Skip to main content

Coughlin, Father Charles

Father Charles Edward Coughlin (1891 –1979) Controversial Roman Catholic Priest, Radio Broadcaster and Organizer of a New Political Organization: The National Union for Social Justice

 

Background: Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on October 25, 1891 to Irish-Catholic parents, Thomas J. Coughlin and Amelia Coughlin,  Charles Edward Coughlin grew up under strict Catholic rule. He grew fond of the idea of joining the priesthood as a teen.  Coughlin graduated from the University of Toronto in 1911. He then attended St. Basil’s Seminary in Toronto, and was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1916. Father Coughlin taught for seven years at the Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, and then moved to the United States in 1923, by way of Detroit, Michigan.

Father Charles Coughlin
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3a38845

Career: It was in Detroit that Father Coughlin began his broadcasts on radio, on WJR in 1926, where he preached a weekly sermon. By the early 1930s the content of his broadcasts had shifted from theology to economics and politics, just as the rest of the nation was concerned by matters economic and political as a result of the Depression. Until 1931, when the station was unexpectedly dropped, CBS had provided free sponsorship. Determined to keep his broadcasts alive, Father Coughlin raised the necessary money, and continued to reach out to millions of listeners. He was one of the first political leaders to use the medium of radio to reach a mass audience, as possibly thirty million listeners tuned to his weekly broadcasts during the 1930s.

Father Coughlin’s influence on Depression-era America was enormous. In the early 1930s, Coughlin was, arguably, one of the most influential men in America. Millions of Americans listened to his weekly radio broadcast. At the height of his popularity, one-third of the nation was tuned into his weekly broadcasts. Coughlin had a well-developed theory of what he termed “social justice,” predicated on monetary “reforms.” He began as an early supporter of Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, coining a famous expression, that the nation’s choice was between “Roosevelt or ruin.”

Father Coughlin viewed President Roosevelt as a radical social reformer like himself. Roosevelt’s rhetoric during his inaugural address implicitly promised to “drive the money changers from the temple.” This was music to Coughlin’s ears since a core part of his own message was monetary reform. Roosevelt’s early monetary policy seemed to fulfill this promise and so Coughlin viewed him as the savior of the nation. But when FDR failed to follow-on with additional radical reforms, Coughlin turned against him. By 1936, he would support a third-party candidacy against FDR’s reelection bid and would even say this of Roosevelt:

“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.”

Later in the 1930s he became one of the president’s harshest critics. His program of “social justice” was a very radical challenge to capitalism and to many of the political

institutions of his day. Although his core message was one of economic populism, his sermons also included attacks on prominent Jewish figures–attacks that many people considered evidence of anti-Semitism.

father-charles-coughlin
Father Charles Coughlin
Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The years to come were perhaps the most damaging in the public’s eye. After the election in 1936, Father Coughlin became a sympathetic supporter of the fascist policies of Hitler and Mussolini. His CBS radio broadcasts were blatantly aimed at the Jewish community, citing that “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers” caused the Great Depression, and that Jewish bankers were behind the Russian Revolution. Coughlin then published a newspaper, Social Justice, in which the anti-Semitic views became even more poignant and forthright. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing declaration of war in December of 1941, Coughlin and other isolationists were viewed as sympathetic to the enemy.

In 1942, the Catholic community had enough of Father Coughlin’s outspoken views, and the new bishop of Detroit ordered Coughlin to cease and desist with any and all political activities and return to the duties of a parish priest. Coughlin immediately complied and remained the pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower until 1966, when he retired.  Until his death October 25, 1979 at the age of 88, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Coughlin continued to write pamphlets denouncing Communism.

Sources:

Social Security Administration History: www.ssa.gov/history

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org

Father Coughlin, The Radio Priest : Political Views, Old Time Radio, And Religion: www.fathercoughlin.org

 

Books about Father Coughlin:

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval, 1935-1936. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. (Originally published in 1960.)

Marcus, Sheldon. Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life Of The Priest Of The Little Flower. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1972. ISBN 0-316-54596-1

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2013). Coughlin, Father Charles. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/coughlin-father-charles/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *