Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, the Father of Hate Radio, by Donald Warren (New York: Simon&Schuster Free Press, 376 pp., $27.50)
Ã HE DOMINATED the airwaves for nearly a decade with a volatile mix of populist disaffections, conservative moral values, voodoo economics and virulent antiSemitism.
Ã He inspired the formation of anti-Communist platoons called “Christian Fronts" who terrorized Jews and blacks in working class neighborhoods.
Ã He operated through a popular magazine called Social Justice that openly expressed appreciation for the ideas of Adolf Hitler.
Sadly, this is the profile, not of some village crackpot holed up with a few followers on an isolated ranch, but of the Roman Catholic pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Mich.— Father Charles Edward Coughlin (1891-1979). He is the subject of a new and exhaustive study by Donald Warren, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Oakland University.
Father Coughlin's few remaining defenders will have a hard time refuting this body of evidence, and those wishing to persuade us that the priest was either a minor player or badly “misquoted,” after Warren, haven't much to stand on.
An independent operator from the start, Father Coughlin left the Basilian Order in 1924 under a cloud of “informing" on his fellow priests, eventually finding a place for himself under the wing of Detroit's aging Bishop Michael Gallagher. Assigned to establish the Shrine of the Little Flower in 1926, the brash, resourceful Coughlin quickly converted the dying parish into a platform for a burgeoning radio ministry.
The demagogue who would later thrive on his ties to Nazi leaders and the circles around British fascist Oswald Mosley, began his radio career telling Bible stories to children in a weekly radio broadcast popularly known as The Children's Hour.
Financed chiefly by four businessmen cronies, including World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, and George Richards, owner of the CBS affiliate radio station WJR in Detroit, Father Coughlin began to reach a wide audience a year later with his Hour of Power and invited listeners to join his new “radio congregation" called the “Radio League of the Little Flower."
By 1930, two out of five American families had a radio, and in the urban Northeast and the Midwest Father Coughlin's weekly broadcasts, with their blend of stern social justice wrapped in patriotism, struck a deep chord. At the height of his fame in the early 1930s, the Michigan priest received more mail than the President of the United States, an average of 80,000 letters a week, and in 1933 a national poll voted him the “most useful citizen of the United States."
Most commentators believe that, more than any other single event, the stock market crash of 1929 created the conditions for Father Coughlin's rise. As Warren relates: “Such was the social climate in which Charles Coughlin emerged as a grass roots leader: spokesman for those who had grown mistrustful of the establishment's explanations of the overwhelming economic disaster. Even those unaccustomed to relying on the authoritative words of a priest—Protestants and Jews—found themselves turning to Father Coughlin. He was creating an ecumenism of discontent."
Writer Wallace Stegner wrote that Father Coughlin had “a voice of such mellow richness, such manly, heart-warming, confidential intimacy, such emotional and ingratiating charm, that anyone tuning past it almost automatically returned to hear it again. Warmed by the touch of Irish brogue, it lingered over words and enriched their emotional content. It was a voice made for promises."
An increasingly powerful figure in national politics, Father Coughlin allied himself with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, and was widely credited with steering FDR toward the economic philosophy espoused by the papal encyclicals Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI) and Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum—a middle path between the twin evils of laissez-faire Capitalism and revolutionary Socialism. Aregular White House visitor in the early 30s, Father Coughlin boasted that he had helped the President draft his first and second inaugural addresses
But by 1934, the Coughlin-Roosevelt alliance had soured over the priest's increasingly radical economic views (advocacy of the gold standard, for example) and his growing support of isolationism. By 1935, Father Coughlin had formed his own political party, the National Union for Social Justice, and openly vilified Roosevelt's policies at mass rallies. More seriously, among the priest's growing coterie of wealthy backers were men who had fascist leanings or who were openly sympathetic to the aims of Nazi Germany. (Father Coughlin had personally contacted Italian dictator Mussolini as early as 1933.)
Though anti-Semitism had been a persistent, if secondary element in Father Coughlin's grab-bag of causes, by 1938 it was the priest's chief claim to fame. According to Father Coughlin's radio tirades, “international bankers,” a code phrase for “Jewish economic interests,” ruled the world. The Jews were also to blame for the rise of Communism, for the Depression, and for the growing prospect of global war.
Father Coughlin's anti-Semitic delusions were fed by the works of Professor Dennis Fahey, an Irish integriste philosopher for whom all movements outside the Church were expressions of modernism orchestrated by atheistic Jews.
By the late 30s—and, due in no small measure to Father Coughlin's broad-casts—worrisome fault lines had opened up between Jews and Catholics in America. Under Father Coughlin's prodding, the situation threatened to turn violent. Modeled on fascist youth organizations, Father Coughlin envisioned the formation of militias “as defense mechanisms against Red [Communist] activities and as a protector of Christianity and Americanism." Not surprisingly, the FBI infiltrated the clubs and in January 1940 arrested 18 Brooklyn Christian Fronters armed with a cache of homemade bombs and rifles, and an elaborate plan to provoke anti-Jewish pogroms in the New York area.
While Father Coughlin could not be directly linked to the case of the “Brooklyn boys,” the end of the priest's media career was near. Ordered by the long-suffering Bishop Gallagher to break his ties with Social Justice and its pro-Axis editorial line, Father Coughlin was formally “silenced" in 1942 by Bishop Gallagher's successor, Bishop Edward Mooney, when his ongoing activities threatened to result in a federal sedition trial. The government dropped the charges and Father Coughlin retired to his parish in Royal Oak, Mich., where he lived a mostly uneventful life until his death in 1979.
Even an only mildly inquisitive reader will wonder why Father Coughlin's religious superiors waited so long to discipline him. Warren's sources offer the explanation that Father Coughlin's immediate superior, Bishop Gallagher, may have had much in common with the “radio priest." As early as 1932, Boston's Cardinal William O'Connell assailed the priest's radio sermons as “hysterical … demagogic." And, more importantly, that year saw the first of many Vatican attempts to persuade Bishop Gallagher to corral Father Coughlin. In 1936, with Father Coughlin's third party bid in the air, Pope Pius XI summoned Bishop Gallagher to Rome for a meeting that was widely viewed as a conference about Father Coughlin. A few days after the papal visit, L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican daily, published a highly unusual public rebuke of the orator's “improprieties." More warnings were dispatched to Detroit—to no effect. Finally, none other than Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, then-papal secretary of state, and later Pope Pius XII, made an unprecedented visit to FDR to explain, in part, the Church's views on Father Coughlin.
A year later, Bishop Gallagher died and Father Coughlin lost his protector—a development that led to the demise of his public career at the hands of the Detroit bishop's successor five years later. On May 2, 1942, Archbishop Mooney compelled the now discredited Father Coughlin to choose between “silence" and immediate suspension from the priesthood, thus closing one of the most bizarre chapters in American Catholic life.
Gabriel Meyer, a Register contributing editor, is based in Los Angeles.