Catholics.” He has insisted since his December comments were made public that he was just joking, saying that his words were “a poor attempt at humor.”

Since he has now decided that he can not continue to lead the 63,000-student strong university, it’s time to ask:

Is it no longer kosher to be funny about faith?

It’s easy to forget that not too long ago Catholics were viewed as a minority group in America, approached with skepticism by the Protestant majority. John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech to Christian ministers in Houston was deemed as necessary to quell fears of a president bowing to foreign religious pressure. But in an era of Catholic ascendance — Catholics are represented in the White House via VP Biden, dominate the Supreme Court and make up the single largest religious group in Congress — it’s hard to argue that the faith group struggles to assimilate into the American fabric and demands special deference.

Gee’s comments were met with laughter by his December audience and, in truth, were relatively tame, especially compared to other public comments about Catholicism after the sexual abuse scandal and debate over contraception coverage.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who wrote the book (literally) on faith and humor said this about Gee’s Catholic comments, “From the context it’s hard to tell if he was being playful, sarcastic, mean-spirited or just plain stupid. But Christians are called to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, so I’ll pick playful.”

Still — could Gee get away with making the same comments about other religious groups — say Jews, Muslims or even Mormons?

It’s worth asking because Gee himself is Mormon.

And few religious groups have taken it more on the chin more in recent years than Mormonism. Presidential politics aside, one of the key questions of the so-called “Mormon moment” was how the “The Book of Mormon” musical handled matters of faith. The musical, titled after the holy book of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opened in 2011 and went on to huge critical and popular acclaim, winning Tony Awards and selling out around the world, despite its crassness and mockery of Mormon sacred teaching.

Writing for On Faith, LDS leader Michael Otterson insisted he would not watch the musical, recalling the words of a Jewish writer who saw the musical as bigoted and making a mockery of faith. Some Christians agreed that the musical crossed the line, while others saw it as positive proof that Mormons had entered the mainstream.

As always, it’s true that one man’s joke is another man’s offense.

Bottom line: If you are a public official and you think about saying “you just can’t trust those damn [insert religious group here],” you probably shouldn’t finish that thought.

Wouldn’t be prudent.

Image courtesy of Broadway Tour.


Elizabeth Tenety Elizabeth Tenety is the former editor of On Faith, where she produced "Divine Impulses," On Faith’s video interview series. She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.
  • Fosl

    When was it ever OK to be funny or derogatory about Islam, or Jewish faith?
    the article merely asks with a tone of surprise that maybe you can’t do so with regard to Christian faith.

    with all due respect, I don’t think Biden in the Whitehouse, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of or even a decrease in publicly accepted Catholic bashing.

  • justaguy22

    Has any group in the US been more maligned by some than evangelical Chrisitans?

  • willin46

    And truly deserved in most cases. The Catholic hierarchy has no one to blame other than themselves for their obvious unChristian behavior.

  • andycatinthehat

    Good Lord! Get over yourselves. So the man made some idiotic comments about Notre Dame. So what? It is not the first time a prominent figure in our society has made an inappropriate comment. But those of you politically correct idiots can’t get enough of stomping on someone just because of a few ill-chosen phrases. When are you going to simply shut up and sit down?!

  • willin46

    Yes, Democrats

  • dancain1514

    Paraphrasing – “Holy on Sunday…Holy Hell during the week”. Ok, in my opinion. “You just can’t trust those Catholics…You know what, I was about to say the latter comment was inappropriate. Then, mid thought I asked myself, who or what originated the criticism of Gee’s comments.
    If an athletic department head or a coach said the same thing, those comments would have been in the sports pages instead of minor, front page headlines. And the AD or coach would be quoted ad nauseum on ESPN. Then, with just a minor amount of investigative, background googling, we’d all find out that, in fact, they’re right!
    Our Lady’s University protects their special status in the college football world, not to uphold a higher standing for others to follow. Rather, the smoke and bells…I mean, mirrors, are there for to protect their brand. Their financial brand. Does college football’s third or fourth ranked most profitable franchise dedicate the millions they make each year to Christ’s mission. Well, maybe if that mission includes expenses related to maintaining profitability.

  • dcrswm

    “Of course they’re pulling out, they’re catholic after all” would have been better.

  • dcrswm

    That’s a joke right?

  • dcrswm

    Maybe when your church stops protecting rapists and pedophiles you’ll see a warmer response to your silly superstitions, until then don’t act surprised when people aren’t terribly fond of you NAMBLA-esque religion.

  • willin46

    No! Just listen to FOX or that Christian comedian, Lush.

  • dcrswm

    Wasn’t directed at you, I’m incredibly skeptical that any flavor of christian is maligned in the US…..considering every single one of our presidents has been some flavor of christian……..

  • registrations


  • registrations

    What are people talking about here? There is a Christian church on every corner in the USA. How can anyone possibly say that Christians are discriminated against in the USA? If you want to talk about maligning and discriminating against Christians look to where it REALLY happens in places like Egypt.

  • Bluefish2012

    It was so funny I almost forgot to laugh. –Gilda Radner

  • characters4321

    Mormons have brought a lot of the barbs upon themselves by sending out all their young people to go door to door, trying to get converts. Whatever your religion is now, it’s not good enough. You should become a Mormon.

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