100% agreement here: money solves most of the problems in this game. Growing your economy fast (instead of having your precious construction workers spend 1953 building a church and a pub) will really make a difference in the mid-game. Sure, this strategy will often make you unpopular, but that's what election fraud and a well-paid military are for.
Junta Joe, I follow the same strategy with churches (well, I usually block out two slots... I'm ever-so-slightly more charitable.) I build one church, and then no more churches get built, just cathedrals. On random maps, I'm usually an alcoholic anyway, so I need the extra boost to keep the church elders from whining.
p.s. To Batchman -- yeah, I don't know that I've ever had my people's happiness above 80, either. The best happiness score I ever had was, IIRC, 79, and that was when I used the "food for the people" edict, but I had to have so many fishing wharfs and corn farms that I never bothered to use it again.