Individual Isolationists: Father Charles Coughlin


Figure 1.--Here Father Coughlin is addressing the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ) / Townsend Convention in Cleveland (July 16, 1936).

Charles Coughlin the "radio priest" was born and raised in Canada. He entered the priesthood and moved to Royal Oak, Michigan during the 1920s. His new church needed repairs and he conceived the idea of laubhing a brief radio program on WJR radio station in nearby Detroit. Commercial radio at the time was still very new. The program initially consisted of a short, traditional sermon and homilies followed by an appeal for donations. The program gradually grew in popularity. With the onset of the Depression and hard times, Couglin's tone and the subject matter of his sermons gradually shifted. Couglin shifted his program from religion to economics and politics. He began to talk about socialism and became stidently anti-Semitic. One of his most important themes was to ‘restore power to local communities and the individual’ (Brinkley, 1983). Couglin promoted the idea of social justice based upon what he called his social gospel which a rejection of what he saw as an unjust distribution of wealth. He conceived the idea of a Jewish banking conspiracy. [Harvey & Goff, 2004.] Couglin ininitally was a strong supporter of President Roosevelt and the New Deal. Couglin's explanation was ‘Roosevelt or Ruin’. [Hadden & Swann, 2004.] Couglin proposed radical economic theories to the President and when they were not excepted, Couglin began to criticize President Rooselvelt and the New Deal. Couglin organized the National Union for Social Justice and an associated political party--the Union Party. He made a major effort to defeat President Roosevelt in the 1936 elections. He of course failed and Roosevelt won one of the most resounding political victories in American history. Even so Coughlin stood as an emensly influential voice during the 1930s. The difficult times created a public anxious for sollutions to their desperate conditions. He was an early master of the medium of radio and had an excellent voice for broadcasting. He also offered a plan to end the Depression, however, simplistic and influenced by anti-Semetic prejudices. Couglin's radio broadcast the Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS) began to broadcast Coughlin nation-wide. He founded the the Radio League of the Little Flower. He was soon receiving 80,000 letters a week, many with donations. [Marcus, 1973.] The split with Roosevelt caused him to intensify his anti-Semetic retoric. He saw this as an example of Jewish financeers controlling the political process. After the 1936 election he stopped broadcasting, but resumed them again the next year. His anti-Semetic diatribes became so ugly that CBS insisted on reviewing his sermons before broacasting them. Couglin then organized his own network. Coughlin used his popular radio show to rally his listeners against another threat, urging the creation of a Christian Front to "combat Communism" (1938). Within weeks, Christian Front groups, characterized by fierce anti-Semitism, had formed in cities all over the country. His critism of President Roosevelt was primarily based on economics. As Europe moved toward war and isolatioists began to criticize Roosevelt's efforts to support the Allies, Coughlin became a powerful voice for the isolarionists. He had earlier spoke favorably of both Hitler and Mussolini for their efforts to address the Depression. Hitler's anti-Semitism also appealed to Coughlin who saw American confrontation of the NAZIs motivated by a sesire to save Jews. He told listeners ‘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’. One of the New Deal agencies, the Federal Communications Commission, eventually banned him from broadcasting.

Parents

Charles Coughlin the "radio priest"Coughlin was to Irish Catholic parents, Thomas J. Coughlin and Amelia Coughlin.

Childhood

Charles was born and raised in Hamilton, Canada. We know little about his childhood at this time.

Education


Priesthood

Coughlin and was ordained to the priesthood in Toronto (1916). He taught for a time at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario

Royal Oak Church

Coughlin moved to Royal Oak near Detroit Michigan (1923). His new church needed repairs and he conceived the idea of launhing a brief radio program on WJR radio station in nearby Detroit (1926). This was the time in which the KuKluxKlan had emerged as an important force in the North. The Klan which hated Catholics only slightly less than blacks and Jews burned a cross in front og his church.

