Religious Programming As Propaganda

One of the most heated issues of the Cold War was the irreligious nature of Communism. Where Karl Marx had preached that religion was only an opiate meant to narcotize the masses, Western religious leaders saw Marx, Lenin, and international Communism by the 1950s as a threat to the spirituality of mankind.

American popular culture reflected this situation in two distinct ways. First, it integrated religious matter into the mainstream of enter­ainment. This resulted in feature films with Biblical themes, such as Quo Vadis?, The Ten Commandments, The Robe, David and Bath­sheba, The Silver Chalice, Ben Hur, and Samson and Delilah. Even popular music reflected this trend as songs with spiritual messages became major hits: "Vaya Con Dios" (which reached the number 1 position on the Billboard magazine charts in 1953), "I Believe" (no. 2 in 1953), "He" (no. 7 in 1955), "Somebody up There Likes Me" (no. 26 in 1956), "A Wonderful Time Up There" (no. 10 in 1958), and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" (no. 2 in 1958).

In addition to communicating religious messages, American mass culture assailed the militant atheism of Communism. This was frequently accomplished in an allegorical manner. In a movie such as Sign of the Pagan, it was seen in the ignominious death of Attila, the heathen Asian invader of Christian Europe in the fifth century. In many other films, it was seen in the myopic paganism of ancient Rome as it crucified and otherwise persecuted innocent Christians.

Television also presented spiritual programming, and occasionally it was aired in prime time. In many instances such productions struck their own blows for the United States in the East-West conflict. The fundamental depravity explaining all Red actions was alleged to be the atheism basic to Communism. If there was brutality within the Soviet Union and its satellites, it was described as the result of a Godless ideology. If Communists were threatening world peace, it was because atheism had no respect for God and His worshippers.

Such shows stressed that Communist suppression of East European peoples was suppression of the Christian faith. They suggested, however, that Providence was on the side of the downtrodden—even the Russian people held captive by Communism—and would even­tually destroy the diabolical Red empire. In this own way, American television encouraged the belief that the strength of anti-Communism was its alliance with the Divine.

Such themes appeared in a range of programs. In Navy Log, Victory at Sea, and other military series, images of praying servicemen illustrated the religious aspect of the American armed forces. A dramatic production such as "Cardinal Mindszenty," which appeared on Studio One on May 3, 1954, related the plight of the Hungarian prelate who for many years escaped Communist prisons by gaining sanctuary in the American embassy in Budapest.

Prime time dramatic anthologies occasionally utilized Cold War religious material. In "The Boy Who Walked to America” Cavalcade of America in January 1956 blended religion and anti-Communism in a story about a Korean boy who hitchhiked to America. After a plane flight from his homeland to Japan, the lad became the ward of an Army chaplain who eventually secured permission for the child to immigrate to Father Flanagan's Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska. This mixture of a sweet child seeking American freedom and a loving priest arranging for his move to the United States underscored the vile na­ture of an enemy who would cause a child such anguish.

Sunday morning religious programs often related anti-Communist stories. Series like Lamp unto My Feet, This Is the Life, The Catholic Hour, Religious Town Hall, and Look Up and Live addressed ideas of freedom, patriotism, and spiritual fulfillment with­in a religious nation. They also dealt with the domestic threat of Communism and with escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

The most zealous program of this sort was Zero-1960. This syndicated series was produced by the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima. It debuted in May 1957 and was nationally distributed until 1960. The Blue Army was a decade-old organization that sought to end Communism through moral outspokenness. The show was named after the year in which the full message of the miracle of Fatima, partially revealed in 1917, was anticipated by Roman Catholics. The program worried less about expected holy messages, however, than about the specter of atheistic Communism.

This was a stark political-religious presentation. The opening telecast set the pace for the entire series as Catholic Bishop Cuthbert O'Gara, a missionary in China, told how the Communists had stripped him naked before his parishioners and had dragged him through the city streets. By 1958 the program handled topics such as imminent spiritual and political revolutions in the Soviet Union, the possibility of annihilation in a Russian-initiated nuclear war, the confessions of a former Soviet military officer, and the patriotic resistance by African American to the lure of Communism. In its final season Zero-1960 became a religious discussion series presenting anti-Communist celebrities like the president of the Philippines discussing Red activities in Southeast Asia, and the chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities speaking on enemy spies in the United States. Even Senator John F. Kennedy appeared for a half-hour discussion of his views on U.S. foreign policy.

