An Historical Exploration of Father Charles E. Coughlin's Influence

Among the first public figures to utilize the immense power of the nation's passion for radio, Fr. Charles Edward Coughlin reached a broad ecumenical audience during the 1930s. By the height of his popularity in 1932, Coughlin reached a potential audience of some 40 million people. Though a critic of the forces of mass consumer culture around him, he ironically used the first national network to distribute his political and economic views. Though an often florid and repetitive speaker, Coughlin built his reputation on serving as a champion of the poor, foe to big business and financial interests, and as the mouthpiece for the hopes and fears of the nation's lower middle-class. Fr. Coughlin presented a difficult figure to comprehend during his life and has continued to do so for his biographers. The taint of his anti-Semitism has tended to produce biographies that struggle to avoid simple demonization while also not apologizing on his behalf. Instead he acts as a cipher to various streams of marginal beliefs that exist in American society.

 

Childhood and Entering the Priesthood

 

Born on October 25, 1891 in Hamilton, Ontario, Coughlin grew up in a comfortable middle-class home. After school at the local parish, St. Mary's Cathedral, his parents sent him to board at St. Michael's Preparatory School, part of the University of Toronto. He entered the university in 1907 and graduated in 1911. Coughlin then entered Toronto's St. Basil's Seminary to join the Basilian Order of priests, and was ordained in June 1916. While teaching at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, a 1918 change in policy required him to either become a full member of his order or to join a particular congregation. Coughlin left the order to join the Archdiocese of Detroit.1

 

The Shrine of the Little Flower and Broadcasting

 

1923 saw him leave the college and hold several positions throughout the diocese ending with the authorization to build the Shrine of the Little Flower in tribute to the newly canonized St. Therese of Lisieux. Coughlin had earned his new post after cultivating a strong relationship with the Archbishop of Detroit, Michael Gallagher through mutual theological and economic worldviews. The new parish's location of Royal Oak, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit along Woodward Avenue, had few families and a strong tradition of anti-Catholicism. Working with money borrowed from the diocese, Coughlin erected a wooden structure larger than the parish's immediate needs but in anticipation of future community growth through the auto industry's expansion. Coughlin's encounter with the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s in Royal Oak has come under further scrutiny as at least one author has called into question his account of the experience.2

To increase donations and attendance to pay off his parish debts, Coughlin began Sunday broadcasts on Detroit radio station WJR. His messages focused on relatively ecumenical religious messages and quickly gained a broad audience. Much of his appeal came from a carefully crafted persona that utilized a rich, radio friendly voice and measured speaking cadence, to the short and simply structured messages he provided. The success of these broadcasts that aired throughout the Midwest drew him both acclaim and enough funding to plan an ambitious new parish complex.

Hiring the architectural firm of Hamlin and McGill of New York, Coughlin oversaw the construction of an enormous tower called the Charity Crucifixion Tower on the grounds of the Royal Oak site. After the completion of the tower in 1931, the parish received a new main structure that placed the altar at the center of worship, a unique innovation many years prior to Vatican II. Using a basic octagon shape and roof designed to mimic a tent, the entire complex took a cruciform shape once completed in 1936. Unlike his first parish that had relied on borrowed money, Coughlin could build his Art Deco masterpiece using only donations to finance it even during the depths of the Great Depression.3

 

National Prominence and Support for FDR

 

The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) had picked up Coughlin's broadcasts in early 1931 and expanded his message to a potential audience of some 40 million. At the same time, an enormous volume of mail arrived at the Shrine and required a staff of clerks to record the donations and supply responses. This volume of mail came from the increasingly political content of his broadcasts after the fall of 1929. Forming the "Radio League of the Little Flower," Coughlin began to speak against "predatory capitalism" and communism, ideologies that worked in equal measure against the common good of Americans. Though he was greatly influenced by the Basilian Order's views, the social justice themes of some Catholic theological thought shared by his patron Archbishop Gallagher, and a series of advisors, Coughlin was not well versed in formal political theories. Coughlin as social commentator emerged only after a long period of non-political broadcasting.4

This new political turn and increasingly hostile statements against the Hoover administration deeply concerned CBS officials wary of regulation by the federal government. Coughlin responded to their request that he tone down the rhetoric of his broadcasts by delivering a punishing broadcast about the dangers of censorship. He would finish his contract with the network and then rebuild his national reach through purchased time on radio stations using the donations that came into his mailroom. Though these actions would impact on the overall reach of his broadcasts, Coughlin's ability to influence to some degree a large audience did not go unnoticed.

In the 1932 presidential election campaign, Coughlin was a staunch supporter of FDR, avowing that it was either "Roosevelt or Ruin." Allied closely to Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy, a leading Democratic Party member, Coughlin found a role for himself in his campaign against those he viewed as causing the depression, namely business and financial entities linked to Hoover and the Republican Party. An invitation to attend the Democratic National Convention highlighted how far Coughlin had moved beyond his beginnings as a purveyor of simple religious radio homilies. By the winter of 1933, Coughlin stood at perhaps the peak of his political influence and public presence.