Commercial Radio

Commercial radio at the time was still very new in the early 1920s. The first American commercial radio broadcast took place on November 6, 1920, in Pittsburg Peensylvania. The station was KDKA. A Westinghouse employee climbed into a wooden shack on the roof of a company plant and spoke into a converted telephine mouth piece. The first words were, "We shall now broadcast the election returns." He went on to provide details on the election of Warren Harding as president. It did not take long for radio to become a major industry. By 1925 about 10 percent of Americans had radios and by 1933, despite the Depression, 63 percent of Americans had acquired a radio.

Early Program

Father Coughlin's first program was so well recrived that je was soon doing a regular weelkly 1-hour program. The first program Father Coughlin's early program initially focused on religion. It consisted of a short, traditional sermon and homilies followed by an appeal for donations. The program gradually grew in popularity. Art this early stahe his anti-Semitism was muted.

The Depression

With the onset of the Depression and hard times, Couglin's tone and the subject matter of his sermons gradually shifted. Couglin shifted his program from religion to economics and politics. He began to talk about socialism and became stidently anti-Semitic. One of his most important themes was to ‘restore power to local communities and the individual’. [Brinkley, 1983] Couglin promoted the idea of social justice based upon what he called his social gospel which a rejection of what he saw as an unjust distribution of wealth. He conceived the idea of a Jewish banking conspiracy. [Harvey & Goff, 2004.]

Politics

Father Couglin initially was a strong supporter of President Roosevelt and the New Deal. Couglin's explanation was ‘Roosevelt or Ruin’. [Hadden & Swann, 2004.] Couglin proposed radical economic theories to the President and when they were not accepted, Couglin began to criticize President Rooselvelt and the New Deal. Couglin organized the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ) and an associated political party--the Union Party. He made a major effort to defeat President Roosevelt in the 1936 elections. The Union Party's platform was basically a slightly revised version of the Couglin's sixteen-point NUSJ program. He allied with Dr. Francis Townsend, the author of a revolving old-age pension plan. He also worked with Rev. Gerald Smith who took up the "Share Our Wealth" campaign after Senator Huey Long was shot. Coughlin worked hard to support the Union Party candidate, William Lemke. He was a Congressman from North Dakota. At acampaign rally in Cleveland Coughlin gave a speech in which he clearly enuciated his beliefs (July 1936). He attacked Wall Street and bankers as well as Oresident Roosevelt. He escoriated both Democrats, and Republicans. He virtually indicted the President for failing to reform the American monetary and economic system. In a democratic gesture, he removed his clerical collar and denounced President Roosevelt as a 'liar" and a "great betrayer". He charged that the President's campaign promises of 1932 had been ignored. The speech was well received by his friendly sudience. The reaction of the national press was highky critical. He failed to generate much eldectiral interest for the Union Party and Presidenbt Roosevelt in 1936 won one of the most resounding political victories in American history.

Influence

Despite his failure to defeat President Roosevelt, Coughlin stood as an emensly influential voice during the 1930s. He succeeding in mastering the medium of radio at a very early time and had an excellent voice for the medium. He might be considered the first important bradcast evangelist, the fore-runners of the modern tele-vangelists. The difficult times created a public anxious for sollutions to their desperate conditions. He also offered a plan to end the Depression, however, simplistic and influenced by anti-Semetic prejudices. Politically the public remained loyal to President Roosevelt and the New Deal. He did, however, help to make it politically difficult for the Roosevelt Administration to act on emmigration as well as add to the powerful isolationist movement in the United States, a movement that made it very difficult for the President Roosevelt to resist the dictators and after the War began to save Britain.

