Charles Edward Coughlin

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Charles Edward Coughlin (18911979) is not a household name in the later part of the twentieth century, when talk radio has taken on such a prominent role in public discourse. But from 1926 to 1940, this name was well known as a radio voice with a mission. A Roman Catholic priest first, radio personality second, and political activist third, Charles Edward Coughlin was a pioneer in radio talk who used the medium to promote his church, his religious beliefs, and his political agenda.

Born on October 25, 1891, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Coughlin was educated at Catholic schools and at St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto. He was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in 1916, and was assigned to assist parishes in the Detroit, Michigan, area. Coughlin was made a full parish priest (i.e. incardinated) by the Detroit diocese in 1923. In 1926 he was assigned his own church, the new Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan. Coughlin set about building the new parish by publicizing it. He began broadcasting a weekly show of religious topics over the local radio station, which proved to be widely popular, and within four years the show was picked up by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) for national play.

Coughlin began his radio career speaking entirely on spiritual and religious matters. But by 1930 he spoke out strongly against communism. His denunciations gained him a reputation and earned him an appearance before the Committee to Investigate Communist Activities of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Great Depression (19291939) had begun by the end of 1930, however, and Coughlin's attention over the air waves turned to matters of poverty and despair.

"The radio priest," as he was known, addressed social problems through the years of the Great Depression, and he attacked Bolshevism and socialism as enemies of social justice. His constant attacks on the Hoover administration (19291933) and other controversial subjects in his broadcasts caused CBS to discontinue them in 1931. Coughlin then put together an independent broadcast network that eventually grew to 26 stations.

Coughlin championed Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945) in the presidential election of 1932, calling the choice "Roosevelt or ruin." In turn, Roosevelt cultivated Coughlin's support but did so without embracing the politics of the priest. Coughlin advocated a program for altering American capitalism keyed to monetary inflation, which was based upon a late nineteenth century Papal encyclical, Rerum novarum. When Roosevelt refused to fully accept his ideas, however, Coughlin turned on Roosevelt and became a bitter critic.

Coughlin formed the National Union for Social Justice in 1934, an organization dedicated to combating communism and fighting for currency inflation and government control of big business. By 1936 Coughlin's animosity towards Roosevelt had grown to the point that he not only actively spoke out against his reelection, but also made his National Union for Social Justice the nucleus for the Union Party, an independent opposition party. The Union Party, inheritors of the followings of the late Huey P. Long (18931935) and Francis E. Townsend (18671960), polled fewer than 900,000 votes in Roosevelt's landslide victory in 1936. The National Union died with the election.

Charles Coughlin's influence declined over the next several years. He established a magazine, Social Justice, which ran from 1936 to 1942. He organized a new vehicle for his ideas, the Christian Front, and publicly pushed for his program and opposition to Roosevelt. As the 1930s wore on, however, Coughlin concentrated more and more on Communists and Jews as the source of societal and economic problems. Eventually, his rhetoric embraced a program that was anti-Semitic and fascist. He advocated a corporate state under which most political institutions would be demolished.

Coughlin's controversial attitudes split the Catholic populace. In 1940 the larger radio stations in Coughlin's network of affiliates did not renew his contract. When he refused to moderate his positions against the government following Pearl Harbor in World War II (19391945), his bishop officially silenced him. The U.S. Post Office banned his newsletter, and the last of the radio stations quit broadcasting his program. Still the good priest, Coughlin pulled back his activities to focus on the duties of running the parish.

For the remainder of his days, Coughlin accepted his less outspoken position and was effectively silenced. From the high days of his radio program, when he had to hire one hundred clerks to answer his mail and tabulate contributions, he remained the parish priest of the Shrine of the Little Flower until his retirement in 1966. From then until he died on October 27, 1979, he tended his home in Birmingham, Michigan, and wrote pamphlets denouncing Communism. A fiery, vibrant, and opinionated priest, he ultimately followed the orders of his church and restrained his own opinions.

Topic overview

The great betrayer and liar, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised to drive the money changers from the temple, had succeeded [only] in driving the farmers from their homesteads and the citizens from their homes in the cities. . . I ask you to purge the man who claims to be a Democrat, from the Democratic Party, and I mean Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt.

father charles coughlin, 1936

See also: Communism, Socialism


Bowden, Henry Warner. Dictionary of American Religious Biography. 2d ed. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993, s.v. "Coughlin, Charles."

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

Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2d ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998, s.v. "Coughlin, Charles."

Kyvig, David E. Worldbook Multimedia Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book, Inc., 1998, s.v. "Coughlin, Charles."

