Charles E. Coughlin. A Catholic priest who became a top-rated radio personality of the 1930s, with sermons that struck a nerve in people battered by The Great Depression. A proto-televangelist, selling "religious" tchotchkes and such to his audience - he had 50 million listeners in the US at the peak of his popularity. He branched out into politics, founding the National Union for Social Justice and Social Justice magazine.

Huey Long and FDR eventually stole some of his populist thunder and constituency. He had once supported Roosevelt and the New Deal, but when radio fame made the padre nouveau riche, his ox was gored by some of FDR's policies. The president became a whipping-boy and "rival" for the increasingly-hysterical Coughlin, who, it would seem, came to see himself as America's f├╝hrer-messiah.

Maybe Coughlin wanted to be president, but, being Canadian-born, he could never be elected - only a coup or similar event could get him real power. Reduced to "kingmaker" status, he pledged allegiance to the "vast anti-FDR conspiracy", and is now remembered for the company he kept - America First, and the darker right-wing and anti-semitic parts of the vast coalition.

He wasn't the first (or last) cleric to tell you how to vote and what to believe, but he stumbled onto the sheer power in the combo of politics, broadcasting, and the trust that a "flock" (whether in a church, or gathered around the radio or television) puts in its pastor. Which makes him, though near-forgotten, very important: he paved the way for Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson... and Rush Limbaugh.

Father Charles Edward Coughlin, b. 1891, Hamilton Ontario, d. 1979, Birmingham, Michigan.

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.

Early years.

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 of ideas.

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.

The 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 was inaugurated:

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 it.
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 New Deal.

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 and Axelrod.

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 time).

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 was.


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 (
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. (
US Government archives: ( Has picture, transcripts and broadcast excerpt online.

URL. (Photo of the Shrine of the Little Flower.)

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