Father Charles Edward Coughlin (October 25, 1891 – October 27, 1979) was a controversial Roman Catholic priest at Royal Oak, Michigan's National Shrine of the Little Flower church. He was one of the first political leaders to use radio to reach a mass audience, as possibly thirty million listeners tuned to his weekly broadcasts during the 1930s. Early in his career Coughlin was a vocal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his early New Deal proposals, before later becoming a harsh critic of Roosevelt as too friendly to bankers. In 1934 he announced a new political organization called the National Union for Social Justice. He wrote a platform calling for monetary reforms, the nationalization of major industries and railroads, and protection of the rights of labor. The membership ran into the millions, resembling the Populist movement of the 1890s.
After hinting at attacks on Jewish bankers, Coughlin began to use his radio program to issue antisemitic commentary, and later to support at least some of the policies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The broadcasts have been called "a variation of the Fascist agenda applied to American culture". His chief topics were political and economic rather than religious, with his slogan being Social Justice, first with, and later against, the New Deal. Many American bishops as well as the Vatican wanted him silenced,but it was the Roosevelt administration that finally forced the cancellation of his radio program and forbade the dissemination through the post of his newspaper, Social Justice.
Early life and work
He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, to Irish Catholic parents, Thomas J. Coughlin and Amelia Mahoney. After his basic education, he attended St. Michael's College run by Congregation of St. Basil, a society of priests dedicated to education, in Toronto in 1911. After graduation, he felt called to be a Catholic priest and entered the Basilian Fathers, and prepared for Holy Orders at St. Basil's Seminary, being ordained to the priesthood in Toronto in 1916. He then was sent to teach at Assumption College, also operated by the Basilians, in Windsor, Ontario.
In 1923 a change in the internal life of his religious congregation led to a major shift in his future. The Basilians were required by the Holy See to change the structure of the congregation from a Society of common life, on the pattern of the Society of Saint-Sulpice, to one which required them to follow a more monastic way of life, taking the traditional three religious vows. Coughlin could not accept this, and left the Congregation, moving to the United States, where he settled in Detroit, and was incardinated by the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1923. After being transferred several times to different parishes, in 1926 he was assigned to the newly-founded Shrine of the Little Flower, at that time composed of some 25 families in the largely-Protestant suburban community of Royal Oak, Michigan. His powerful preaching soon caused the parish congregation to flourish.
Coughlin began his radio broadcasts in 1926 on station WJR, in response to cross burnings by the Ku Klux Klan on the grounds of his church, giving a weekly hour-long radio program. His program was picked up by CBS four years later for national broadcast. Until the beginning of the Depression, Father Coughlin mainly covered religious topics in his weekly radio addresses, in contrast to the political topics which dominated his radio speeches throughout the 1930s. His radio addresses began to communicate a more political message in January 1930, when he began a series of attacks against communism and socialism. In addition to attacking communism and socialism, he also criticized the capitalists in America whose greed had made Communist ideology attractive to many Americans. Having gained a reputation as an outspoken anti-communist, in July 1930 he was given star billing as a witness before the House Committee to Investigate Communist Activities.
In 1931 the CBS radio network dropped free sponsorship after Coughlin refused to accept network demands that his scripts be reviewed prior to broadcast, so he raised money to create his own national network, which soon reached millions of listeners on a 36-station hookup. He strongly endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1932 Presidential election. He was an early supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal reforms and coined the phrase "Roosevelt or Ruin", which became famous during the early days of the first FDR administration. Another phrase he became known for was "The New Deal is Christ's Deal." In January 1934, Coughlin testified before Congress in support of FDR's policies, saying, "If Congress fails to back up the President in his monetary program, I predict a revolution in this country which will make the French Revolution look silly!" He further stated to the Congressional hearing, "God is directing President Roosevelt."
Coughlin's support for Roosevelt and his New Deal faded later in 1934, when he founded the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ), a nationalistic worker's rights organization which grew impatient with what it viewed as the President's unconstitutional and pseudo-capitalistic monetary policies. His radio programs preached more and more about the negative influence of "money changers" and "permitting a group of private citizens to create money" at the expense of the general welfare of the public. He also spoke about the need for monetary reform based on "free silver". Coughlin claimed that the Depression was a "cash famine". Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz agree that the Federal Reserve's monetary policy helped cause the depression. Coughlin proposed monetary reforms, including the nationalization of the Federal Reserve System, as the solution.