Anti-Semitism

Father Couglin's break with Roosevelt was accompanied by a much more overt anti-Semitism. His attacks on money-hungry bankers now connected them with "Jewish conspirators" despite the fact that large American banks did not have Jewish directors. Father Coughlin never wavered in his bais thrust, but as 1936 progressed his anti-Semtism became increasingly viriolic. He blamed Jews including Jewish bankers for the Russian Revolution. He said that that Jewish influence was creating turmoil. Coughl began publishing the newspaper, Social Justice (1938). Much of the paper was devoted to Jew bating. Father Coughlin began supporting both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. This culminated with his most famous speech delivered in the Bronx. He gave a dramatic NAZI salute and shouted, "When we get through with the Jews in America, they'll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing." Coughlin ignored the persecution of the Catholic Church in Germany and the arrest of priests. This was not an emotional outburst. On another occassion Coughlin claimed that "Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted." This statement was made in the wake of Kristallnacht when NAZI groups Jews across Germany buned symagiohes and broke into Jewish home to pillage , steal, and drag the men off to concentation camps. Hos radio speeches became so hate filled that stations in in New York and Chicago began refusing to air them without first seeing the scripts. Eventully the stations carrying his speeches dwindled. The one station he could rely on was the small WHBI station in Newark, New Jersey. Father Coughlin vecame, however, a hero in NAZI Germany. Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels saw to it that newspapers ran his speeches and that the U.S. Government was curtailing free speech by restricting his access to the media. German newspspers has headlines like, "America is not allowed to hear the truth." Supporters gathered and marched in New York protesting the both the media restriftions and Jewish immigration. These protests went on for moths. Coughlin made common cause with the "Christian Front" which gave considerable attention to Couglin's speeches and writing. The FBI closed down the Christian Front when it learned that the group was not only arming itself, but planning to kill Jews, communists, and even criutical U.S. Congressmen (1940). Father Coughlin was never directly linked with the Christian Front plot, made no effort to disassociated himself from them or their hate-filled program. His reputation was adversely affected.

CBS

Couglin's radio broadcast the Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS) began to broadcast Coughlin nation-wide. He founded the the Radio League of the Little Flower. He was soon receiving 80,000 letters a week, many with donations. [Marcus, 1973.] The split with Roosevelt caused him to intensify his anti-Semetic retoric. He saw this as an example of Jewish financeers controlling the political process. After the 1936 election he stopped broadcasting, but resumed them again the next year. His anti-Semetic diatribes became so ugly that CBS insisted on reviewing his sermons before broacasting them.

Christian Front

Couglin then organized his own network. Coughlin used his popular radio show to rally his listeners against another threat, urging the creation of a Christian Front to "combat Communism" (1938). Within weeks, Christian Front groups, characterized by fierce anti-Semitism, had formed in cities all over the country. His critism of President Roosevelt was primarily based on economics.

Isolationist Voice

As Europe moved toward war and isolatioists began to criticize Roosevelt's efforts to support the Allies, Coughlin became a powerful voice for the isolarionists. He had earlier spoke favorably of both Hitler and Mussolini for their efforts to address the Depression. Hitler's anti-Semitism also appealed to Coughlin who saw American confrontation of the NAZIs motivated by a sesire to save Jews. He told listeners ‘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’.

Refugees

One of the criticisms leveled against President Roosevelt is that little was done to assist the refugees fleeing NAZI persecution, many of who of course were Jewish. One of the reasons that the President who was pushed to ask by the First Lady failed to do so was men like Father Coughlin. Tghe isolationists represented a wide swathe of America with many varied motivations. One element in this vast mosaic was anti-Semitism. Father Coughlin and Charles Lindburg were major spokesmen charging that Jews were trying to drag the United States into war. Coughlin added the charge that Jewish finaceers planned to make huge profits from war sales. Both Coughlin and Lindburgh in fact had no real problen with what Hitler was doing to the Jews and this included the period after Kristallnacht (November 1938). (But of course before the mass killing of the Holocaust which did not begin in 1941.) There was a very strongly held objecting among Americans at the time to increasing immigration quotas. Father Coughlin did not create that opinion, but he certainly fed it, especially among his broadcast demographic, mny of which were hard hit by the Depression. The problem for the President was that to touch the emmigration issue would affect his ability to fight the isolationists in Congress. This task was enormously complicated by the 1938 Congression election which greatly strengthen the Republican minority in Congress--many of which with strong isolationist views.

Banned

One of the New Deal agencies, the Federal Communications Commission, eventually banned him from broadcasting.

Sources

Brinkley (1983).

Harvey & Goff, (2004).

Marcus, (1973).






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Created: 12:29 AM 7/6/2006
Last updated: 3:23 AM 5/10/2011