With perfect pitch and an awe-inspiring sense of his own authority, Cardinal Roger Mahony flexed his political muscle last week, and the city's political leadership genuflected in response. Anyone else might have looked audacious, but not the archbishop of the fastest-growing Catholic archdiocese in the nation. Presiding over a news conference at St. Vibiana's, he declared that he would "absolutely not" build his grand, new $45-million cathedral on the Skid Row site he was standing on, but would stay downtown at a site of his choosing. The mayor and City Council breathed a near-audible sigh of relief. Councilwoman Rita Walters, in whose district St. Vibiana's is located, gushed about how "pleased and delighted" she was that at least the cardinal was staying downtown.
Mahony's imperious political style has long been apparent. In 1988, he broke with his own--and his church's--pro-union stand and imposed a crushing defeat on his cemetery workers and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers when they tried to organize against his wishes. In 1994, he placed himself at the swirling center of the fight over Proposition 187 and spoke out forcefully against a wildly popular measure. At about the same time, he rammed Hope in Youth, an anti-gang program closely tied to himself and the archdiocese, through the City Council and Board of Supervisors, despite the city's and county's dire financial straits, and the fact that the county's Community Youth Gang Services was already in place. He wished it. He got it.
But has the cardinal, in his quest to build his new cathedral, taken one step too many in his use of secular power? If Los Angeles' history is any guide, he has not. Indeed, he's not even close.
Mahony is only the latest of a long line of local men of God who have successfully intimidated the city's Caesars, and bent them to their will. The story of the city's social and cultural history, beginning in the 1880s on through the 1940s, is, in fact, one of the successful political activism of the city's crusading Protestant ministers.
In 1902, these ministers were among the key players in the morals/vice wing of the city's high-minded, good-government Progressive movement, which successfully campaigned to shut down Los Angeles' quasi-legal, police-protected gambling dives, saloons and houses of prostitution that had flourished since the Gold Rush. They were the new Los Angeles, the migrating sons of the Midwest, come to erase the city's cattle-town, Wild West image, while their brothers made their fortunes.
Protestant ministers would then lead Los Angeles' Progressives into a deep involvement in local politics; electing candidates who shared their backgrounds and values and keeping all others out. By 1915, they shared political power with the city's elite group of downtown businessmen, but, using politics as a weapon, they dominated the city's culture (excluding Hollywood, where they had influence). Crusading ministers formed groups and organizations like the Sunday-Rest League, the Anti-Racetrack Gambling League and the Anti-Saloon League, all to successfully ensure that the people of Los Angeles would live according to the minsters' Calvinistic vision of the world.
Fire and brimstone preachers like "Fighting Bob" Shuler became social arbitrators and king-makers ready to bring down the wrath of God, enforced by the Los Angeles Police Department, on anyone they deemed to have stepped on the wrong side of their narrowly drawn cultural lines. And that included the chief of police and mayor.
Throughout the 1920s, Shuler, who had a powerful radio ministry, would gather up his fellow clergymen and their disciples and arrive unannounced at the offices of the chief of police or mayor. There, using his position as president of the Ministerial Union, Shuler would excoriate them, in full view of the press, for their complicity in the organized-vice operations then flourishing. In 1929, Shuler became an ardent and crucial supporter of teetotaling, Bible-quoting Mayor John R. Porter, best remembered for declaring Los Angeles "the last stand of native-born Protestant Americans."
Shuler, Gustav Briegleb and other ministers set the moral tone and cultural agenda for Los Angeles, and often intimated the then-hapless and corrupt LAPD to do their bidding. Shuler was almost single-handedly responsible for the firing of Chief of Police Louis D. Oaks, whom the reverend spied upon during several of Oaks' drinking and womanizing escapades, afterward revealing them to the public. Although not directly responsible for the downfall of the corrupt Mayor Frank L. Shaw in the late 1930s, Protestant ministers were in the forefront of the movement that launched the recall effort that threw Shaw out of office and forced Police Chief James Edgar Davis and other high-ranking officers to resign.