Among the NUSJ's articles of faith were work and income guarantees, nationalizing "necessary" industry, wealth redistribution through taxation of the wealthy, federal protection of worker's unions, and decreasing property rights in favor of the government controlling the country's assets for "public good". Illustrative of his disdain for free market capitalism is his statement
- We maintain the principle that there can be no lasting prosperity if free competition exists in industry. Therefore, it is the business of government not only to legislate for a minimum annual wage and maximum working schedule to be observed by industry, but also to curtail individualism that, if necessary, factories shall be licensed and their output shall be limited.
By 1934, Coughlin was perhaps the most prominent Roman Catholic speaker on political and financial issues, with a radio audience that reached tens of millions of people every week. Alan Brinkley states that "by 1934, he was receiving more than 10,000 letters every day" and that "his clerical staff at times numbered more than a hundred". Moreover, he foreshadowed modern talk radio and televangelism In 1934, when Father Coughlin began criticizing the New Deal, Roosevelt sent Joseph P. Kennedy and Frank Murphy, both prominent Irish Catholics, to try to tone him down. Ignoring them, Coughlin began denouncing Roosevelt as a tool of Wall Street. Coughlin supported Huey Long until Long was assassinated in 1935, and then supported William Lemke's Union Party in 1936. Coughlin opposed the New Deal with increasing vehemence. His radio talks attacked Roosevelt,capitalists, and Jewish conspirators. Another nationally known priest, Monsignor John A. Ryan, initially supported Coughlin, but opposed his efforts after Coughlin turned on Roosevelt. Kennedy, who strongly supported the New Deal, warned as early as 1933 that Coughlin was "becoming a very dangerous proposition" as an opponent of Roosevelt and "an out and out demagogue." Kennedy worked with Roosevelt, Bishop Francis Spellman and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) in a successful effort to get theVatican to silence Coughlin in 1936. In 1940–41, reversing his own views, Kennedy attacked the isolationism of Coughlin.
In 1935, Coughlin proclaimed, "I have dedicated my life to fight against the heinous rottenness of modern capitalism because it robs the laborer of this world's goods. But blow for blow I shall strike against Communism, because it robs us of the next world's happiness." He accused Roosevelt of "leaning toward international socialism on the Spanish question." Coughlin's NUSJ gained a strong following among nativists and opponents of the Federal Reserve, especially in the Midwest. As Michael Kazin notes, Coughlinites saw Wall Street and Communism as twin faces of a secular Satan. Coughlinites believed that they were defending those people who cohered more through piety, economic frustration, and a common dread of powerful, modernizing enemies than through any class identity.
One of Coughlin's campaign slogans was: "Less care for internationalism and more concern for national prosperity" which went well with the 1930s isolationist movement in the United States. Coughlin's organization especially appealed to Irish Catholics.
In 1936, Coughlin helped found a short-lived political party, the Union Party, which nominated William Lemke for President. Coughlin promised to retire if Lemke did not get nine million votes, and when he received only 900,000 Coughlin stopped broadcasting briefly, returning to the air in 1937.
After the 1936 election, Coughlin increasingly expressed sympathy for the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini as an antidote to Communism. He claimed that Jewish bankers were behind the Russian Revolution, and that Russian Bolshevism was a disproportionately Jewish phenomenon.
on sale in a New York City street, 1939
He promoted his controversial beliefs by means of his radio broadcasts and his weekly rotogravure magazine, Social Justice, which began publication in March, 1936. During the last half of 1938, Social Justice reprinted in weekly installments the fraudulent,antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Charles Tull states, "Originally published in Russia in 1905, the Protocolspurports to be an account of a Jewish conspiracy to seize control of the world".
On various occasions, Father Coughlin denied that he was antisemitic. In February 1939, when the notorious American Nazi organization the German American Bund held a large rally in New York City, Father Coughlin, in his weekly radio address, immediately distanced himself from the organization and clearly stated: "Nothing can be gained by linking ourselves with any organization which is engaged in agitating racial animosities or propagating racial hatreds. Organizations which stand upon such platforms are immoral and their policies are only negative." In August of that same year, in an interview with Edward Doherty of the weekly magazine Liberty, Coughlin stated:
- My purpose is to help eradicate from the world its mania for persecution, to help align all good men, Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile, Christian and non-Christian, in a battle to stamp out the ferocity, the barbarism and the hate of this bloody era. I want the good Jews with me, and I'm called a Jew baiter, an anti-Semite.