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

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

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Charles Edward Coughlin

Charles Edward Coughlin (1891-1979) was a Canadian-born Roman Catholic priest who became a political organizer in the United States and, during the 1930s, a radical right-wing radio personality.

Charles Edward Coughlin was born on October 25, 1891, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and received his education in Catholic schools and at St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto. At the age of 20, he began studies for the priesthood, receiving his ordination in 1916. After assisting in several parishes in the Detroit area, Coughlin was formally incardinated into the Detroit diocese in 1923. Three years later, Coughlin's bishop assigned him to the new Shrine of the Little Flower Church in the suburban community of Royal Oak, Michigan.

In 1926, Coughlin started a weekly broadcast over the local radio station which proved so popular that, within four years, the Columbia Broadcasting System began carrying it nationally. A series of florid denunciations of communism in 1930 gave him a national reputation and occasioned his appearance before the Committee to Investigate Communist Activities, of the United States House of Representatives. By the end of the year, however, with the country in the throes of the Great Depression, Coughlin had shifted his broadcasts to emphasize the necessity for drastically altering American capitalism under a program keyed to monetary inflation called "social justice," which Coughlin based on the late-19th-century papal encyclical Rerum novarum.

In 1931, the network, worried by Coughlin's attacks on the Hoover administration and by other contentious material in his addresses, discontinued his weekly broadcasts. With contributions from his listeners, Coughlin organized his own radio network, which grew to 26 stations.

During the 1932 presidential campaign, Coughlin vigorously championed Franklin D. Roosevelt, proclaiming that America's choice was "Roosevelt or ruin." Roosevelt carefully cultivated Coughlin and benefited substantially from his support in the first year of the New Deal, but he always kept the priest at arm's length. Coughlin, however, saw himself as an unofficial member of the Roosevelt administration and assumed that the president would follow his advice for combating the Depression, particularly his advocacy of massive currency inflation through silver coinage. When Roosevelt refused to fully accept Coughlin's schemes, the priest became a loud critic of the administration.

In 1934, Coughlin formed the National Union for Social Justice to combat communism and to fight for currency inflation and government control of big business. In 1936 Coughlin, determined to stop Roosevelt's re-election, made the National Union the nucleus for the Union party, which also amalgamated much of the followings of the late Huey Long and of Francis E. Townsend, a crusader for old-age pensions. Roosevelt was overwhelmingly re-elected, while the Union party's candidate polled less than 900,000 votes.

After 1936, Coughlin's influence declined rapidly. He organized the Christian Front to succeed the National Union and trained his oratorical guns on Roosevelt's foreign policy, which he believed would inevitably involve the country in another war. He also concentrated on the fancied internal menaces of Communists and Jews (who seemed interchangeable in Coughlin's thinking). Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, he announced, were bulwarks against "Jewish-Communist" power in Europe. Coughlin enunciated a program for an anti-Semitic, fascist-style corporate state, under which established political institutions in the United States would virtually disappear.

Coughlin's anti-Roosevelt oratory became more shrill when World War II broke out in Europe in 1939 and the administration provided more and more assistance to the Allied governments. In 1940, the larger stations in Coughlin's radio network, acting on the basis of a recent National Association of Broadcasters ruling barring "controversial" speakers, refused to renew his broadcasting contract. When he continued his attacks on the government after Pearl Harbor, his bishop officially silenced him and the Post Office Department banned his weekly newspaper from the mail.

With his newsletter banned, his radio network gone, and his bishop silencing him, Coughlin confined his activities to those of an ordinary parish priest, in 1942. He retired from his pastorate at the Shrine of the Little Flower in 1966. He concerned himself with his newly-built home in Birmingham, Michigan, and still wrote pamphlets denouncing Communism.

Coughlin died on October 27, 1979 at his home in suburban Detroit. He was remembered as the fiery, vibrant, and opinionated priest who followed the directive of his church over his own feelings towards the government. Near his death, Coughlin said he "couldn't take back much of what [he] had said and did in the old days when people still listened to [him]."

Further Reading

A biography officially authorized by Father Coughlin and written by a close friend and aide is Louis B. Ward Father Charles E. Coughlin (1933), it must be read with great caution. Charles J. Tull Father Coughlin and the New Deal (1965), is a detached, scholarly study of the radio priest's career during the 1930s. A fuller account of the Union party movement of 1936, in which Coughlin was the central figure, is given in David H. Bennett Demagogues in the Depression: American Radicals and the Union Party, 1932-1936 (1969). For information on the upsurge of Catholic social activism in the 1930s, which furnished much of the rationale for Coughlin's activities, see Aaron I. Abell American Catholicism and Social Action: A Search for Social Justice, 1865-1950 (1960). There is also information about Coughlin in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. The Age of Roosevelt (3 vols., 1957-1960), Rexford G. Tugwell The Democratic Roosevelt (1957), and George Wolfskill and John A. Hudson All but the People: Franklin D. Roosevelt and His Critics, 1933-1939 (1969). Coughlin's obituary appears in the October 28, 1979 issue of the New York Times.

