Father Coughlin: Radio Priest, Depression Demagogue

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Father Charles Coughlin is little remembered today, but in the 1930s he was one of the most influential figures in America, one of the first to utilize the power of the airways to promote a political and social agenda. He is also remembered for his use of the radio to promote bigotry and particularly anti-Semitism.  Charles Edward Coughlin was born in Hamilton, Ontario Canada in 1891, and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1916.  In 1926 Father Coughlin was assigned to the new Shrine of the Little Flower Church in Royal Oak, Michigan, which at the time had only twenty-five parishioners.  As a way to raise money to support the parish, he approached a local radio station, and on October 17, 1926 he began broadcasting over WJR in Detroit.  Coughlin’s broadcasts were so popular that he was able to add stations to his audience, and in 1930, he was placed on the CBS radio network, where more than 40 million people were estimated to listen to his sermons on his “Golden Hour of the Little Flower.”  After CBS objected to the controversial nature of his sermons, it did not renew his contract.  Coughlin was so popular, however, that he was soon able to arrange broadcasts on more than 30 stations nationwide.

Although a Catholic Priest, Coughlin focused much of his radio time on sermons relating to the political issues of his day. According to noted historian Alan Brinkley “His radio broadcasts became attacks on the gold standard, international bankers, and what he described as the rapacious nature of modern capitalism.”  Coughlin saw himself as both a defender of the laborer, and an enemy of the industrialists, and warned about the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.  In 1932 he endorsed Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt, and after the election was at first a strong supporter, noting that it was “Roosevelt or Ruin.”  Coughlin’s popularity during this period was enormous. A book of his sermons published in 1932 sold nearly 1 million copies and money poured into the Little Shrine, (more than $55,000 in postal orders in one month—during the depths of the Depression). In a radio survey more than 55 percent named him “the most useful citizen of the United States politically in 1933” and more than 20,000 people waited to here him speak at New York City’s Hippodrome in November 1933. According to the Social Security Administration history site, "at the height of his popularity, Father Coughlin had a greater share of the weekly broadcast audience than Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Paul Harvey and Larry King combined."

Coughlin soon became disillusioned with Roosevelt, and in 1934 created his own political organization, the National Union of Social Justice, for which he developed the fourteen “Principles of the National Union of Social Justice.”  In these he called for the nationalization of banking, power, credit and currency “and our God-given natural resources.” He also proclaimed his group stood for “…preferring the sanctity of human rights to the sanctity of property rights.”  Coughlin also began publishing a newspaper Social Justice.  The National Union Party, an outgrowth of the National Union of Social Justice, challenged Roosevelt during the election of 1936.  The party nominated Walter Lemke for President, but the candidate was only able to garner a meager 900,000 votes. 

After this election, Coughlin’s radio speeches became increasingly anti-Roosevelt, calling the administration a “communist conspiracy and incipient dictatorship.”  More disturbingly, he began to make increasingly vitriolic and anti-Semitic statements both on the air and in the pages of Social Justice, attitudes that had only been hinted at earlier in some of his broadcasts.  His following, as Brinkley notes, remained large, but changed, and the throngs of crowds that waited to see him, and torrents of letters declined. After the election he reconstituted the NUSJ into cells known as the Christian Front organization, an extremist organization which included increasingly  “violent and unstable” activities.  One of this group's offices  was raided by the FBI, and explosives were found.  By 1940 Coughlin was effectively off the air, but continued his diatribes in his newspaper, where he expressed sympathy for Mussolini and Hitler, and even claimed the the Jews were responsible for starting World War II. In 1942, under the Espionage Act of 1917, the US Government banned distribution of Social Justice. In May of that year Coughlin’s Archbishop threatened to defrock him if he did not cease all political activities. Coughlin obeyed, but remained as the Parish Priest of the Shrine of the Little Flower until 1966.  He died in 1979.

Sources: Alan Brinkley.  Voices of  Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin & The Great Depression. New York. Vintage Books. 1983. pp 82-103, 265-272; Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors, The Reader’s Companion to America History. 1991. Article Author: Alan Brinkley. Found at www.answers.com/topic/Charles-Coughlin. Holocaust Encyclopedia. U.S. Holocaust Museum "Charles E. Coughlin"; "Father Charles E. Coughlin:  National Union of Social Justice."  The National Religious Movements Project of the University of Virginia; PBS: The American Experience. America and the Holocaust; Social Security Administration History

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Standard 3: How the United States changed from the end of World War I to the eve of the Great Depression.

