Father Charles Edward Coughlin, b. 1891, Hamilton Ontario, d. 1979,
Why read this?
Coughlin (pronounced conk'lin) was one of those interesting people who came
out of the woodwork in the forcing ground of the great depression. A Roman Catholic priest who turned early to radio as a means
of raising money to save his parish, his charisma, aptitude, the new power of
radio, and the times in general all combined to make him a political force to
be reckoned with. His ideas bore an increasingly uncomfortable resemblance to
those of Hitler, and Coughlin was progressively marginalized and finally silenced
by pressure from both the US government and the church in 1942. He died in obscurity 37 years later.
Coughlin was educated at the University of Toronto (St.
Michael's College), and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest after study
at St. Basil's Seminary in 1916. After a stint teaching at Assumption College
in Windsor, Ontario (through 1923), Coughlin crossed over to Detroit
and was eventually settled in 1926 at the Shrine of the Little Flower Church
in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit.
The Shrine of the Little Flower Parish. Radio as a means of fundraising.
Coughlin's parish was financially strapped, and the Ku Klux Klan had damaged
the structures while graciously decorating church grounds with a (flaming) cross.
Coughlin, possessor of a fine, strong voice, decided to use the radio as a means
of soliciting support and money. On 17 October 1926 he began broadcasting sermons
and catechetical instruction which he followed up
with appeals for contributions.
Coughlin enjoyed immediate success, but soon found the attractions of using
the new "bully pulpit" of radio for political purposes irresistible.
Coughlin was nothing if not opinionated; his world view was colored by Catholic
commitment to social justice and a bitter hatred for international movements
(especially socialism and communism) which were (as he saw it) either openly
antireligious or diluted piety through the effect of internationalist exchange
As early as 1928 Coughlin was using his radio pulpit to attack Norman Thomas,
himself an ordained presbyterian priest. Thomas,
a socialist and civil libertarian in the school of Jane Addams and
Upton Sinclair, was the socialist party candidate for Governor of New York
in 1924, a position which was then seen as a stepping stone towards the presidency.
Even a failed bid lent a national prominence to a candidate.
In 1928 Thomas campaigned unsuccessfully for the presidency while Franklin D. Roosevelt
situated himself for a run at the presidency by winning the governorship of
New York. Coughlin had attacked Thomas in 1928 when there was little
danger of the latter accomplishing anything, but in 1932, the depression, by then three
years old, lent Thomas'--and others'--message a strength it had lacked before. Coughlin accordingly came out strongly for Roosevelt in the 1932 election,
making his slogan "Roosevelt or ruin" famous through the radio.
CBS network had picked up Coughlin for nationwide syndication in 1930, so
his broadcasts had the largest possible audiences. Coughlin had no love for
what he took to be the heartless big business interests that had precipitated
the depression, so in fact, Roosevelt must have seemed to him the only acceptable
alternative. We can get some idea of Coughlin's style and mindset by looking
at a pro-Roosevelt statement he issued in 1933, a few months after Roosevelt
I know that his [Roosevelt's] heart is anxiously set upon
putting into effect the promise he made in his inaugural address, to drive the money changers out of the temple.
I know there is no power in this city [Detroit] and no group
of editors and publishers who dare to stand and oppose Franklin Roosevelt's
new deal. I for one would give my life rather than let them get away with
And then, after bringing about the depression, they turned on President Roosevelt
. . . and got away with murder by blaming Mr. Roosevelt for causing the wreck
of our banks.
I hope no newspaper man here today will say I am defending Mr. Roosevelt.
But I am defending a principle; I am defending Pope Leo XIII: and Pope Pius
XI. I am defending a Protestant President who has more courage than 90 percent of the Catholic
priests in the country, a President who thinks right, who pleads for the common
man, who knows that men come before bonds, and that human rights are more
sacred than financial rights.
Oh I know that millions were pooled to defeat Roosevelt. I know that Catholic
Smith said, "Stop Roosevelt," and I know that Protestant
Hoover cried "Radical Roosevelt,"
but, nevertheless, he is a President who wants to give Christian doctrines
a chance to make good, who is willing to make the Christian experiment. (Detroit
News, August 24, 1933, excerpted by Marcus 57-58)
Had I been Roosevelt, this would have scared me, because these kinds of expectations could never be fulfilled,
and when someone with messianic expectations of you sees finally that you are
merely human they usually feel bitterly betrayed. In fact, it soon became apparent
that whatever measures Roosevelt was taking to relieve the misery and to erect
social safety nets, he was not about to "drive the money changers out."
