Father Charles E. Coughlin: Unsympathetic Victim of Unconstitutional Censorship

Father Charles Coughlin

The controversy surrounding America’s most listened to podcaster, Joe Rogan, and calls for censorship of his program are based at least in part on his having Dr. Robert Malone and Dr. Peter McCullough on his program as well as some of his statements on COVID-19 and vaccines, such as opining that people under 21 shouldn’t be vaccinated. The controversy surrounding this matter, although it has not gone to the level of the federal government cracking down on him (yet), it reminds me of the controversy that surrounded another prominent mass communicator who ultimately was shut down, Father Charles E. Coughlin (1891-1979). For those who are already familiar with him, I want to make it crystal clear that I do not think of Rogan and Coughlin as similar in their views or approach. Rogan’s show is conversational while Coughlin’s had set scripts. Rogan does not promote hate while Coughlin did. Rogan is not a Social Justice Warrior while Coughlin was in his own way. I can go on and on. What is comparable about them, however, is that both managed to gain impressive listenership, both have come from in some ways a left-wing point of view (Rogan’s support of guaranteed minimum income and support for Bernie Sanders, Coughlin’s support for inflationary currency and socialism for some vital industries), and both have butted heads with powerful liberal forces.


Background on Father Coughlin: Critic of KKK and Markets, Friend of Roosevelt


Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Canadian by birth, was ordained a Catholic priest in 1916 in Toronto, and by 1926 he had moved to Detroit and was authorized by the Archbishop of Detroit to construct the church, The Shrine of the Little Flower, in Royal Oak, Michigan. The Ku Klux Klan objected to his presence and burned a cross on the lawn of the church. In the following year, he established his radio show, which was intended to provide Catholics and others a greater avenue through which they could understand Catholicism and to pay back the loan he took out to construct his church. Although the Ku Klux Klan had been a strong political force in the United States in the early to mid 1920s, by this time its permanent decline had begun. The second Klan had expanded its sources of bigotry from the first Klan by including Jews, Catholics, and immigrants who didn’t fit their definition of white, and Coughlin denounced them on his show for their anti-Catholicism. Until 1930, Coughlin focused his broadcasts on religious issues and was praised for his ability to break down complex issues and present them in a way average people could understand. It was in this year that CBS picked up his show for national broadcasting and he expanded the scope of his content. Coughlin was concerned with his conception of social justice and was a critic of market capitalism, Wall Street, Prohibition, socialism and communism, and President Herbert Hoover. He wanted America to pursue a reformist third way between markets and socialism, and stated on the market system, “I oppose modem capitalism because by its very nature it cannot and will not function for the common good. In fact, it is a detriment to civilization” (Krebs). When the Great Depression hit, more people tuned into his radio show and were receptive to his populist rhetoric. He strongly backed Roosevelt in his 1932 bid, telling his listeners that the choices were “Roosevelt or Ruin”. Father Coughlin was thus invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention, and came to believe that his speech influenced many at the convention to cast their ballots for Roosevelt (Gallagher, 8). He supported Roosevelt’s New Deal initially and In January 1934, Coughlin testified before Congress that “If Congress fails to back up the President in his monetary program, I predict a revolution in this country which will make the French Revolution look silly!” and stated his belief that “God is directing President Roosevelt” (The Washington Post).


Turn Against Roosevelt


By the end of 1934, Coughlin was having second thoughts. Although Roosevelt had pursued inflationary currency through not only the Thomas Amendment of the Agricultural Adjustment Act but also his legislation eliminating gold clauses in contracts and confiscating privately held gold, Coughlin did not think he did enough. He wanted Roosevelt to remonitize silver, which he didn’t do. In fact, in April 1934, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau released a list of people and groups who had substantial investments in silver, among them being Coughlin’s Radio League (Gallagher, 11). Coughlin was coming to believe that Roosevelt was overly influenced by the Wall Street folks he had denounced time and again on his radio show and on November 11, 1934, he formed the National Union for Social Justice with 16 points. They read,


“1. I believe in the right of liberty of conscience and liberty of education, not permitting the state to dictate either my worship to my God or my chosen avocation in life.

