The Radio Priest

Father Charles Coughlin occupies both a strange and a familiar place in American politics. Politically radical, emotionally an almost instinctive democrat, he nevertheless vented bigotry and irrationality with reflexive anger. Born in Canada, he settled in 1926 as a parish priest in Royal Oak, Michigan, outside Detroit. There his church, the Shrine of the Little Flower, was menaced by the Klu Klux Klan. To combat the Klan he began a series of radio sermons on religious fredom and democracy. He was an immediate hit, and by 1930 his weekly broadcasts drew as many as 40 million listeners.

As his following grew, he became increasingly political. Strongly and passionately egalitarian, deeply suspicious of elites, a champion of what he saw as the ordinary person's rights, Coughlin frequently and vigorously attacked capitalism, communism, socialism and dictatorship in the name of a vaguely defined "democracy." As the depression worsened, he sharpened his attacks to include the gold standard, Wall Street plutocrats, international bankers, and American involvement in politics overseas.

When he attacked the wealthy elites and celebrated the ordinary American his rhetoric had a great deal in common with Franklin Roosevelt's. Roosevelt too had attacked "money changers" and plutocrats, and praised the common American as the source of the nation's strength. At first Coughlin welcomed Roosevelt's administration and pledged his support: the New Deal, he told his audience, was "Christ's deal." But he quickly soured on the President, disgusted by both the slow, compromised pace of New Deal reform and by Roosevelt's unwillingness to involve Coughlin himself in decision making. By 1935 he began attacking the New Deal regularly as a tool of banking interests.

In 1936 he helped form the National Union for Social Justice, which in turn helped form the National Union Party. The Union Party ran North Dakota congressman William Lemke for President in 1936. Coughlin pushed Lemke's candidacy on the radio and through his newspaper, Social Justice. But despite Coughlin's fervent support, and his prediction that Lemke would receive nine million votes, only 900,000 Americans cast their ballots for Coughlin's party. Roosevelt's popularity remained extremely high. The experience, historian Alan Brinkley suggests, embittered him. "President Roosevelt can be a dictator if he wants," he commented on Lemke's defeat, and he vowed to abandon the airwaves.

But he soon returned to the broadcast booth. From then on Coughlin's sermons took on a nasty edge of anti-semitism and lunatic conspiratorial thinking. Increasingly, his talks combined harsh attacks on Roosevelt as the tool of international Jewish bankers with praise for Mussolini and Hitler. The now bitter and delusional tone of his sermons alienated his larger audience, and though he maintained a core of followers through his magazine, Social Justice, his bishop ordered him, in 1940, to cease all political activity.

The excerpt included here, a 1937 sermon entitled "Twenty Years Ago," reflects much of what made him popular. Coughlin began the speech in quiet tones, arguing that twenty years ago, Americans entered World War I soley to protect the investments of bankers and capitalists. He lamented the sacrifice ordinary people's children had to make to secure wealthy men's profits. As the excerpt shows, his pleasant, intimate voice alternates between a clearly North American accent and an odd, stagey sort of semi-brogue, neither Irish nor Scottish but somewhere in between. As the sermon goes on Coughlin grows increasingly heated, finally beginning to rant by the end. He denounces bankers for saddling ordinary citizens with debt, and criticizes the New Deal for failing to "drive the money changers from the temple" of democracy. He argues that Congress has given up its constitutional power to regulate money, and has allowed this power to pass into private hands‹though what he means by this remains obscure. As he becomes more passionate his arguments become less precise, and exactly what he means by "democracy" receeds even further from view. With a kind of free form outrage, Coughlin attacks both the bond issues floated to finance World War I and the 1937 "epidemic of sit-down strikes" as part of the same generalized perversion of "democracy."

Coughlin's growing extremism, his increasing determination to cast political problems in terms of free-floating conspiracy, and his persistent attacks on a popular president made many of his fellow Catholics nervous. John Ryan, a Catholic priest himself, had long been active as a social reformer and university educator. In September of 1936, in a radio speech he describes here, he denounced Coughlin for his "ugly, cowardly and flagrant" attacks on FDR. Ryans' address provoked a host of letters, most of which denouced Ryan himself as a Judas and a tool of "the banking interests." A selection of the letters is included, as is Ryan's response to the letters. Historian Alan Brinkley argued that by 1936 Coughlin's supporters seemed to be very different people. In 1934 and 1935, his supporters "had exhibited a measure of realism, intelligence, and independence; now they spoke with frenzied voices--bitter, hostile, nearly irrational." A selection of the letters Ryan received included here reflects the character of Coughlin's support, and the capitulation to hatred that led to his political decline.

The "Radio Priest's" relentless anti elitism pushed Roosevelt to sharpen his own critiques of elites. But Coughlin's complete failure to articulate precisely what he meant by "democracy," combined with his willingness to substitue bigotry, passion and delusion for rational critique, doomed his movement to disappearance.


A: "Oh you Poor Laborers and Farmers:" Charles Coughlin Speaks to the Nation (1937)
In this excerpt Coughlin denounces private bankers for controlling the money supply, and depicts the New Deal and the Federal Reserve as tools of those banking interests. It also expresses his frustration that though "we have tried to tell you" again and again about the dangers of a privately regulated money supply, no one seems to be listening. Note: he is not giving the speech which you hear in that particular film clip you see.