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Coughlin, Charles

Charles Coughlin

born october 25, 1891
hamilton, ontario

died october 27, 1979
detroit, michigan

catholic priest, radio personality

"Coughlin invented a new kind of preaching, one that depended on modern technology: the microphone and transmitter. He ushered in a revolution in American mass media…televangelism and political talk radio, stem back to him."

donald warren in radio priest: charles coughlin, the father of hate radio

Known as the "radio priest" during the 1930s, Father Charles Edward Coughlin broadcast to the nation from an office in his Catholic church. His first broadcasts were Sunday sermons primarily aimed at children. Then came more politically charged programs, in which he spoke on behalf of citizens disillusioned by the troubles of the Great Depression, the most serious economic crisis in U.S. history. By the 1930s the American radio audience was large. Despite economic hardships, most citizens found a way to purchase radios. Speaking out for the common people and against various targets—big business, communism, Jews, and eventually President Roosevelt and the New Deal—Coughlin reached nearly thirty million Americans during the peak of his popularity in the early 1930s.

Early on, Coughlin's personality and golden radio voice established him as a spokesman for the economic victims of the Great Depression. However, as his politics became steadily more radical, he preached hate and prejudice. Among an assortment of causes and demands, he called for nationalization (the U.S. government to assume ownership) of banks, utilities, and natural resources to ensure financial stability of fairness in pay. He believed that everyone willing to work deserved a guaranteed living wage (an income whereby a family can afford all the basics in life, food, shelter, clothing, education, and transportation) and that farmers should be guaranteed payment of the cost of production plus a certain profit. As the years passed, Coughlin's once fiery and convincing radio delivery seemed more and more like the ravings of an unbalanced individual. Coughlin's public following steadily declined until he was forced off the air in 1942 by the government and his religious leaders.

A religious upbringing

Coughlin was born in Hamilton, Ontario, to a devoutly Catholic couple of Irish descent. He grew up as an only child (a younger sister died in infancy). His father was sexton (an official who maintains the church building) for a Catholic cathedral, and the family's house was on the church grounds. Coughlin's mother attended daily mass and dreamed of her son someday joining the priesthood. Coughlin attended St. Mary's parochial school in Hamilton and then St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto. He graduated in 1911 at the age of twenty with a Ph.D., specializing in philosophy and English. He spent the summer after graduation touring Europe. When he returned, he decided to begin studies for the priesthood. Coughlin entered St. Basil's Seminary at St. Michael's in Toronto for formal training and was ordained in June 1916 at the age of twenty-five. This branch of the Basil-ian Order, established in France in the early nineteenth century, generally opposed modern industrial economic growth and the resulting prominent role of money and banking systems in society. Coughlin taught at a Basilian boys' school, Assumption College, in Windsor, Ontario, from 1916 to 1923. Windsor is located just across the Detroit River from Detroit, Michigan. Though he taught many subjects, Coughlin put a great deal of time into drama classes, where he displayed a theatrical flair. During this period, Coughlin also began to exhibit a strong individualist mind-set and behavior that often did not conform with college rules.

In 1923 Coughlin left Windsor to become a parish priest in the Diocese of Detroit. He quickly gained a reputation for his speaking and fund-raising abilities. Overflowing crowds often attended masses when Coughlin was scheduled to speak, causing resentment among fellow priests. After three years, in 1926, he was assigned to a newly established parish in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, which was populated by the rapidly growing number of automobile industry workers. Coughlin named the newly built, brown-shingled wooden church Shrine of the Little Flower. The Shrine of the Little Flower remained his home base for the rest of his life.