2.1 believe that every citizen willing to work and capable of working shall receive a just and living annual wage which will enable him to maintain and educate his family according to the standards of American decency.

  1. I believe in nationalizing those public necessities which by their very nature are too important to be held in the control of private individuals. By these I mean banking, credit and currency, power, light, oil and natural gas and our God-given natural resources.
  2. I believe in private ownership of all other property.
  3. I believe in upholding the right to private property yet in controlling it for the public good.
  4. I believe in the abolition of the privately owned Federal Reserve Banking system and in the establishment of a Government owned Central Bank.
  5. I believe in rescuing from the hands of private owners the right to coin and regulate the value of money, which right must be restored to Congress where it belongs.
  6. I believe that one of the chief duties of this Government owned Central Bank is to maintain the cost of living on an even keel and the repayment of dollar debts with equal value dollars.
  7. I believe in the cost of production plus a fair profit for the farmer.
  8. I believe not only in the right of the laboring man to organize in unions but also in the duty of the Government which that laboring man supports to facilitate and to protect these organizations against the vested interests of wealth and of intellect.

11 . I believe in the recall of all non-productive bonds and thereby in the alleviation of taxation.

  1. I believe in the abolition of tax-exempt bonds.
  2. I believe in the broadening of the base of taxation founded upon the ownership of wealth and the capacity to pay.
  3. I believe in the simplification of government, and the further lifting of crushing taxation from the slender revenues of the laboring class.
  4. I believe that in the event of a war for the defense of our nation and its liberties, there shall be a conscription of wealth as well as a conscription of men.
  5. I believe in preferring the sanctity of human rights to the sanctity of property rights. I believe that the chief concern of government shall be for the poor because, as it is witnessed, the rich have ample means of their own to care for themselves” (Simkin). This organization’s weekly newspaper, Social Justice, gained so much traction that at its peak it had 1.2 million paid subscribers.

    Coughlin scored a victory when in 1935 after denouncing plans for the United States to join the World Court it got rejected by the Senate. In 1936, he announced the creation of the Union Party to oppose Roosevelt, and delivered a speech in the sweltering heat of Cleveland in mid-July in which he denounced “Franklin Double-crossing Roosevelt”, calling him a “liar” and a “great betrayer”, a speech he subsequently regretted (Gallagher, 22-23). Coughlin also promised to quit radio forever if his candidate, William Lemke, didn’t get 9 million votes. Lemke would get less than one million votes and Coughlin would leave the air…for seven weeks. Coughlin publicly opposed Roosevelt’s foreign policy, his court-packing plan, and his executive reorganization plan. He also thought the Roosevelt Administration was overly influenced by Jews.

    Coughlin and Anti-Semitism

    Father Charles Coughlin’s intellectually formative time was with the Basilian Order in Toronto, which instilled in him his views on markets, social justice, and Jews. Unlike the Nazis, Coughlin’s issues with Jews stemmed from a religious, rather than racial, complaint. He focused on the prohibition on usury and in 1930 he condemned lenders, stating, “We have lived to see the day that modern Shylocks have grown fat and wealthy, praised and deified, because they have perpetuated the ancient crime of usury under the modern racket of statesmanship” (USHMM). And although Coughlin did not in truth focus (much) on Jews in his earlier years in radio, as the 1930s progressed and the Nazi regime became an increasing concern, his focus stepped up and he became increasingly supportive of fascism as a third way between communism and capitalism.