On November 20, 1938, two weeks after Kristallnacht, Coughlin, referring to the millions of Christians killed by the Communists in Russia, said "Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted." After this speech, some radio stations, including those in New York and Chicago, began refusing to air his speeches without pre-approved scripts; in New York, his programs were cancelled by WINS and WMCA, leaving Coughlin to broadcasting on the Newark part-time station WHBI. On December 18, 1938 thousands of Coughlin's followers picketed the studios of station WMCA in New York City to protest the station's refusal to carry Father Coughlin's broadcasts. A number of protesters made antisemitic statements such as "Send Jews back where they came from in leaky boats!" and "Wait until Hitler comes over here!" The protests continued for several months. Donald Warren, using information from the FBI and German government archives, has also argued that Coughlin received indirect funding from Nazi Germany during this period.
After 1936, Coughlin began supporting an organization called the Christian Front, which claimed him as an inspiration. In January 1940, a New York City unit of the Christian Front was raided by the FBI for plotting to overthrow the government. Coughlin had never been a member.
Cancellation of radio show
At its peak in the early 1930s Coughlin's radio show was phenomenally popular. His office received up to 80,000 letters per week from listeners. Sheldon Marcus says that the size of Father Couglin's radio audience "is impossible to determine, but estimates range up to 30 million each week". He expressed an isolationist and conspiratorial viewpoint that resonated with many listeners.
Earl Alfred Boyea, Jr. in 1995 showed that the Catholic hierarchy did not approve of Coughlin. The Vatican, the Apostolic Legation in Washington, D.C., and the archbishop of Cincinnati all wanted him silenced. They recognized that only Coughlin's superior, Bishop Michael Gallagher of Detroit, had the canonical authority to curb him, but Gallagher supported the "Radio Priest". Due to Gallagher's autonomy and the prospect of the Coughlin problem leading to a schism, the Roman Catholic leadership let the issue rest.
After giving early support to Roosevelt, Coughlin's populist message contained bitter attacks on the Roosevelt administration. The administration decided that although the First Amendment protected free speech, it did not necessarily apply to broadcasting, because the radio spectrum was a "limited national resource" and regulated as a publicly ownedcommons. New regulations and restrictions were created specifically to force Coughlin off the air. For the first time, authorities required regular radio broadcasters to seek operating permits. When Coughlin's permit was denied, he was temporarily silenced. Coughlin worked around the restriction by purchasing air-time and having his speeches played via transcription. However, having to buy the weekly air-time on individual stations seriously reduced his reach and strained his resources. Meanwhile Bishop Gallagher died and was replaced by a less sympathetic prelate.
After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Father Coughlin's opposition to the repeal of a neutrality-oriented arms-embargo law triggered more successful efforts to force him off the air. According to Marcus, in October 1939, one month after the invasion of Poland, "the Code Committee of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) adopted new rules which placed rigid limitations on the sale of radio time to 'spokesmen of controversial public issues'". Manuscripts were required to be submitted in advance. Radio stations were threatened with the loss of their licenses if they failed to comply. This ruling was clearly aimed at Coughlin due to his opposition to prospective American involvement in what became known as World War II. As a result, in the September 23, 1940, issue of Social Justice Father Coughlin announced that he had been forced from the air "...by those who control circumstances beyond my reach".
Coughlin reasoned that although the government had assumed the right to regulate any on-air broadcasts, the First Amendment still guaranteed and protected freedom of the written press. He could still print his editorials without censorship in his own newspaper, Social Justice. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US declaration of war in December 1941, the anti-interventionist movements (such as the America First Committee) began to sputter out, and isolationists like Coughlin acquired the reputation of sympathy with the enemy. The Roosevelt Administration stepped in again. On April 14, 1942, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle wrote a letter to the Postmaster General, Frank Walker, and suggested the possibility of revoking the second-class mailing privilege of Social Justice, which would make it impossible for Coughlin to deliver the papers to his readers.Walker scheduled a hearing for April 29, which was later postponed until May 4.
Meanwhile, Biddle was also exploring the possibility of bringing an indictment against Coughlin for sedition as a possible "last resort". Hoping to avoid such a potentially sensational and divisive sedition trial, Biddle was first able to engineer a means of more quietly ending the publication of Coughlin's "Social Justice" newspaper. First Biddle met with a Mr. Leo Crowley, who happened to be a close friend of Archbishop Edward Mooney, Bishop Gallagher's successor. Crowley then relayed Biddle's message to the archbishop that, the government was willing to, "deal with Coughlin in a restrained manner if he (the archbishop) would order Coughlin to cease his public activities". Consequently, on May 1, Archbishop Mooney ordered Coughlin to stop his political activities and to confine himself to his duties as a parish priest, warning of potential defrocking if he refused. Coughlin complied and remained the pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower. The pending hearing before the Postmaster, which had been scheduled to take place four days later, no longer being necessary, was cancelled.
Coughlin remained in his position as parish pastor until retiring in 1966. He died in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1979, at the age of 88.