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Religion: The Microphone of God

4 minute read

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, 1895-1979

Early in 1952 the Du Mont Television Network needed a low-budget show to throw into the graveyard slot opposite “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle. Their unlikely idea: talks by a Roman Catholic prelate. An overnight sensation, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living eventually pulled nearly 20 million viewers in the weekly ratings war. A 1953 poll of journalists proclaimed Sheen TV’s Man of the Year.

Sheen, who died of heart disease last week at age 84, was American religion’s first TV prima donna, complete with studio audience and commercial sponsor. At the peak of his popularity he became the nation’s most famous preacher and most celebrated Catholic priest. In that cold war era, Catholicism was far more self-assured than it is now. The six extraordinary TV seasons of “the Microphone of God” made his Church of Rome less threatening to Protestants and Jews in the years just before John F. Kennedy.

Delivered as straight monologue, Sheen’s message was an odd period mix of common sense and Christian ethics. “America is suffering from tolerance,” he would proclaim, “tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, Christ and chaos.” Or, “Freedom is the right to do what you ought to do.” He did not hesitate to take on the likes of Darwin, Marx and Satan, not to mention Sigmund Freud. He once parodied the prayer of a modern Pharisee: “I thank thee, O Lord, that my Freudian adviser has told me that there is no such thing as guilt … I may have an Oedipus complex, but I have no sin.” After one summer vacation, the bishop breezily opened his show with the words, “Long time no Sheen.”

The bishop’s persuasive powers depended a good deal on deep-set, piercing blue eyes that seemed to transfix his viewers, and a burnished voice that would soar, pause theatrically or plunge to a hushed whisper. Wearing a cape and large pectoral cross, and with a blackboard as his only prop, he performed flawlessly without script or cue cards. He put something like 30 hours’ preparation into each show, memorizing key points and the eloquent windup that would precede his famous “God love you” sign-off.

Sheen started life over his father’s hardware store in El Paso, 111. (pop. 2,550), near Peoria. He was a debate champion in college and earned a doctorate at Louvain University in Belgium. Before TV stardom he was a renowned philosophy professor at Catholic University of America, and a pioneer radio preacher whose programs drew 6,000 letters a day. He wrote more than 50 books (among them God and Intelligence, Peace of Soul, Three to Get Married), and was almost as famous for person-to-person conversions as for oratory. Among his worldly converts: Louis Budenz, managing editor of the Communist Daily Worker; Columnist Heywood Broun; Playwright-Politician Clare Boothe Luce.

The church never honored Sheen with high office. In 1950 he became national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and a year later was appointed auxiliary bishop to New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman. But the Cardinal soured on the bishop as his TV and money-raising success soared. Perhaps as a result, the bishop was never to get a Cardinal’s red hat. In 1957 Sheen abruptly gave up his TV shows. At age 71, he became a controversial innovator as Bishop of Rochester. Known till then as a conservative, he put a civil rights activist on his staff, let parish priests elect his top aide and “taxed” church construction projects to help the poor. In 1967 he called on President Johnson to withdraw all troops from Viet Nam. But when he tried to sell a church and give the money to the poor without consulting the parishioners, he was forced to reverse himself, and soon asked to leave Rochester, a year before the usual retirment age.

Sheen tried several times to revive his old TV preaching magic, but the times had changed. It was only in the year or two before his death that America’s grimmer sense of history seemed to run his way again. One of Sheen’s basic messages was against self-indulgence. He told Americans that the Antichrist would come, “talking of peace, prosperity and plenty.” Modern man, he insisted, seeks promises of salvation without a cross, wants a “Christ without his nails.” Then the bishop would thunder: “There is no pleasure without pain, no Easter without Good Friday… God love you.”

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