For Sheen, activism is reason for living.

Martin Sheen admits he’s taken some heat for his liberal views and, especially, his vocal opposition to the policies of President George W. Bush.

But he says no amount of criticism will keep him quiet.

“I love my country enough to risk its wrath,” said Sheen, who entertained a crowd of more than 1,200 at Irvine Auditorium March 29 as part of Penn’s Connaissance series.

In an energetic speech that was alternately self-deprecating, political, funny and serious, Sheen’s central message was simple: He encouraged his audience to actively work to improve their world, and the lives of those living in it, by becoming “social justice activists”—even if it means jeopardizing the acceptance of others.

Sheen said America is a country beset by a litany of social ills, from alcoholism to high incarceration rates, violence to environmental degradation.

“Clearly, there is something terribly wrong in our culture,” he said. “And it’s not going to get better.”

Sheen’s big-screen work, especially as Captain Willard in “Apocolypse Now” and as Carl Fox in “Wall Street,” earned critical raves, and his portrayal of a moral, intellectual president on the NBC drama “The West Wing” has launched him to new heights of stardom. But he said his passion, and his reason for living, is activism.

He has worked for years to solve social ills, lending support especially to the San Carlos Foundation—which serves Hispanic third-world countries—and groups advocating for the homeless

“Acting is what I do for a living,” Sheen said. “Social justice activism is what I do to stay alive.”

Sheen described himself as a formerly lapsed Catholic who rediscovered his faith, and a channel for his activism, through his contact with the Catholic Worker movement. Founded by activists Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, Catholic Worker today comprises 185 communities—including two in Philadelphia that, at night’s end, received checks from Penn for their work—who work to solve the world’s ongoing ills, from poverty and homelessness to war and racism.

Sheen praised Catholic Worker for its efforts to “enact the precepts of the Gospel" and its "uncompromising pacifism.” He joked the group aims to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comforted.”

He had less kind words for the Bush administration, which he said has taken the war on terrorism to such an extreme that the country has moved from a mode of “protection to paranoia.” He also described the situation in Iraq as “very violent” and said the war posed a significant threat to American identity.

“Our very freedom is called into question,” he said.

Meanwhile, America continues to overspend on its military and consume more than its share of the world’s resources, he said.

At the conclusion of his speech, Sheen recited a prayer for peace—a gesture he said was necessary, given the world is in "such a desperate need for some measure of solace.” In the prayer, he asked God to “make us instruments of your peace,” and then concluded, with an actor’s flair: “Let my country awake.”

Originally published on April 14, 2005