Father Charles Coughlin

Father Charles Coughlin
Father Charles Coughlin

Charles E. Coughlin (1891–1979), a Catholic priest and extraordinarily popular radio personality, contributed significantly to nationalist antisemitism in the United States before World War II. Coughlin asserted that covert Jewish economic interests had led directly to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, and World War II. Coughlin believed the same forces were responsible for later silencing him.

Coughlin’s use of the radio in these accusations has won him notoriety as the inventor of “hate radio” (Warren). Coughlin’s use of radio broadcast his antisemitism to an audience far broader than enjoyed by earlier demagogues. Long after his popularity passed, Coughlin’s theories about the “international Jewish banking conspiracy” continued to thrive among U.S. right-wing movements.

Charles Edward was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on 22 October 1891, an only child to devoutly Catholic parents. The church and his mother dominated young Charles’s life. Ordained in 1916, Coughlin joined the Basilian religious order and performed standard clerical duties in Catholic parishes in southern Ontario. In 1923 Coughlin left the Basilians and moved to suburban Detroit.

Radio Career and Politics

In 1926 Coughlin received an appointment to a lackluster parish in Royal Oak, Michigan, a small suburb north of Detroit. The parish suffered from low membership, inadequate facilities, and Ku Klux Klan harassment. Through the help of a parishioner, Coughlin began The Little Flower radio program (named after the parish’s patron saint, St. Therese of Liesieux) to raise funds. Coughlin’s histrionic speaking abilities quickly generated interest, and the show expanded in radio markets around the Midwest. Within a year Coughlin broadcast his shows nationwide.

Coughlin’s early broadcasts featured an ironic spirit. As his popularity grew, Coughlin began exploring the roots of social ills such as anti-Catholic bigotry. Mail streamed into the Royal Oak parish, causing Coughlin to hire additional secretaries to manage it. During the Great Depression economic issues appeared in each weekly broadcast.

Coughlin excoriated business interests for bleeding the working class of its of savings and his popularity consequently soared. The United States was a Christian nation, Coughlin claimed, and Americans had certain rights granted by God and the Constitution, such as personal autonomy, private property, and the right to work.

Anything threatening these rights was not only unpatriotic but also quite demonic. In the early 1930s Coughlin created Social Justice, a publication containing his broadcasts and other articles sympathetic to Catholic social reform, to further spread his message (Brinkley; Warren).

During the 1932 election Coughlin proclaimed Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only candidate possessing the skills needed to resuscitate the nation. Coughlin fancied himself as one of FDR’s field representatives. The more Coughlin pushed for a federal administrative role, though, the more the Roosevelt administration rebuffed him. During 1934, Coughlin’s broadcasts shifted quickly from praising to critizing Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Coughlin claimed that Roosevelt’s big business connections threatened the very roots of representative democracy. By encouraging his radio audience to write congressional members, Coughlin secured the defeat of Roosevelt’s 1935 attempt to join the World Court as well as the 1938 federal reorganization bill.

Gerald L. K. Smith, an evangelical minister and one of Huey Long’s organizers in Lousiana, convinced Coughlin to unite his immense radio following and populist program with Francis Townsend’s nationwide pension project for elderly Americans. Coughlin and Smith created the National Union Party (NUP) to organize their supporters into a third political party.

Speculation suggested that the NUP possessed ample ability to challenge the Roosevelt juggernaut in 1936. As a priest, Coughlin could not run for office, so he and Smith chose North Dakota congressman William Lemke instead. However, support quickly eroded, Roosevelt swept to victory, and Coughlin and Smith parted ways acrimoniously (Jeansonne; Warren).

The National Union for Social Justice, which Coughlin had founded in 1934, continued to pursue a Catholic approach to the nation’s social and economic reform. Coughlin maintained singular control over the National Union’s agenda so that it expressed thoroughly Catholic interpretations of populist solutions.

Antisemitism and Catholicism

U.S. Catholicism’s unreconciled message of U.S. materialism and suffering Christianity hastened Coughlin’s descent to join Smith in antisemitic demagoguery. Coughlin praised Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime for its success in limiting Jewish influence on German national interests.

Although his popularity shrank during the late 1930s, even after Germany’s Kristallnacht Coughlin still enjoyed millions of supporters. Much of Coughlin’s popular support came from Catholics who felt the priest was their only advocate within the church. He was the one priest willing to criticize the bishops for their extragavant lifestyles.

Coughlin’s Irish heritage provided the intellectual framework for his antisemitism. The writings of Dennis Fahey, a priest who taught Catholic philosophy and social thought in Dublin, blamed social and economic upheavals on Jewish conspiracy.

Besides killing Jesus Christ, Fahey argued, Jews were responsible for the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, industrialization’s social problems, and the League of Nations (Athans). Coughlin quickly incorporated Fahey’s antisemitism into his radio broadcasts and Social Justice articles, as the National Union Party suffered its embarrassing election defeat.

In 1938 the magazine reprinted Protocols of the Elders of Zion.When cautioned about its authenticity, Coughlin merely claimed that the document, forgery or not, accurately predicted global events. His radio broadcasts continued to draw connections between the Depression in the United States, armed conflict in Europe, and international Jewish finance.

Coughlin was rumored to have several economic and political contacts with Nazi figures in the United States and Germany. As the United States entered World War II, Coughlin insisted that Jews had started the conflict to advance their own agenda. As federal authorities and Coughlin’s own clerical superiors moved to silence him, the priest alternated between expressions of militant defiance and meek acquiescence.

Coughlin believed that he was the victim of covert forces committed to his destruction. Christ had thrown moneylenders out of the Temple, and consequently had been crucified; Coughlin portrayed his silencing along similar lines. Coughlin’s remaining audience, composed mostly of German and Irish Catholics in the urban Northeast, only strengthened its resolve to support the priest.

Silencing and End of Career

Coughlin’s popularity and unrelenting antisemitism caused consternation among the church’s authorities. Catholics had faced significant anti-Catholic animosity as recently as the 1920s, which Coughlin’s early broadcasts noticeably diminished. As Coughlin focused more on politics and antisemitism, church leaders sought to distinguish official teachings from Coughlin’s personal position.

However, Detroit’s Catholic bishop, Michael Gallagher, deflected much of the criticism. After Gallagher’s death in 1937, Detroit’s new bishop, Edward Mooney, sought repeatedly to silence Coughlin, forcing his radio program off the air in 1940.

Members of Christian Front, a nationwide organization Coughlin founded for young Catholic men, were arrested for antigovernment conspiracies and gang violence in Jewish neighborhoods. In 1942 Social Justice ceased publication, and Mooney prohibited Coughlin from speaking or writing on any political matter. Coughlin returned to suburban Detroit’s anonymity.

While he deflected allegations of racism during the 1960s, Coughlin has since been noted as an early precursor to white separatist movements and Holocaust revisionism (Kaplan, 67–71; Warren, 5–6). His violence-tinged antisemitic rhetoric concerning the international Jewish conspiracy helps explain the connection. Coughlin died in Royal Oak, Michigan, on 27 October 1979.