Standard 3C: The student understands how new cultural movements reflected and changed American society.

5-12: Analyze how radio, movies, newspapers, and popular magazines created mass culture. [Examine the influence of ideas]

 Era 8: The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)

Standard 1: The causes of the Great Depression and how it affected American society.

Standard 1B: The student understands how American life changed during the 1930s.

7-12: Analyze the impact of the Great Depression on industry and workers and explain the response of local and state officials in combating the resulting economic and social crises. [Analyze multiple causation] 

Standard 2: How the New Deal addressed the Great Depression, transformed American federalism, and initiated the welfare state.

Standard 2C: The student understands opposition to the New Deal, the alternative programs of its detractors, and the legacy of the New Deal. 

7-12: Identify the leading opponents of New Deal policies and assess their arguments. [Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas and values] 

5-12: Evaluate the significance and legacy of the New Deal. [Evaluate the implementation of a decision] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION:  Father Charles Coughlin, In Support of President Roosevelt, November 27, 1933
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: November 27, 1933 
    NOTES: This radio clip of Father Coughlin reflects his feelings immediately after the election of Franklin Roosevelt .  Coughlin was at the time still a vigorous supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt's first candidacy and election. "It is either Roosevelt or ruin." At this point, the phrase "the money changers being driven from the temple" refer primarily to Coughlin's strong anti-capitalist position.  He is also against the gold standard. Transcript with audio
    SOURCE:  The Authentic History Center.  Although an amateur site, the creator is a high school teacher, and it features impressive audio clips that are made available online for free.

  2. DESCRIPTION:  The Shrine of the Little Flower, Royal Oak Michigan (http://info.detnews.com/dn/history/coughlin/images/shrine.gif)
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Detroit News Photo/NA
    NOTES: Father Coughlin became priest of the Little Flower Church in Royal Oak, Michigan i 1926.  Because of his radio broadcasts he was able to build this sizeable church, which included an apartment from which he made his radio broadcasts, reaching at one point from between 30-40 million Americans.
    SOURCE:  The Detroit News:  Rearview Mirror
    REPOSITORY: The Detroit News 

  3. DESCRIPTION:  Father Coughlin on the Cover of Time Magazine
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  January 15, 1934
    NOTES: Father Coughlin's popularity put him on the cover of Time Magazine. Note he is cited for a political position related to his support of lessening of the US's rigid adherence to the gold standard-- not a religious sermon.
    SOURCE: Time Magazine Archives
    REPOSITORY: Time Magazine  

  4. DESCRIPTION:  Father Coughlin's Radio Discourses (http://detnews.com/history/coughlin/images/book.gif)
    NOTES: This collection of Father Coughlin's speeches sold more than 1 million copies.
    SOURCE: Detroit News:  RearView Mirror
    REPOSITORY:  The Detroit News 

  5. DESCRIPTION:  Principles of the National Union of Social Justice
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  November, 1934 (date on the heading here is incorrect)
    NOTES: Coughlin announced creation of the National Union of Social Justice November 11, 1934. The group originally was designed to be a "lobby of the people" which would not nominate or elect Senators, Congressmen, or Presidents. (Brinkley, p. 134). By 1936.  The Principles and Preamble reflected Coughlin's basic beliefs at the time of the National Union's Founding.  This link is the most direct to the Principles, (right after the introductory text).  The Principles can also be found on the Social Security website Social Security Administration: Coughlin Speeches
    SOURCE:  Spartacus.Schoolnet National Union of Social Justice

  6. DESCRIPTION: Father Coughlin Badge
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  n/a, after 1934
    NOTES: The NUSJ in this badge stands for the National Union of Social Justice, the organization that Father Coughlin founded in 1934
    SOURCE:  Social Security Administration
    REPOSITORY:  Social Security Administration 

  7. DESCRIPTION:  Father Coughlin & The Search For Social Justice
    NOTES: These three 1934-35-era speeches by Father Coughlin from his 1935 book document different aspects of his career, and his interaction with the politics of the Depression. In the first listed, Nov. 11, 1934 Coughlin announces formation of the National Union for Social Justice. The second, given June 6, 1935 proclaims the  the "sacredness of human rights above the materialism of Property Rights."  The third speech, given March 11, 1935 is a reply to March, 1935 attack on Coughlin and Louisiana Governor Huey Long by President Franklin Roosevelt supporter and former head of the NRA General Hugh Johnson.  Echoes of Coughlin's growing nativism, and anti-Semitism can be seen in this speech, in which he call "calls for restoring America to the Americans." 
    SOURCE:  The History of Social Security, Social Security Administration
    REPOSITORY:  Originally delivered as radio talks.  Published in A Series of Lectures on Social Justice," by Rev. Chas. E. Coughlin, Radio League of the Little Flower, Royal Oak Michigan, March 1935. 

