James Patterson on MLK, Fulton Sheen, & Jerry Falwell
Date: January 18th, 2015

As we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in the United States, we invite Dr. James Patterson, the 2014-15 Thomas W. Smith Postdoctoral Research Associate at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, to discuss a book manuscript he is working on that involves an examination of MLK’s religious foundations and media strategy.  Dr. Patterson puts this famous civil rights leader’s foundations and strategies in a comparative context with Bishop Fulton Sheen and Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Our discussion begins with an examination of how James came to this topic, why he chose the three religious figures that he did, and whether or not he received any pushback about making such radical comparisons of individuals who are seemingly so different.  He reveals how he came about to study this topic in graduate school, introducing the concept of jeremiad into Tony’s vocabulary.  We also cover why his manuscript is titled “Priest, Prophet, and King: Religious Foundations and Public Policy during the 20th Century.”  James explains what he means by “religious foundations,” defining it as the underlying values that help inform political policy and discourse.  He considers this in light of the importance that Christianity plays in a liberal democratic republic.  While founded with an eye towards separating church and state, American history is still replete with Judeo-Christian ideas and ideals informing mass political appeals.  Many times the appeals to Judeo-Christian ideals conflict with the notion of a liberal order and he is interested in exploring how this plays out in history.

The first figure we examine in depth is Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., probably the most well known of the three figures in James’ book.  Dr. Patterson discusses the concepts of the “progressive covenant” and “post-millennial eschatology” within King’s political and religious foundations.  He details how the concept of “agape” (love) is emphasized strongly in King’s rhetoric and how King became an ideal figure to rally around because he was someone that other leaders could agree upon.  James notes that even though religious leaders like to appear above the fray, there does exist “politics among pastors.”  James then talks about King’s strategy for getting his message out to a broad audience and how he was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.  Understanding that his movement was at the mercy of what the media wanted to cover, King also sought to dramatize and illustrate the everyday struggles that African-Americans faced.  James also reflects upon King’s legacy both in terms of his religious foundations but his media strategy as well.

We next roll back the historical tape to look at Bishop Fulton Sheen, a Catholic priest who was among the first religious figures to leverage modern mass communications, most notably radio and television.  Given that Sheen may not be as recognizable to younger audiences, we review his background growing up in Illinois and his desire to bring Catholicism into the mainstream by capturing the attention of the I-95 corridor (between New York and Washington, DC).  We discuss Sheen’s political foundations and his concern with both fascism in the 1930s, with a particular eye to the dangers of the war in Spain, and communism in the 1940s.  These political concerns dovetailed well with his religious foundations, and James notes that Sheen was very worried that both fascism and communism were movements that sought to replace God with race, state, and war.  His concerns about these movements helped him build bridges with Protestants who shared similar concerns and allowed Sheen to build alliances over matters of religious liberty.  His use of radio corresponded to a rise in Catholic voting power and helped smooth the path to  greater acceptance of Catholics in national politics as he was able to appeal to “high brow discussions” of various issues.  We also discuss his use of television and command of that media.  We discuss Sheen’s legacy as “The Confessor” and talk a bit about the politics behind his canonization, including the conflict over moving his sacred relics.

Finally, we move over to Rev. Jerry Falwell, perhaps the most controversial figure of the three examined.  Dr. Patterson discusses the “apocalyptical covenant” religious foundation upon which Falwell’s political ideas and movement rested.  James explains the concept behind dispensational pre-millennialism wherein the faithful commune in churches just prior to the “beginning of the end of time.”  Falwell’s pre-millennialism led him to support greater freedoms for churches and religious folk to preach before the end times and thus this led him to become a strong advocate for religious liberty and more engagement of pastors in public life.  His religious foundation also led him to advocate for against policies which he saw as angering God, including many of the cultural and legal changes that emanated from the sexual revolution of the 1960s such as abortion and gay rights.  It was Falwell who had the strongest sense of jeremiad of the three figures examined.  In an effort to build a mass appeal strategy using modern communications, Falwell found it difficult dealing with a variety of government regulators and thus became a strong advocate of smaller government.  He broke the taboo of religious figures, particularly Baptists, of being involved in politics and took a great deal of inspiration from the likes of Frances Schaeffer.   James also supports the interesting claim that Falwell pursued a strong ecumenical outreach beyond denominational lines.

We finish our discussion with James’ reflections on what he learned throughout the process of writing his dissertation and modifying it as a book manuscript.  He notes two important lessons.  First, he discovered how much fun archival research can be, either watching old episodes of “Life Is Worth Living” or digging through papers regarding King’s writings.  Second, he discovered how truly “improvisational” religious leadership really is.  While there are always plans for moving a religious and political agenda along, he was fascinated at how adept these individuals were in adapting to changing conditions and technologies.  He found that politics and direct mass appeals are a combination of both discipline and improvisation.  Recorded: January 9, 2015.


James Patterson’s bio at the academia.edu (with links to his writings).

The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.


David Dixon on Religious Rhetoric and the Civil Rights Movement.

Sean Scott on Religious Rhetoric in the US Civil War.

Melissa Matthes on Sermons after Tragedies.

John Owen IV on Confronting Political Islam, Historical Lessons.

R.R. Reno on Pop(e) Francis.

Hunter Baker on the Past and Future of the Christian Right.

4 Responses to “James Patterson on MLK, Fulton Sheen, & Jerry Falwell”

  1. Stanley Lee says:

    Your facts are all wrong about the politics between the 2 bishops in regards to Fulton Sheen’s canonization. First, the bishops were not planing on removing eyes and heart etc. as was stated in this show. They open the tomb (NOT UNEARTH as it was never buried) and inspect the relics to see condition. A bone is usually taken for relics which Catholics request. Fulton Sheen himself and both bishops in question possess relics of saints as it is a CATHOLIC practice. Also a miracle was never verified as stated in this program. Maybe this author should get his facts correct before doing an interview. The next Canonical step is inspection of the body then the Congregation of Saints can continue to investigate the possible miracle.

  2. James M. Patterson says:

    Thanks for filling me in!

  3. […] James Patterson on MLK, Fulton Sheen, and Jerry Falwell. […]

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