    The Turning Point: Kristallnacht

    Much of the world, including many individuals in Germany, reacted with horror and revulsion at Kristallnacht. Charles E. Coughlin, however, opted to parrot the Nazi line on his show in response. He downplayed the horrific pogrom, accused Jews of bringing it on themselves by Soviet persecution of Christians, and held that communists had been the primary target. This display resulted in New York radio station WMCA pulling his show, holding “Your broadcast last Sunday was calculated to incite religious and racial strife in America. When this was called to your attention in advance of your broadcast, you agreed to delete those misrepresentations which undeniably had this effect. You did not do so” (Kovarik). The Nazis, however, were jubilant that one of America’s most listened to people on radio was defending them and promoted him. This, his increasing turn to being pro-Fascist, as well as having a devoted mob of followers who would assault Jews and their businesses, resulted in the tarnishing of his image. Coughlin’s publication Social Justice in 1938 published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic forgery cooked up for and spread by the Tsarist secret police. He also infamously delivered a speech in the Bronx in which he delivered a Nazi salute and shouted, “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing” (Father Coughlin, Anti-Semitism). Despite this, Coughlin would deny being anti-Semitic then as well as in later years. In a 1972 interview, he stated on charges that he was anti-Semitic, “I’m certainly not against the Jews. After all, Christ, if he’s got any blood in his veins, was a Jew. And he has Mary’s blood in his veins, anyway, we Catholics believe. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, but he has Mary’s blood in his veins. The Twelve Apostles were Jews, and I would say—it might shock you to hear this—that of all the popes we’ve had, about 30 per cent were Jews, with Jewish blood in their veins. There’s nothing wrong with the Jews, any more than there’s anything wrong with the Irish. I always resented the use of the term anti-Semitic because, after all, the Jews are only a very small portion of the Semite race, the smallest, in fact. So I’m not antiSemitic. I am anti some Jews. Some of the international bankers I attacked were Jews, but I attacked them, not because they were Jews, but because they were international bankers who took good American money that should have been invested in this country and used it to set up the revolution in Russia in 1917. I’m certainly anti- ACLU for all the dirty things they do all the time. They’re never on the right side of the decent Jewish things, even. My Jewish friends are against them. They think they’re the shanty Irish of their race. But the minute I talk about a Jew who happens to be a misdemeanor Jew, therefore I’m anti-Semite. That’s not … I’ve talked about more Irishmen. I’m not anti-Irish” (Gallagher, 31). On the Protocols, he denied knowing the truth or falsity of them.

    In 1938, Coughlin encouraged the creation of the Christian Front, a mostly Catholic group that opposed communism and Judaism and were heavily influenced by him. Like the Nazis, they didn’t distinguish between Jews and communists and during 1939 there were numerous incidents of Jews being attacked on the streets of New York City, which included beatings and stabbings (Steele). They were supportive of Hitler and Franco, despite the former’s brutal persecution of the Catholic Church, and despised FDR. The organization was ultimately undone by 1940 by over a hundred convictions for violent incidents.

    The End of Coughlin’s Influence

    The federal government, with Attorney General Francis Biddle at the helm, worked to censor Coughlin’s radio program as well as his publication Social Justice as subversive after the outbreak of World War II in 1939. His radio program was ultimately canceled when the Roosevelt Administration declared that the First Amendment didn’t cover radio broadcasts. What happened next was, according to fathercoughlin.org, “Coughlin was promptly forced from the air when he was unable to receive a newly mandatory operating permit. Coughlin’s counter to this was to purchase independent air time and play prerecorded shows on the air.

    In 1939, the Code Committee of the National Association of Broadcasters forged new rules and placed increasingly rigid limitations on the sale of radio time to controversial spokesmen. This was directly aimed at Father Coughlin and his unwillingness to concede his throne as the nation’s top dissenting voice. Now, manuscripts would have to be given in advance, and stations were threatened with a loss of license should they not comply with the new standards on “free speech”” (Radio Show). Roosevelt, having succeeded in getting Coughlin off the air, reasoned that although he couldn’t stop him from writing and publishing his newspaper Social Justice, he could prevent it from being distributed through the mail. Coughlin didn’t give up at this point and publicly blamed a conspiracy of the Roosevelt Administration, the British, and Jews for the United States entering World War II, but it would ultimately be the Catholic Church itself that would put the final nail in the coffin in his participation on the national scene. The Archbishop of Detroit, Edward Mooney, who had jurisdiction over him, threatened on May 1, 1942, to defrock him if he didn’t end his political activity. He then withdrew from politics…his time in the sun had ended. Coughlin would, however, remain pastor at the Shrine of the Little Flower until 1966, when he retired due to declining health.