The bloom went off the rose of their relationship. Coughlin began attacking
Roosevelt, who responded politically by having his Secretary
of the Treasury Henry Morganthau release a list of the
largest holders of commodity silver in 1934. Lo and behold, it turned out
that Coughlin's secretary was the largest holder of silver (500,000 ounces!)
in Michigan, and the wife of a close friend of Coughlin's was holding 100,000
ounces. Coughlin had to admit that some Shrine of the Little Flower money was
tied up in these investments.
While Coughlin's speculation in silver was not illegal, it was clear that
behind other people's names he was heavily investing in silver, and two things--his
extravagent personal tastes and his manifest involvement in the "money
changing" he was crusading against blunted his effectiveness. Unashamed
but bitter at the whistleblowers, Coughlin's ideas and methods took a sharp
turn for the worse.
The NUSJ and the election of 1936. Vatican disapproval.
Coughlin founded a political party in December 1934, the National Union
for Social Justice. It was founded on "16 points" aiming
at sometimes laudable, but often practically unworkable ideals. The movement's
voice was Coughlin's radio broadcasts and his weekly bulletin Social Justice.
Coughlin actually supported several candidates in the 1936 election, campaigning
around the country and giving an astounding performance at the "Townsend Convention" of third-party opponents to the New
Deal, calling the president "Franklin Double-crossing Roosevelt."
Later he said that "Roosevelt lies on the rotten meat of broken promises,"
which brings nothing so much as a maggot to mind.
Coughlin's language was deeply disturbing to the Vatican and to his bishop,
his nominal superior in church hierarchy. Pius XI himself was angry; for while
exhortations to industrialist plutocrats to share the wealth and treat workers
better had been Catholic doctrine since Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum
of 1891, the church was absolutely not interested in stirring up revolution
anywhere, or more importantly, in giving the appearance of doing so, at least
in Coughlin's time. Both Bishop Gallagher in Detroit and the Vatican expressed
disapproval, and the Vatican told Coughlin (through the Papal Ambassador to
the US) to tone down his political activities and issue an apology to Roosevelt.
Coughlin had "agreed" to stay off the air if his presidential candidate
(William Lemke) failed to get 9 million votes; like all Coughlin candidates,
he failed badly, getting about a tenth of that number. Coughlin's failure (and
attendant humiliation) appears to have driven him further from the mainstream
(and, temporarily, from the air). Indeed, such distancing, and the adoption
of ideas more closely associated with Nazi Germany marked Coughlin's spiral
into the "lunatic fringe" of American politics. (This section is deeply
indebted to Marcus 101-138.)
Descent into the "lunatic fringe."
Coughlin returned to the radio in 1937, and while he no longer openly campaigned
politically, he stood on his constitutional right to free speech to continue
saying what he wanted. After the stinging losses in 1936 which persuaded him
of the futility of trying to work in the mainstream, Coughlin actively aligned
himself with the far conservative right. He was deeply impressed by the success
of the German National Socialists in what he saw as their battle with communism,
while "communism" was in fact increasingly the way he viewed Roosevelt's
This was inherently interesting, because the right tended to be skeptical (if
not worse) of the Roman Catholicism with which Coughlin was thoroughly identified.
Coughlin found that his political power was best served by setting his sights
on the common enemy communism, an easy step for a man always contemptuous of
the antireligious nature of communism as it was practiced.
Unfortunately, even then the stridently anticommunist right was thoroughly
mixed with antisemitism. Coughlin's speeches and written emissions took on a
more and more obvious look of attacks on international Jewish bankers, and fought
any involvement in Europe on behalf of Jews. In this way, his agreeable policies
(to the people he wanted to please) outweighed the Roman Catholic strike against
him. In joining the political extremists raised up by the pressures of the depression,
Coughlin became part of what Roosevelt stigmatized as the "lunatic fringe."
However, Coughlin still commanded large audiences and much sympathy.
"My enemy's enemy is my friend." This appears to characterize Coughlin's
view of the German National Socialists. As always in a love affair,
one tends to see the commonalities with the other party and be
blind to some pretty giant faults. This was true of Coughlin and the Nazis,
and an overwhelming hatred of communism, coupled with an insensitive (and all-too-common)
willingness to conflate the ideas "Jewish" with "certain
powerful Jews with whom I disagree" (and perhaps "money changers"),
led him to a flabbergastingly uncritical stance towards the Nazis. It also
lulled his conscience to sleep in the face of urgent reports of mounting atrocities
in Germany. See how he writes off the Jews as a regrettable collateral
casualty in the war on communism:
Since 1923 when communism was beginning to make substantial advances throughout
Germany, a group of rebel Germans--under the leadership of Austrian-born war
veteran Adolf Hitler by name--organized for two purposes. First to overthrow
the existing German government, under whose jurisdiction
Communism was waxing strong and, second, to rid the Fatherland of Communists
whose leaders, unfortunately, they identified with the Jewish race.