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Charles Edward Coughlin. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Priest, radio orator; b. Hamilton, Ontario, Oct. 25, 1891; d. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Oct. 27, 1979. The only child of Thomas and Amelia (Mahoney) Coughlin, young Coughlin graduated in 1911 from St. Michael's College, Toronto, receiving a degree in philosophy. In September 1911 he joined the Basilians (Congregation of Priests of St. Basil) in Toronto and was ordained on June 29, 1916, in St. Basil's Church, Toronto. From 1916 to 1923 Father Coughlin taught at Assumption College in Sandwich, Ontario, while also assisting at the college chapel and St. Agnes Church in Detroit. In 1923, he left the Basilians and was incardinated into the Diocese of Detroit under Bishop Michael J. Gallagher. In May 1926, he was assigned to Royal Oak, Michigan, to establish a new parish dedicated to St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the "Little Flower," who had been canonized in 1925. In order to raise funds, Coughlin negotiated his first radio program, which was aired on Oct. 17, 1926 over WJR in Detroit.

WJR remained his sole outlet until the fall of 1929 when he added WMAQ, Chicago, and WLW, Cincinnati, and in 1930 the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) carried the program nationally. At first he confined himself to religious topics, but in 1930 he began to attack the injustices of American capitalism, using the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI to support his views. CBS officials soon became alarmed at the inflammatory nature of his talks and eased him off the air in April of 1931. Undaunted, Coughlin immediately formed his own network of stations. At the peak of his popularity he had a listening audience estimated at between 10 and 40 million. By 1934 he was employing 150 secretaries to handle mail and donations.

Deeply touched by the plight of the unemployed and angered that President Hoover did so little to help them, he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Coughlin became disenchanted with the New Deal in 1934 and formed the National Union for Social Justice with a 16-point program of social reform. In his Nov. 11, 1934 broadcast, he promoted the NUSJ as a group "to organize for action, if you will: to organize for social united action which will be founded on God-given social truths which belong to Catholic and Protestant, to Jew and Gentile, to blacks and whites, to rich and poor, to industrialist and laborer." He broke completely with Roosevelt in 1935 and organized the Union Party in 1936 with Congressman William Lemke as his candidate for President. He also launched a weekly newspaper, Social Justice.

After Bishop Gallagher died in 1937, Father Coughlin was frequently at odds with his new superior, Archbishop (and later Cardinal) Edward mooney. He became increasingly controversial, both over the air and in the pages of Social Justice. By 1938, he was openly anti-Semitic, going so far as to publish the discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Social Justice. In that same year Father Coughlin came under the influence of Father Denis Fahey, CSS (18831954), an eccentric Irish theologian whose writings were openly anti-Semitic. Coughlin began a regular correspondence with Fahey and frequently quoted from Fahey's books on the radio and in the pages of Social Justice.

Father Coughlin was forced to give up broadcasting in 1940 when he refused to comply with the National Association of Broadcasters' new rule barring all "controversial" speakers unless they agreed to appear on a panel with speakers presenting divergent views. He continued to publish Social Justice, despite the opposition of Archbishop Mooney. Even after Pearl Harbor (1941) he consistently denounced the Roosevelt administration and America's ally, Great Britain. In the spring of 1942 a District of Columbia grand jury investigated Social Justice as a seditious publication. For the sake of wartime unity, President Roosevelt and his attorney general, Francis Biddle, arranged a behind-the-scenes deal with Archbishop Mooney: Father Coughlin would be silenced in return for the government dropping all legal action against him. Archbishop Mooney called in Coughlin on May 1, 1942 and ordered him to cease all public pronouncements on non-religious issues. Father Coughlin agreed and continued to serve as pastor of his large parish at Royal Oak until he retired in 1966. He faithfully kept his bargain with Archbishop Mooney and never again entered the public arena.

Bibliography: c. j. tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal (Syracuse 1965). s. marcus, Father Charles E. Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower (Boston 1973). a. brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression (New York 1982). m. c. athans, "A New Perspective on Father Charles E. Coughlin," Church History 56 (June 1987) 224235.

[c. j. tull]