Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Politics and Religion -- at the Same Time

Old-fashioned wisdom was that you never brought up politics or religion in polite company. Professionals within either discipline, of course, could always be counted on to bring up either religion or politics at the drop of a hat; but since the 1980s, Americans have built up quite a tradition of talking about both religion and politics at the same time -- Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and even George W. Bush himself, to name only a few, have thrown caution to the winds and have introduced both topics to the lunch counter and the supper table.

The astonishing openness of such folks with regard to both topics at the same time today makes today's two birthday anniversary people all the more unusual for their time, the mid-20th century.

During the height of the Depression, Father Coughlin (born Charles Coughlin on this day in 1891 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) was the best-known, best-loved Catholic voice in America, delivering homilies on his "Golden Hour of the Little Flower" radio show on CBS with his kindly (but fake) Irish brogue, virtually creating in the broader public mind the character of the stereotypical earnest Irish priest later to be played by Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way. Yet as his popularity increased, Father Coughlin's message turned political, and as it turned political it became more and more stridently insurgent.

Beginning in 1923, Coughlin was the parish priest at the Shrine of the Little Flower (named for the recently canonized St. Therese of Lisieux) in Royal Oak, Michigan. Offered radio time by an Irish Catholic station owner in 1926, Coughlin began broadcasting his sermons weekly, and in the process raised thousands of dollars for his Michigan church. As the Depression hit the auto factory communities from which Coughlin drew his parishioners, Coughlin began to warn of the dangers of Communism, on the one hand, and the tyranny of predatory capitalism, on the other (personified by the "Wall Street financiers" and "international bankers," code words by which Coughlin tapped out his thinly-muted anti-Semitic vibes), formulating a somewhat muddled, isolationist economic theory based on remonetizing silver and nationalizing the banking system.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's presidential campaign in 1932, but by 1934 his relationship with Roosevelt began to fray over personal slights: he did not, as he naively expected, play any major role in Roosevelt's administration and the Roosevelt camp took pains to distance themselves from Coughlin, in particular undermining Coughlin's presumptuous purported spokesmanship for Roosevelt in his radio sermons.

Feeling power in his loins, Coughlin had an impact -- how much of one is subject to debate -- on the defeat of Roosevelt's proposed treaty on American membership in the World Court, and began to align himself with other defectors from the FDR team, Huey Long and Dr. Francis Townsend, hinting at the creation of a new political party. After Long's assassination Coughlin completely renounced his affiliation with Roosevelt and announced the formation of the Union Party along with Townsend and Long's purported successor, Gerald L.K. Smith, and subsequently designated activist-congressman William Lemke as its presidential candidate. From the beginning the campaign was an uneasy alliance of cross-purposeful demagogues, and Coughlin had all but given up on the campaign by election day. Having failed to deliver the 9 million votes he had brashly promised (Lemke polled less than 900,000), Coughlin briefly retired, only to reemerge in 1937 to continue to attack Roosevelt's "communistic" New Deal.

The following year Coughlin began to publish a weekly newspaper, Social Justice, which did not bother to thinly-mute its pulsing anti-Semitism. His following reduced to a rowdy collection of crackpots, Coughlin preached against U.S. involvement in World War II, peppering his radio sermons with kind comments about Hitler and Nazism until he was drummed off the air by the government, who banned his newspaper as "seditious" after Pearl Harbor, and the Church, which could no longer tolerate his fringe political activities. Off the air after 1940, he remained pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower until 1966, and passed away in 1979.

On the Protestant side of the aisle, there was Homer A. Tomlinson, founder of the Church of God (World Headquarters) and a perennial U.S. presidential candidate. Born on this day in 1892 in Westfield, Indiana, Homer was the son of Ambrose J. Tomlinson, a founder of the Pentecostal-influenced, Cleveland, Tennessee-based Church of God. Homer Tomlinson first went into the advertising business before his father was thrown out of the Tennessee Church of God and decided to form his own denomination, the Church of God of Prophecy (1922). To assist his father, Homer went into the ministry, establishing a congregation in Jamaica, New York and evangelizing around the Northeast. When Ambrose Tomlinson died in 1943, Homer's brother Milton was elected overseer of the Church after the elders received a prophecy in tongues "to bring forth the younger son."

After losing a legal battle over control of the Church, Homer established his own denomination, the Church of God (World Headquarters) in New York City. The ad man's instincts immediately kicked into gear, and he began attracting attention to his new Church with his new stated mission -- to get members of his church elected to public office so that they could help usher in the kingdom of God. Homer himself volunteered to go after the U.S. presidency, which he did as nominee of the self-founded Theocratic Party in 1952, 1960, 1964 and 1968, advocating the union of church and state, tithing instead of taxes and the appointment of two new cabinet posts -- the secretary of righteousness and the secretary of the Holy Bible. His vote counts have gone mostly unrecorded, but it is thought that he picked up 20 votes in 1964.

His lack of success at the polls did not deter him from his aims, however; at the 1954 convention of the Church of God, claiming to have been hailed "almost as a new Messiah," Tomlinson crowned himself king of the world, and when he wasn't running for president he was traveling to and briefly landing in over 100 countries around the world, staging quick coronation ceremonies before puzzled local authorities, using a gold-painted crown and a six-dollar folding chair standing in for the "throne of David." (When he held his coronation in Red Square in Moscow, Pravda referred to the event as a publicity stunt by "an American actor.") By dint of his presence in foreign lands, he claimed to his small American following that he had averted revolutions and wars, ended droughts, and had begun to usher in a time of peace and goodness. His mission ended with his death in 1968.

Tomlinson's Church of God still exists today as the Church of God, General Assembly, with its headquarters in Lincoln Park, Michigan, but its membership is unreported and is thought to be quite small.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to let you know in case you update your blog the headquarters are in Santa Fe Texas

1:15 AM  
Anonymous Izzy said...


5:02 PM  
Blogger Alice videll said...

Headquarters moved to 624 E First St Monroe Mi 48161 3 years ago from today Phone is 734-457-5886 and the numbers are quite large.

4:55 PM  

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