 

The National Union for Social Justice and the Election of 1936

 

Throughout 1933 and 1934, Coughlin came to realize that the new Roosevelt administration had its own ideas about how to deal with the Great Depression. Though politely received, the administration had little interest in most of Coughlin's ideas about economic policy. Plans to use silver to increase the money supply, the reorganization of the financial system, and other such ideas did not find a receptive audience. What Roosevelt did face, however, were several groups unhappy with the speed of and types of efforts undertaken by the federal government. Along with Coughlin, California doctor Edward Townsend helped form clubs based on the idea of guaranteed retirement funds. The most significant pressure group came from Louisiana Governor and later Senator Huey Long. Long promoted his "Share the Wealth" program to redistribute wealth based on a series of severe taxes placed on the nation's wealthiest citizens. Though none of these plans were viable in any real-world scenario, they could and did place enormous pressure on the Democratic Party and Roosevelt in particular to respond to their proposals. Roosevelt's New Deal followed its creators' pragmatic political instincts, but even so had to respond to ensure that its mandate to rule was not completely undercut.5

In November of 1934, Coughlin set up his own organization, the National Union for Social Justice and fully broke with FDR. Two years later he began publishing a nationally circulating paper called Social Justice and began to forge alliances with other political groups disaffected with the New Deal and the Democratic Party. Coughlin, although not publicly affiliated, helped to form the Union Party to build on the dissident strength left after Huey Long's 1935 assassination. Most authors note that the strong personalities within the new entity precluded its having a unified message or national appeal only a goal of throwing the election to the House of Representatives. Selecting North Dakota Congressman William Lemke as the party's candidate, the uncertain quantity of how to gauge an audience surfaced. The campaign did not go as planned and at the July 1936 Townsend rally at Cleveland's enormous Municipal Stadium Coughlin gave the most intemperate public speech of his career that likely damaged his public image. The August national convention for the Union Party further revealed the tenuous base of power Coughlin and his dissidents as intra-party squabbles split the platform. The November election ended both the National Union for Social Justice and the Union Party as Lemke managed only 850,000 votes of 45 million total. Honoring a pledge to cease broadcasting should the election end in defeat, Coughlin retired from the public stage.6

 

Silencing

 

Although some latent anti-Semitic themes appeared in some of Coughlin's speeches fairly early in his career, not until the late 1930s did his rhetoric became increasingly filled with attacks on Jews. By 1938, the pages of Social Justice were frequently filled with accusations about Jewish control of America's financial institutions and that summer Coughlin published his own version of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." A virulently anti-Semitic piece of propaganda that had originated in Russia at the turn of the century, the "Protocols" presented the supposed Jewish conspiracy to seize control of the world. Religious leaders from within the Catholic Church and across denominations denounced the statement prompting Coughlin to release a pamphlet entitled "Am I an Anti-Semite?" Later that year, the radio priest delivered perhaps his most startling and hateful broadcast to date. In response to the November 10, 1938, "Kristallnacht" attack on Jews in German-controlled territory, Coughlin began by asking, "Why is there persecution in Germany today?" He went on to explain, "Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted."7 The owner of WMCA, the New York station that carried Coughlin's show, refused to broadcast Coughlin's next radio message. The incident proved an unexpected political coup for Germany's Nazi Party as it presented the decision as proof of Jewish control of American media. Between 1936 and 1940 Coughlin fell at a rapid pace from the mainstream of American social and political life and left him to appealing to a far more radical audience.

The death of Coughlin's patron, Archbishop Gallagher in early 1937 placed church leaders in the awkward position of dealing with the priest's increasingly radical positions. Though the new Archbishop Edward Mooney made clear his disagreement with Coughlin's positions, he felt constrained by the policies of the church to not interfere too directly with particular diocesan actions. One author has argued persuasively that neither Catholics, Protestants, or Jews held particularly ecumenical views and that a strongly latent anti-Semitic strain ran throughout American religion, Catholic or Protestant. Under pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters and a growing refusal to carry his broadcasts, Mooney moved to silence Coughlin by February 1940. At the same time, Mooney finally acted to force Coughlin to openly sever connections with the magazine Social Justice. Despite this, Coughlin's connection to the publication, still assembled by his former advisors and Shrine parishioners, was undeniable.8

The entry of the United States into the Second World War forced Mooney to take decisive action against Coughlin. In April 1942, Attorney General Francis Biddle ordered a federal grand jury investigation of Social Justice because of its apparently pro-Axis propaganda. Coughlin openly asserted his control over the publication and openly invited an indictment. Shortly thereafter Postmaster General suspended the publication's second class mailing privilege. After a series of meetings, Coughlin's public presence had ended with a negotiated end to an indictment on sedition charges. After the silencing, Coughlin continued to serve at the Shrine of the Little Flower until his retirement in 1966. Though the diocese required his public speeches be censored prior to delivery, his opportunity for such engagements were kept to a minimum. He died at his home in Bloomfield Hills on October 27, 1979.

 

1 Donald Warren, Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio (New York: The Free Press, 1996): 11-12.

2 Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Seasons of Grace: A History of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990): 319-320; Warren, 19.

3 National Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic Church, "History" and "Virtual Tour," http://www.shrinechurch.com [accessed October 12, 2007]; Warren, 291-293.

4 Alan Brinkley Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York: Vintage Books, 1982): 96-97; Sheldon Marcus Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1973): 47-48; Charles J. Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1965): 18-21.

5 William E. Leuchtenburg, The FDR Years: On Roosevelt and His Legacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995): 79-81; T.H. Watkins, The Great Depression: America in the 1930s (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1993): 268-269; Brinkley, 186-187; Warren, 89.

6 David H. Bennett, Demagogues in the Depression: American Radicals and the Union Party, 1932-1936 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1969): 235-238; Brinkley, 261; Tentler, 328.

7 Tentler, 335-336.

8 Brinkley, 267-268; Tentler, 339-341.