Was Sam the Eagle a Methodist or Episcopalian?

on January 11, 2014

Was The Muppets‘ Sam the Eagle a Methodist or an Episcopalian? Maybe Presbyterian? Possibly Catholic?

Sam, an endearingly pompous bald eagle, delivered stern editorials on Jim Henson’s Muppets series in the late 1970s, sometimes later appearing in Muppets movies. He was an ardent patriot, champion of free enterprise, critic of environmentalism, and outspoken foe of all immorality. Sometimes he tripped on his own hypocrisy but it rarely slowed him much. His fierce denunciation of nudity was classic, even as he embarrassingly realized he was naked beneath his own feathers.

The Eagle had no patience for “weirdos.” He disapprovingly confronted flamboyant show guests like Elton John, Liberace and Alice Cooper, whom he denounced, to Cooper’s delight, as a “demented, sick, degenerate, barbaric, naughty, freako.” He chased ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev off the set for casual dress. He strove to instill class and dignity into what he viewed as the program’s supercilious content. This Eagle represented the rectitude of middle America.

Upon whom, if anybody, was Sam based? Before cable, American television viewers had almost no exposure to conservative commentators, unless they watched William Buckley on PBS. Virtually the only well known conservative voice in that viewing era was James Kilpatrick, the pugnacious, curmudgeonly former Richmond newspaper editor who debated at the end of each 60 Minutes episode with liberal Shana Alexander. In the famous SNL parody, Dan Akroyd portrays Kilpatrick heatedly berating his debate partner as an “ignorant slut.”

There’s a bit of Kilpatrick in Sam the Eagle. Maybe there was also a bit of Archie Bunker. Sitcom and movie producer Norman Lear specialized in lampooning his interpretation of American conservatives and their supposed assumptions about patriotism, counterculturists, obscenity and liberal elitists. In the malaise of the late 1970s, during the broadcast years of The Muppets, there was a resurgence of American conservatism culminating in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election. This resurgence represented cultural and political forces that liberals assumed had been decisively defeated in the 1950s or certainly in 1964. Sam the Eagle and champion of pure Americanism resembled a Midwestern Main Streeter organizing a Rotary convention that hosts J. Edgar Hoover circa 1959.

A 1990s sequel to The Muppets featured Sam the Eagle hosting a McLaughlin Group like political talk show called From the Eagle’s Nest, with Sam a type of blustery John McLaughlin.

Was Sam a churchman? He never referenced religion specifically, and maybe his feathers bristled if he was at least partly muzzled by network censors. Sam could have been a Catholic patriot, but his body language/bird language came across as more Mainline Protestant. He probably had feathered ancestors who flew in the American Revolution and who maybe even perched in the Mayflower.

Sam could have been a high church Episcopalian who reverenced the 1928 Prayer Book. He could have been a stern Presbyterian who chafed at cultural disorder. More possibly he was a moralistic Methodist, a foe of personal and social vice, crusading against decadence.

The Eagle’s seeming reticence about explicitly religious issues likely precluded his being evangelical. In the late 1970s evangelicals were reemerging into the spotlight, rambunctiously focused on spiritual decay, and helping make the Reagan Revolution possible. But Sam more resembled a traditionalist who is devout but uncomfortable verbalizing faith issues. He is a defender of the old order against swelling tides of moral permissiveness. He was more the “silent majority” to whom Richard Nixon spoke than the later “Moral Majority” that Jerry Falwell founded.

Likely The Muppets‘ producers playfully intended Sam as their device for mocking self assured, moralistic conservatives who so befuddled liberal cultural elites. But The Eagle got the last laugh, as indifferent to such mockery as were the “silent majority” he reputedly represented. Sam soared ahead, his wings spread wide, both ultra retro but also voicing, at least from his eagle’s view, timeless views impervious to elitist critique.

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  1. Comment by Donnie on January 11, 2014 at 9:21 am

    I always thought he was a fundamentalist Baptist. I grew up in such a church and he reminded me a lot of the pastor at our church, and the teachers at the school. He’s about the furthest thing from a mainline protestant in my mind than you get.

  2. Comment by Creed Pogue on January 11, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Definitely not one of your better efforts. Not when we are supposed to feel optimistic about the increase in professions of faith of less than one percent that (according to Bishop Johnson in the article) was outnumbered by deaths which would be a new and very scary development.

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