More consistently and more grimly than other religious shows, Zero-1960 championed the cause of anti-Communism. But its line of argument was not incompatible with the Cold War values found in other religious, and even nonreligious, TV series. Furthermore, scheduled as it was on Sunday mornings—a time usually filled with spiritual programs and public service presentations about the armed forces—church and state seemed to complement and legitimize each other.

The appearance of spiritual broadcasts in network evening hours illustrates the strategic position religion occupied in Cold War culture. Billy Graham's Hour of Decision, for example, was a regular Sunday evening feature on ABC from 1951 until 1954. Crossroads, an ABC dramatic series between 1955 and 1957, enacted stories from the experiences of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergymen. Although this anthology series avoided the open politics found in many Sunday morning programs, it did promote a responsible and humane image of religious institutions, as well as reflecting the relevance of faith in the personal lives of most Americans.

If Crossroads was politically restrained, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's Life Is Worth Living offered an openly aggressive stance against Communist. Sheen came to the DuMont network, and then ABC, in the early 1950s. By the fall of 1953 his half-hour show on Tuesday evenings was appearing on more than 130 stations. Sheen, who was the bishop of Rochester and director of the World Mission Society for the Propagation of the Faith, left network TV in 1957 but returned in the syndicated The Bishop Sheen Program, which ran through most of the 1960s.

Sheen was a chronically outspoken foe of Communism. During the Depression he had written hostile essays with such titles as "Communism and Religion," "The Tactics of Communism," and "Liberty under Communism." In this latter tract, published in 1937 as a response to the promulgation of a constitution in the Soviet Union, Sheen enunciated ideas that had not changed by the time he entered television two decades later.

There is no liberty under Communism because there is no Spirit. Liberty comes from the rational soul; that is why cabbages have no liberty.... Liberty for them [Communists] exists only when the citizens desire what the State desires, and do what the dictators order, and think only what the Party thinks.... Such is the liberty of dogs under the leash of their masters, and the liberty of cuckoos in cuckoo clocks, or the liberty of prisoners in prison.... Such are the "rights" granted to the slaves of Red Dictatorship under the new Red Constitution.

On Life Is Worth Living Bishop Sheen lectured the nation on matters of general moral uplift as well as Cold War politics. In talks punctuated by his flowing cassock and a blackboard on which he made chalk drawings, he left no doubt where he stood concerning the East-West confrontation. Sheen questioned the motives of those Americans who refused to tell congressional investigators whether they had ever been members of the Communist party. "Any good citizen, if asked by Congress if he were a member of Murder, Inc., would immediately deny it," he told viewers. "Why is it then, that some of our citizens insist on their constitutional rights when asked if they are Communists?" Sheen attacked Communists for having "perverted the notion of brotherhood into world imperialism," and for "denying God, denying morality, denying conscience, but keep­ing confession and guilt."

The most publicized Sheen program occurred on February 24, 1953, when the bishop presented an energetic reading of the burial scene from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. He substituted the names of Josef Stalin, KGB leader Lavrenti Beria, Georgi Malenkov, and U.N. ambassador Andrei Vishinsky for Caesar, Cassius, Mark Antony, and Brutus. When Stalin died unexpectedly nine days later, some suggested that Sheen's words might have been responsible

In Bishop Sheen's view, the United States was to be more than just the policeman of the globe—it was to be the new savior of the world by divine appointment. "America is at the crossroads—the crossroads of the starving world. It sees the world being crucified by Communism," he announced to an audience in 1953. "The long arm of Prov­idence is reaching out to America, saying ‘Take up the cross of all the starving people of the world. Carry it.’" Sheen was also forthright in explaining the future he envisioned for the United States. As he pontificated on one program:

We have already saved the world from the swastika, which would cross out the cross and make a double cross. Now we must save the world from the hammer and sickle: the hammer that crucifies and the sickle that cuts life like immature wheat that it may never be one with the Bread of Life.

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