Academic journal article The Historian

Religion, Culture, and the Cold War: Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and America's Anti-Communist Crusade of the 1950s

Academic journal article The Historian

Religion, Culture, and the Cold War: Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and America's Anti-Communist Crusade of the 1950s

Article excerpt

COLD WAR CRUSADER Bishop Fulton J. Sheen used television to attract millions of viewers to his battle against communism. His prime-time show enjoyed unprecedented popularity for all shows on the new medium, resulting in his making the cover of such major publications as TV Guide, Colliers, Look, and Time magazines. By the time his television show ended in 1957, a national poll listed Sheen as one of the top ten public figures in America. Upon his death in 1979, the New York Times stated that Sheen had been "one of the most effective evangelists that the broadcasting era had produced." Although Sheen's popularity was arguably higher than that of any other religious figure during the "Fifties Revival," the impact of his assertion that religion and patriotism were crucial to a new U.S. cultural consensus and global primacy has yet to be fully explored and contextualized within the literature. (1)

This article will address Sheen's anti-communism within the context of his widespread popularity and influence on the evolving culture of the Cold War. While this article is not a definitive analysis of Sheen's religious impact on post-World War II America, it will serve to locate him and contemporary religious figures squarely within the field of cultural and Cold War studies. In that regard, this article will suggest reasons for a sustained scholarly analysis of the role religion played in the United States during the early years of the Cold War and in the shaping of the distinctive cultural values of that era, issues that reflect key questions of how and why domestic phenomena influence policy decisions.

The role of religion in Cold-War chronicles demands careful and ongoing investigation. As John Lewis Gaddis argues in We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, the first generation of Cold War scholars concentrated on conventionally defined events and neglected other areas of causation. Gaddis finds this historiography of common characteristics producing "one sided disproportionate attention" to the historian's persistent focus on "the United States, its allies, and its clients," while in the process neglecting other interests and ideas--"what people believed or wanted to believe." (2) In Gaddis's view, these "deficiencies" will give way to more encompassing interpretations of the Cold War as the "stream of time" places the complexities of the Cold War "within a broader comparative framework...." (3) While not speaking specifically to religion's influence on the Cold War culture, Gaddis does remind scholars that such neglected elements of Cold War influences as religion should be profoundly analyzed and subsequently given a proper place in the scholarship of causation. (4)

Sheen is one of several prominent religious figures who effectively conflated ideological struggles and moral questions by equating the turmoil between East and West with the biblical Apocalypse. Religious and cultural upheaval swept America in the 1950s, and again in the late 1970s and early 1980s, deeply embedding these beliefs in the American cultural fabric. The surge of religiosity carried with it a call for renewed patriotism and piety to meet global tensions. The question arises, then: How much did prominent religious leaders and their values influence policy during the Cold War? Such explorations are critical for understanding if and why the 1950s witnessed an actual intermingling of religion, culture, and foreign policy.

Since the 1990s, the field of history has undergone a notable shift from the traditional political approach to a more encompassing picture of the causes and directions of foreign relations, yet this transformation largely neglected religious influences. The evolving approach to the history of American foreign relations has instead focused on new areas such as gender and diversity, or domestic factors, such as culture. Even the fresh discussions on culture have tended to concentrate on, as Harvard Professor Akira Iriye has noted, a "perspective that pays particular attention to communication within and among nations. …

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