The radio priest

The new parish was located where few Catholics lived; therefore, it struggled financially at first while trying to pay back the loans used for buying the property and building the church. In an effort to increase attendance and revenue, Coughlin asked a fellow Irish Catholic who owned a radio station, WJR in Detroit, if he would broadcast Coughlin's Sunday sermons in a radio program called "The Golden Hour of the Little Flower." With a strong signal, the station reached a large area of eastern Michigan. Beginning in October 1926, the broadcasts immediately became popular and secured a regular Sunday program spot. Coughlin's rich radio voice and Irish accent captured more and more listeners. By 1929 two more stations broadcast Coughlin's sermons, WMAQ in Chicago and WLW in Cincinnati. The following year the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began broadcasting his program nationally. Over thirty million listeners of various religious affiliations were regularly tuning in every Sunday. To further expand his audience, Coughlin also began publishing a weekly newspaper, Social Justice.

Initially Coughlin's sermons were uncontroversial and nonpolitical. However, many of his parishioners were workers in the automobile industry and began to be affected by the Great Depression. Increasingly Coughlin addressed economics and politics in his sermons. He watched as many of his parishioners were laid off from their jobs as companies folded due to lack of funds. This experience moved him to focus on the greed and corruption in the banking and financial industry. Though he never fixed on a particular solution, Coughlin did begin to call for the government to take over the U.S. banking system. He preached that business leaders had a responsibility to the community. His sermons hit a popular chord with the public, who resented the modern industrial economy and the wealthy businessmen and bankers whom many blamed for causing the Depression. Coughlin delivered the sermons with a raised voice and clenched fist. Middle-class America was looking for someone to blame for its economic problems, and Coughlin provided his listeners with simple explanations in the form of conspiracy theories. For example, he argued big business and government conspired (worked together secretly) to concentrate the nation's wealth in the hands of a privileged few and leave the rest of society to struggle financially. His common targets for blame were political leaders and immigrants as well as both capitalism (an economic system in which property is privately owed and decisions on production and prices are largely privately determined) and communism (a theory that advocates elimination of private property).

Coughlin escalated the inflammatory political speech in his sermons, and in response CBS removed his program from the network in April 1931. Coughlin then established his own independent chain of radio stations, which by 1932 included twenty-seven stations from Maine to Kansas. With revenue and contributions flowing in, Coughlin built a lavish new church building in addition to comfortable homes for himself and his parents. He received so much mail, approximately eighty thousand letters a week, that 106 clerks and four personal secretaries were employed to keep up with it. Cough-lin also established God's Poor Society, which distributed food and clothing to thousands of needy people in the Detroit area.

From supporter to critic

In 1932 Coughlin met presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) and through his broadcasts became a major supporter of Roosevelt's campaign. Coughlin's slogans during 1932 and 1933 were "Roosevelt or Ruin" and "The New Deal Is Christ's Deal." However, by mid-1934, as Coughlin became more radical in his economic views, Roosevelt began to distance himself from the fiery broadcaster. Coughlin politically detached from the president and aligned himself with New Deal critics, including politician Huey Long (1893–1935) and Francis Townsend (1867–1960), an elderly medical doctor promoting a "retirement income" for senior citizens. Frustrated with the slow pace of reform and his inability to get closer to Roosevelt, Coughlin publicly denounced the New Deal in December 1935. He began calling the New Deal the "Jew Deal" and changed his earlier slogan to "Roosevelt and Ruin."

With his large following Coughlin was able to block some efforts by Roosevelt's administration by applying public pressure on Congress not to support the president's programs. For example, European governments were establishing an international World Court to help maintain peace and invited the United States to join. However, fears generated by Cough-lin over greater foreign control over U.S. citizens swayed public opinion and Congress blocked Roosevelt from accepting the invitation. Concerned about the attacks coming from Coughlin and other critics, Roosevelt shifted New Deal support away from business and toward the common laborer, calling for legislation that would create social insurance, workers' compensation, and stronger labor unions.

A radical priest

In May 1936 Coughlin helped form the Union Party, with thoughts of nominating Huey Long as a presidential candidate. However, the assassination of Long left Coughlin with a lesser-known candidate. Coughlin had promised to retire from public life and his radio program if the Union candidate received less than nine million votes in the November 1936 presidential election. When the candidate received less than nine hundred thousand votes, Coughlin briefly retired but returned to the radio program in early 1937.

