Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Religion and radio preying together

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2 The host of the Christian radio station hemmed and hawed before counselling that the Almighty probably would not run up the debt load any more than was necessary. That was good, sound advice, I thought.

It was a recent mid-afternoon, and I was a few hundred miles north of Salt Lake City on the long drive back to Winnipeg. As anyone who has ever done this road trip can attest, you cannot avoid the large anti-abortion billboards -- a caption under the photo of a beautiful baby boy proclaims that "I am a life, not a choice" -- or the multitude of religious radio stations on the journey through Utah, Idaho and Montana.

All three states are predominately white, gun-loving, and pro-life and were Romney Republican in the last presidential election (Montana's lone congressman is Republican, but its two senators are curiously Democrats; and of Utah's three congressmen, one is a Democrat. Idaho is all Republican).

Though Pope Benedict and his successor, Pope Francis, have embraced Twitter and Facebook to communicate with their multitude of followers, the old-fashioned radio remains a powerful and influential tool for religion in the United States and Canada.

Manitoba is served by Golden West Broadcasting based in Altona, which operates several stations throughout the province and in Saskatchewan and Alberta. There are more than 100 Christian radio stations in Canada (operated by at least 30 broadcasters) and close to 1,000 in the U.S.

Jewish and Islamic radio shows are equally as popular in various parts of both countries.

Though my study of the American evangelical stations I listened to was by no means scientific, my impression was that callers like the woman who could not decide whether to opt for another student loan were seeking comfort and guidance. And the personable broadcasters were more than happy to quote the Scripture and relate tales from the New and Old Testaments in offering salvation and solutions to such personal dilemmas.

Religion and radio have been linked at the hip from almost the first day listeners in North America tuned in. Most Canadians and Americans did not own a radio until after 1925. The first religious broadcast, however, was made on Christmas Eve 1906, when Reginald Fessenden, a young radio pioneer from Canada who had been conducting sound experiments at a lab in Massachusetts, produced a holiday program for ships off the east coast.

Fessenden may have been more interested in testing his theories of sound transmission, but his broadcast symbolized the radio's remarkable capacity to spread "the word of God."

One of the first official religious services on the air was broadcast from Pittsburgh's Calvary Episcopal Church in January 1921. The program was heard by about 1,000 people. The church's senior pastor later recalled that he did not have much faith that "the little black box was really going to carry out the service to the outside world. I knew there was such a thing as wireless, but somehow I thought there would be some fluke in the connection, and that the whole thing would be a fizzle!"

But it was hardly a "fizzle." From then on, it was clear that religion and radio were a natural fit. By 1925, religious organizations or groups operated about 60 radio stations in the United States.

According to U.S. radio historian Tona Hangen, Charles Fuller a popular Los Angeles based Protestant evangelist and radio preacher, could reach in a few 30-minute segments "more living people on this earth than the greatest evangelist of the 19th century, D.L. Moody, was able to reach, with long journeys, fatiguing travels, and sometimes three meetings a day in his entire 40 years of Christian service."

Likewise, R.R. Brown, an Omaha evangelical who went on the air in 1923 with his Radio Chapel Service, had built up a following of 100,000 listeners within a few years. "We believe," declared Rev. A.A. McIntyre, the editor of the Canadian Churchman, "that radio is one of God's most wonderful gifts to man."

Sitting in a studio or standing in the pulpit of their church, the growing band of radio priests touched on a wide range of topics -- from the sanctity of rural life to the evils of immigration and Communism. They saw themselves as moral guardians of a simpler and lost era of traditions, shunted aside because of urbanization and the sin and depravity they believed the city had spawned. At the same time, the radio brought rural listeners into the modern world.

A key practitioner of the art was William Aberhart, who used his brilliant success as a radio preacher in Alberta to advocate the quirky monetary theories of Social Credit with the onset of the Great Depression and then became the premier of the province in 1935. At the height of his career as a radio priest in the late 1920s, Aberhart's Sunday afternoon sermons attracted an estimated listening audience of 350,000 people on the Canadian Prairies and the northwest U.S.

Politicians as well as advertisers quickly made the connection that radio could sell just about anything.

Two other radio preachers of note, both also born in Canada, were Aimee Semple McPherson and Father Charles Coughlin.

Sister McPherson was the most modern of evangelists, an acclaimed faith-healer who cherished her rural roots and traditional values, yet from her headquarters in Los Angles became one of the first North American media sensations. Her choreographed broadcasts were so moving that thousands of listeners heeded her call to kneel and place their hands on their radios so they could be healed physically as well as spiritually. Letters and money poured in.

Father Coughlin took a different approach. He was bigger, more renowned, more contentious and certainly more controversial. He portrayed himself as a champion of freedom and democracy and a "solitary fighter" against the bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, he used the enormous popularity he attained as the "Radio Messiah" to spread his narrow definition of morality mixed in with a healthy dose of hate and anti-Semitism.

For more than a decade, he cast a spell over thousands of North Americans, preying on their fears about the modern world. Blessed with a "golden voice" and a charismatic personality, he used the radio to espouse his malicious personal views.

Broadcasters today might not be quite as venomous as Father Coughlin was, though critical comments and even hate, against minorities, gay marriage, abortion and U.S. President Barack Obama, are common enough on many American religious and right-wing stations.

Then again, cruising along I-15 or I-90, you can always change the station, because soulful country music is always on the air as well.

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 J1

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