  8. DESCRIPTION:  Father Charles Coughlin opposes Roosevelt
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Chicago, Illinois, September 6, 1936
    NOTESBy 1936, Father Coughlin and his National Union of Social Justice (NUSJ) party were totally disillusioned with Roosevelt, and were actively opposing Franklin Roosevelt. Its candidate, William Lemke, won a dismal 882,479  votes. This footage shows Coughlin addressing more than 80,000 people, mostly Illinois members of the NUSJ, at Riverview Park in Chicago. This film clip only demonstrate the power of Coughlin's speaking voice. It includes a transcript to accompany the film and video. Note how he again uses the "money changers" phrase, but this time against Roosevelt.
    SOURCE: United States Holocaust Museum
    REPOSITORY:  UCLA Film and Video Library
  9. DESCRIPTION:  Oh you Poor Laborers and Farmers
    NOTES: This clip, after the election of 1936, demonstrates Coughlin's frustration with the "Laborers and Farmers."  More importantly, it again shows the power of his spoken word.
    SOURCE:  .  Between the Wars: 1919-1941
    REPOSITORY:  George Mason Center for History and New Media
  10. DESCRIPTION:  Somebody Must Be Blamed
    NOTES: In 1937 Father Coughlin chastised the American public, the government and especially the Roosevelt Administration.  He sees dangers from Communism, Socialism and from International Bankers
    SOURCE:    George Mason Center for History and New Media
    REPOSITORY: Source N/A
  11. DESCRIPTION:  Father Coughlin Calls for a Living Annual Wage & Discusses Communism
    NOTES: (From Social Security Administration) In this excerpt from a broadcast in 1937, Coughlin is discoursing on the subject of Christianity vs. Communism. He is doing a "Q & A" format with another priest who is posing questions for Coughlin to answer. In this brief clip, Coughlin is contrasting the "Christian" approach to the issue of a "living wage" to that of the Communists.
    SOURCE:  Social Security Administration
  12. DESCRIPTION:  Father Coughlin, Radio Priest, Denounces Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  April 11, 1937
    NOTES: This lengthy audio segment demonstrates Coughlin's vitriol against Roosevelt and especially the New Deal. "You think you know Depression?"  "The New Deal took the Bill of Rights and tore it into shreds."
    SOURCE:  The History Channel Speech Archives
  13. DESCRIPTION:  Alvin Johnson Attacks Father Coughlin & Anti-Semitism
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  February, 1939
    NOTES: By 1939 Father Coughlin was widely recognized as an anti-Semite.  In discussing the sources of anti-Semitics, this article written by Alvin Johnson states "To this list we should add the most reckless one man show of the entire unsavory lot, Father Coughlin."
    SOURCE:  The New Deal Network
    REPOSITORY:  Survey Graphic Magazine Vol. 28, No. 2, p. 113.

Additional Media Resources

The Detroit News:  Rearview Mirror

The National Religious Movements Project of the University of Virginia

George Mason Center for History and New Media

PBS The American Experience. America and the Holocaust

Social Security Administration History

Spartacus Schoolnet

U.S. Holocaust Museum

Additional Instructional Resources 

PBS: The American Experience America and the Holocaust Teachers Guide.  Primarily focused on the Holocaust, it includes information relating to the discussion of anti-Semitism.

The New Deal Network Resources:  Features extensive New Deal oriented lesson plans, curriculum development projects and other resources, including links to additional teacher curriculum development resources.

Secondary Resources

There are many books and articles that reference Father Coughlin, and especially his anti-Semitic activities.  Alan Brinkley and Charles Tull are considered the leading authors of books dealing specifically with Coughlin.

Alan Brinkley.  Voices of  Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin & The Great Depression. New York. Vintage Books. 1983.

Jeffrey K. Hadden and Charles E. Swann. Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism.  Chapter 10.  Originally published by Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc. 1981.  Available through The University of Virginia Etext Center.

Raymond A. Schroth, "Radio Priest:  "Father Coughlin:  The Father of Hate radio."  National Catholic Reporter, 33 (20) 15.

Rodger Streitmatter, Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997 (Chapter 8)

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

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This document packet was researched and developed by Karen A. Lubieniecki

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