Coughlin, Father Charles E. (1891-1979)

views updated

Coughlin, Father Charles E. (1891-1979)

Long before the emergence of present-day radio "shock-jocks," Father Charles E. Coughlin, the "radio priest" of the 1930s, realized the power of using the airwaves as a political pulpit and means to achieve celebrity status. Along with Huey Long, the controversial senator from Louisiana who advocated a massive wealth-redistribution program, Coughlin reflected the frustrations of Americans mired in a seemingly endless Great Depression. Beginning his career as a talented parish priest who used radio broadcasts as a means to raise funds for his church, he became perhaps the most popular voice of protest of his day, reaching millions of listeners each week with a populist message that pitted the common man against the forces of the "establishment." Over time his message developed from one of protest to demagoguery; his career perhaps illustrates both the potentialities and dangers of political uses of mass media.

Born in 1891 in Hamilton, Ontario, Coughlin grew up in a devout Catholic family. There was never doubt that he would enter the priesthood, and at the age of twelve Charles enrolled at St.

Michael's College in Toronto. He matriculated to a seminary in 1911. After taking the vows of priesthood, he was assigned as parish priest in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburban community just north of Detroit. Although the parish was tiny and operated on a shoestring budget, Coughlin had grandiose plans for the church—which seemed futile considering the modest number of Catholics in Royal Oak. Two weeks after a new church was built, local members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the church lawn. Coughlin, known for having a streak of militancy, vowed to overcome local resistance and transform the struggling church into a vibrant, flourishing parish.

His plans for bolstering the church were innovative and wildly successful. He renamed the church the Shrine of the Little Flower and became an indefatigable fund-raiser. He invited members of the Detroit Tigers baseball team to the church as a way to attract attention—Babe Ruth even attended the church once while playing the Tigers and held a basket for donations at the church door. Yet Coughlin's most lucrative idea was to turn to the airwaves. He contacted the manager at local radio station WJR about broadcasting a weekly radio sermon that would confront local issues and raise awareness of the church. The medium was perfect for Coughlin, whose warm, mellow voice attracted listeners throughout Detroit. His sermons offered a variety of religious themes, such as discussions of Christ's teachings and Biblical parables. Soon mail was pouring into the station, hundreds and sometimes thousands of letters each week, most with financial contributions from listeners. Coughlin's plans for the Shrine of the Little Flower were soon realized: a new church was built, with a seating capacity of more than twenty-six hundred, complemented by a tall, granite tower. Attendance boomed as people throughout the region came to catch a glimpse of the "radio priest."

Coughlin's radio talents soon were noticed by executives outside of Detroit. Columbia Broadcasting Service, based in New York, offered Coughlin a deal in 1930 that gave him a national audience, and soon he was reaching as many as forty million listeners each week. Yet as his popularity increased, the tone and content of his broadcasts began to change. Sermons on religious themes gave way to discourses on politics and economics. The Great Depression, he declared, demanded a fundamental restructuring of society in order to overcome the evils of greed and corruption, much of which was intrinsic to "predatory capitalism." Boldly confronting his critics on the air, Coughlin's political speeches generated controversy, so much so that CBS decided to cancel his show despite his growing listener base.

Undaunted, Father Coughlin signed contracts with independent radio stations and continued to reach millions of listeners weekly. His political messages, although impassioned, were rather vague. He supported Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election, hailing the New Deal as "Christ's Deal." His greatest complaint was with wealthy financiers and bankers, most of them on the East Coast, who were bilking the "common man." With time, however, he moved away from Roosevelt, believing that New Deal reforms were too mild for a society that required radical change. In 1934, Coughlin founded the National Union for Social Justice, an organization designed to promote his political ideas, which included nationalization of American banks and currency inflation through the coinage of silver. Over the next two years, the organization developed into a third party, the Union Party, and offered William Lemke, a congressman from North Dakota, as a presidential candidate to oppose the reelection of Roosevelt.

After the failure of the Union Party to either capture or significantly influence the 1936 presidential election, Coughlin's popularity began to wane. His weekly radio broadcasts continued to attract a national audience, but he never recaptured his earlier fame. By the late 1930s, his speeches were increasingly shrill. Listeners detected anti-Semitism and demagoguery in his broadcasts—elements that had appeared occasionally before, yet now were becoming more vocal and more frequent. What had in the past, for example, been occasional references to "Shylocks" and international financial conspirators undermining the country became an outright assault against "Communist Jews"; Coughlin also borrowed from the speeches of German Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. He opposed American entry into World War II vehemently, arguing that Jews had been responsible for bringing the nation into the conflict. Such extreme positions lost for Coughlin any significant audience that had remained with him, and he retired from public life during the war and returned to the Shrine of the Little Flower. He died in 1979, at the age of eighty-eight.

—Jeffrey W. Coker

Further Reading:

Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

Marcus, Sheldon. Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower. New York, Little Brown, 1973.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Politics of Upheaval. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Tull, Charles J. Father Coughlin and the New Deal. Syracuse, University of Syracuse Press, 1965.