Catholics and the Depression

By the 1920s the Catholic Church was actively promoting major social reform in the United States, urging minimum wage laws, social insurance programs, and labor rights in the workplace. The church's membership consisted largely of the lower working class and immigrants. As the Great Depression steadily worsened, Pope Pius XI (1857–1939) issued the Quadragesimo Anno, an official letter sent to church leaders in 1931. The letter stated church policy on social issues and called for governments to create laws and institutions that would benefit the general public and individual well-being. The letter also asserted that ownership of private property brought with it obligations to promote the common good of society. The Quadragesimo Anno condemned economic systems in which businesses operated without government regulation. The church argued that such systems had caused the Depression by concentrating wealth in the hands of a few and leaving many people in poverty.

By 1932, as the economic crisis deepened, American Catholic leaders were greatly dissatisfied with President Herbert Hoover's futile attempts at providing solutions. They strongly encouraged the government to adopt elements of the Quadragesimo Anno and quickly establish major direct relief programs. They also pushed for greater governmental control of industries to keep wages from dropping. Father Charles Coughlin was one of the church leaders supporting the Democratic candidate for the 1932 presidential election, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt quoted from the Quadragesimo Anno in one campaign speech, and many believed he had shown great courage by endorsing basic Christian social reform principles. Catholic leaders pushed for massive government spending on jobs and relief programs, increased taxes on the wealthy, and recognition of labor rights.

Following Roosevelt's election victory, Catholic leaders strongly supported Roosevelt's New Deal programs, which were designed to bring economic relief to the nation. Roosevelt appeared at the National Conference of Catholic Charities in 1933 to give a speech. His administration brought a sharp increase in the number of Catholics appointed to high-level government positions, including two cabinet positions: James A. Farley (1888–1976) as postmaster general and Thomas J. Welch as attorney general. Catholic support of Roosevelt continued through the 1930s, despite Father Coughlin's abrupt change in political views. Catholic leaders praised the Social Security Act of 1935 as a vital first step in a national social welfare system. It was estimated that 70 percent of Catholics voted for Roosevelt's reelection in 1936. Through his actions and policies Roosevelt had helped Catholics become part of mainstream American life. Previous to this, Catholics had been considered as largely representing Eastern European immigrant groups who came to the United States in the late nineteenth century, in contrast to the larger, more established Protestant majority that arrived from Western Europe in earlier centuries.

Coughlin increased his hostile attacks on Roosevelt and the New Deal as his radio following steadily declined. He also promoted anti-Semitism (hostility toward Jews), and in 1939 he supported the formation of the militaristic Christian Front. The group, small and primarily located in a few Northeastern cities, accosted Jews and harassed Jewish-owned establishments. Coughlin began expressing sympathies with fascist leaders Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) of Germany and Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) of Italy. (Fascism is the belief in a central government led by a dictatorial leader, with the strictest social and economic restrictions and forcible suppression of any opposition to the government on the part of the people.)

Coughlin's radicalism was more than radio station owners could tolerate, and by early 1940 he was largely off the air. He continued to publish Social Justice for two more years until the U.S. government banned it from mail delivery. Under pressure from the government and the Catholic Church, by May 1942 Coughlin had withdrawn from political activities and resumed his pastoral duties at the Shrine of the Little Flower. He remained there until his retirement in 1966. He spent the next thirteen years out of the public eye and died in the Detroit area in 1979.

For More Information

brinkley, alan. voices of protest: huey long, father coughlin, and the greatdepression. new york, ny: knopf, 1982.

carpenter, ronald h. father charles e. coughlin: surrogate spokesman for the disaffected. westport, ct: greenwood press, 1998.

fried, albert. fdr and his enemies. new york, ny: st. martin's press, 1999.

tull, charles j. father coughlin and the new deal. syracuse, ny: syracuse university press, 1965.

warren, donald i. radio priest: charles coughlin, the father of hate radio. new york, ny: free press, 1996.

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