Thus Naziism was conceived as a political defense mechanism against Communism
and was ushered into existence as a result of Communism. And, Communism itself
was regarded by the rising generation of Germans as a product not of Russia,
but of a group of Jews who dominated the destinies of Russia. (November 26,
1938 broadcast excerpt, Marcus 160-161)
And even more unsettling:
The three outstanding leaders in the world today are the three Jews, Leon
Blum, the radical of France; Maxim Litvinov, the reddest of red Russians;
and Leslie Hore-Belisha, minister of war in England . . . . Must the entire
world go to war for 600,000 Jews in Germany who are neither American, nor
French, nor English citizens, but citizens of Germany? (Detroit News,
January 9, 1939, excerpted by Marcus 168-169)
Have you ever seen footage of Coughlin giving a public speech? In his most
extreme days, from 1937-1940, he adopted the tone, methods, and at times even
the words of the Nazi party. In the December 30, 1938, New York Post,
a damning exposé showed in extenso that Coughlin had adopted,
nearly word-for-word, a speech composed by Josef Goebbels. His speaking mannerisms,
partly conventional for his day, bear a more than casual resemblance to Hitler's--unsurprisingly,
since Coughlin knew Hitler was undeniably effective as a public speaker, and
had demonstrably taken the trouble to master German propaganda (and appropriate
it). To study the Führer at work on the podium and imitate
him was only a small further step. Here is one of the smoking guns, a comparison
of two short excerpts from the long presentation in the Post, one from
Goebbels (translated into English, of course, not by me), the other published
by Coughlin under his own name (excerpted by Marcus, 169-170):
Josef Goebbels: On April 30, 1918, in the courtyard of the
Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich, 10 hostages, among them one woman, were shot
through the backs, their bodies rendered unrecognizable and taken away. This
act was done at the order of the Communist terrorist, Eglhofer, and under
the responsibility of the Jewish Soviet Commissars, Levien, Levine-Nissen
Charles Coughlin: On April 30, 1918, in the courtyard of
the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich, 10 hostages, among them one woman, were
murdered. This act was perpetrated by the direct order of the Communist terrorist
Egelhofer and under the responsibility of the Jewish Soviet Commissars, Levien,
Levine-Nissen, and Axelrod.
In the end, Coughlin was slowly cut off from the airwaves by a number of legal
devices, such as laws curtailing the expenditure of money raised by nonprofit
organizations (like Coughlin's Shrine of the Little Flower money-raising broadcasts)
for political ends like Coughlin's NSUJ; or laws limiting
access of paid ads or broadcasts touching on political issues (free airtime
to be equally allotted, but monied parties like Coughlin's not able to buy disproportionate
As with Al Capone, it was a minor law that was used to end Coughlin's career.
The federal government, with no right to curb Coughlin's free speech, did begin
hearings on possible seditious content in his literature, and, aided by the
pressures of war, ultimately stripped him (in 1942) of his ability to use the
nonprofit postal rate which enabled his fundraising machine. Under pressure
on all sides, Coughlin retired in silence to his parish, which he held until
1966; his death in 1979 left most people scratching their heads as to who he
Coughlin is an interesting study in contradictions. Committed to Catholic concepts
of social justice, which correlates in many respects with the ideals (if not
the methods) of socialism and communism, Coughlin despised the latter with a
hatred that distorted his moral clarity; a Roman Catholic, he found common ground
with the conservative right which often hated Roman Catholicism (as witness
the contemporary fate of Al Smith). Lastly, devoted, as a priest ought to
be, to a religiously humanist agenda (his commitment to social justice certainly
reveals this side of his character), he paradoxically lapsed into an indefensibly
uncritical admiration of the Nazis and adoption of their propaganda.
Each of these conundrums can be explained politically and by Coughlin's historical
context, but to explain them does not make them any less interesting, nor does
explanation make Coughlin's case any less valuable while scrutinizing current
political figures. It also valuably shows that societal pressures (such as the
economic stress of the depression) make even well-established western democracies
vulnerable to demagogic figures with terrible agendas (by which I mean not Coughlin's social justice agenda but his virulent antisemitism).
Attarian, John. 2003. "Static on the Radio Priest." Review of Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio, by Donald Warren. InThe American Enterprise, November/December 1996 (http://www.taemag.com/issues/articleid.16275/article_detail.asp).
Marcus, Sheldon. 1973. Father Coughlin. The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower.
Rafalski, Robert. 2001. Father Charles E. Coughlin. National Union for Social Justice. (http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/coughlin.html)
US Government archives: (http://www.ssa.gov/history/cough.html). Has picture, transcripts and broadcast excerpt online.
http://www.decopix.com/littleflower.html (Photo of the Shrine of the Little Flower.)