Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Forgotten Heroes of Conservatism- Chapter Four: Father Charles Coughlin

With Father Charles Coughlin, I will complete the part of this series devoted to early right wing political figures who came from a religious background.  There are a number of others I might deal with, but I think by the end of this chapter, I will have made my point.  Coughlin is, of course, nowhere near as forgotten as figures like Billy James Hargis or Gerald L. K. Smith- many will remember him from a couple of lines in their high school civics classes- but he is a sufficiently important figure that he will get his own treatment here.
Father Charles Coughlin

Let me begin with some bare facts, from the Wikipedia entry for Coughlin:

"Charles Edward Coughlin was a controversial Canadian-American Roman Catholic priest based in the United States near Detroit at Royal Oak, Michigan's National Shrine of the Little Flower church. Commonly known as Father Coughlin, he was one of the first political leaders to use radio to reach a mass audience, as up to thirty million listeners tuned to his weekly broadcasts during the 1930s. He was forced off the air in 1939."

Before going on, I want to take a moment to speak about the rise of religious radio broadcasting in the Unites States.

Because of government restrictions during World War I, radio broadcasting remained little more than a curiosity until 1919 or so, when commercial broadcasting really took off.  It was a very short time until figures on the religious right realized what they could do with this medium; the first significant religious broadcaster, Aimee Semple McPherson first went on the radio in 1922, and owned her own station by 1923.  This, it must be noted, was in a country where the first broadcast network, NBC, was not created until 1926.  So, from essentially the very beginning of radio, Evangelical Christians and the forerunners of today's "megachurches" were exploiting broadcast media; nothing comparable on the left has ever existed.

Coughlin's radio exposure resulted in a massive following, as shown by his ability to draw huge crowds in the nineteen thirties; although he was not alone in this.  A number of other right wing personalities were also speaking to audiences in the tens of thousands at that time, ranging from characters like those I have already covered, to out and out crackpots like Alfred Lawson, the creator of Lawsonomy, perhaps the most ludicrous pseudoscientific doctrine ever known.

"Coughlin began his radio career in 1926.  His broadcasts were mainly religious in character at the time, many of them incidentally involving attacks on the KKK, which carried out a widespread anti-Catholic hate campaign during the late 1920's.  After the onset of the depression, Coughlin began to speak more and more about political issues.

Early in his radio career, Coughlin was a vocal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. By 1934 he had become a harsh critic of Roosevelt...In 1934 he established a new political organization called the National Union for Social Justice...The membership ran into the millions.

After hinting at attacks on Jewish bankers, Coughlin began to use his radio program to issue antisemitic commentary. In the late 1930s he approvingly supported some of the fascist policies of Adolf Hitler and of Benito Mussolini, and of Emperor Hirohito of Japan. The broadcasts have been called "a variation of the Fascist agenda applied to American culture". His chief topics were political and economic rather than religious, with his slogan being "Social Justice", initially in support of, and later opposing, the New Deal. Many American bishops as well as the Vatican wanted him silenced. After the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, the Roosevelt administration finally forced the cancellation of his radio program and forbade the dissemination through the mail of his newspaper, Social Justice."

Here is a sample, for those who are interested, of Coughlin in action.  I think the influence on Coughlin is clear.  Note that, due to it offensive character, You Tube would not allow it to be directly embedded, so you will have to click on the rectangle here, and then click again before You Tube will allow you to see it:

I want to continue with an excerpt from an excellent article on Coughlin from the U. S. Holocaust Museum:

"Once president, however, Roosevelt appeared to ignore Coughlin's contribution to getting him elected, and slowly distanced his administration from Coughlin's rough-hewn populism...When he realized that he was not going to play a key role in Roosevelt's cabinet, however, Coughlin felt betrayed, and, after several attempts to get the President to notice him, turned on Roosevelt. By the end of 1935, Coughlin used his radio program to attack both the President and the New Deal.

After his split with Roosevelt and with the rise of National Socialism and Fascism in Europe, however, he attacked Jews explicitly in his broadcasts. Some historians attribute this change to Coughlin taking advantage of rising antisemitism around the world in order to keep himself relevant. Based on his speeches, writings, and associations, however, he appears to have had significant antisemitic sentiment throughout his career.

For years, Coughlin had publicly derided “international bankers,” a phrase that most of his listeners understood to mean Jewish bankers. In the days and weeks after Kristallnacht, Coughlin defended the state-sponsored violence of the Nazi regime, arguing that Kristallnacht was justified as retaliation for Jewish persecution of Christians."

As war approached, Coughlin's politics shifted further toward the extreme right. He promoted fascist dictatorship and authoritarian government as the only cure to the ills of democracy and capitalism. He associated with fascist leaders and known antisemitic thinkers in Great Britain and the United States"

These included Henry Ford, Oswald Mosley, Hillaire Belloc, Ezra Pound and other notorious haters.  This culminated in 1938, with the creation of the Christian Front, which claimed it was going to defend the country against Jews and Communists.

After the start of World War II, a combination of anti-German sentiment and government action to put a stop to his agitating for Nazi Germany, pretty much ended his effective role; however he continued to publish his magazine, "Social Justice," and never abandoned his fascist leanings.  Some years after the war ended, it was revealed that, after having his financing from the Catholic Church cut off, Coughlin was the recipient of direct financial aid from the Nazi government.

A couple of issues of Coughlin's publication, "Social Justice"

Eventually, as is typical with right wingers, Coughlin descended to impotent threats of gun violence to get his way:

Most of this, as I have said, is much better known than the history of many other characters that I am writing about, and I am sure that many readers of this material will be familiar, at least in outline, with Coughlin's career.  I am including him to raise a couple of issues:

First is the involvement of a segment of the Catholic hierarchy with the Evangelical movement, which has a long history of anti-Catholic agitating, is puzzling.  It is generally assumed today that this is the result of their common interest in suppressing abortion, and that it is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Coughlin demonstrates that this is not the case; this connection existed before abortion was legalized and became a right wing cause; in fact, as one sees in right wingers today, who they hated was more important to them than what they supposedly believed in, and that included any liberals who asked them to participate in government for the common good, extending even to FDR, who had just saved the country from total collapse.

Second, I want to again mention how quickly the right took advantage of the new communication technology of radio, aided in significant part by churches, which had an ability to raise the sort of money it took to establish and operate a radio station.  Nothing like this was possible for the left which, in any event, found this kind of mass propagandizing abhorrent, even if they could have afforded it.  Since the rise of characters like Rush Limbaugh, we've heard what failures liberals are at putting together this sort of communications infrastructure; it is important to remember that conservatives have had a decades-long head start, a long standing contempt for the truth, and a source of massive funding that liberals could never match.

1 comment:

Pinku-Sensei said...

Thanks for posting about Coughlin. I was familiar with most of his story, but hadn't read all of it in one sitting. Also, thanks for putting the American Right's long experience using religious broadcasting in context. Speaking of which, just thinking about Aimee Semple McPherson makes me chuckle. She was an entertaining grifter for G-d.