    Last Years, Reflecting on His Time

    In 1968, Coughlin was interviewed over the phone on his 77th birthday and stated that he “couldn’t honestly take back much of what I said and did in the old days when people still listened to me” (Krebs). He expressed his belief that he could have won against Roosevelt’s censorship had the Catholic Church not stepped in. In 1972, Coughlin was interviewed by American Heritage, and he commented on his role, “I was the world’s greatest oddity as a clergyman – back in 1926, especially. Most Catholics at that time believed that a priest had no business in politics. He shouldn’t mention anything dealing with taxation or pollution or war, you know. That’s a silly notion. After all, Christ excoriated the tax gatherers and cleansed the temple of the money changers who were debasing the currency then” (Gallagher, 1). Coughlin also reflected on his opposition to Roosevelt in this interview, holding that his opposition was more towards his associates than the man himself. He stated, “I was very disappointed with the lack of genuine monetary reform, and I said so. And some of the relief programs just weren’t working well, and I said so. And I told Mr. Roosevelt, too. As fine as Mr. Roosevelt was, he was a very poor businessman, one of the worst that ever sat in the White House. His own father, when writing his will, didn’t leave him a nickel; he left the management of the estate in charge of somebody else, you know that, don’t you? Well, I didn’t blame Mr. Roosevelt for a lot of these policies. It was the fault of some of the men around him, but I couldn’t go around being critical of his underlings. The President is the head of the organization and must take some responsibility” (Gallagher, 15). He also denied having talked with Huey Long on forming a third party. Coughlin regretted the forming of the Union Party in 1936, holding that it was a mistake and that he was persuaded to do so by “a lot of nincompoops” (Gallagher, 21).

    The case against the demagogic Coughlin was reminiscent of charges against those indicted in the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, however it could be argued convincingly that he was a more dangerous figure given his greater following than the collection of extremists and cranks who had little following that were defendants in that case. Although Coughlin wasn’t working for Axis victory during World War II, he shared many of the views of the Nazis, including his concurrence in their anti-Semitism, and promoted them on his show and through his publication Social Justice. I do think, however, that Coughlin got legitimately screwed by the government and unconstitutionally so. Roosevelt’s radio and mail rationales would not survive modern judicial scrutiny on the First Amendment as the motivation for restriction was based on the content of Coughlin’s speech. It strikes me that Coughlin as a broadcaster had an ability to incite events that were perhaps beyond his intent and it also strikes me that even without government censorship efforts his influence would have declined, like it did for numerous prominent non-interventionist politicians and the anti-Semitic rabble rouser Gerald L.K. Smith.

    References

    Anti-Semitism. Father Coughlin.

    Retrieved from

    https://www.fathercoughlin.org/father-coughlin-anti-semitism.html

    Charles E. Coughlin. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

    Retrieved from

    https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/charles-e-coughlin

    Gallagher, R.S. (1972, October). Father Coughlin: The Radio Priest. American Heritage, 23(6).

    Retrieved from

    https://www.americanheritage.com/father-coughlin-radio-priest

    Kovarik, W. (2021, January 19). When Radio Stations Stopped a Public Figure From Spreading Dangerous Lies. Smithsonian Magazine.

    Retrieved from

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/time-private-us-media-companies-stepped-silence-falsehoods-and-incitements-major-public-figure-1938-180976771/

    Krebs, A. (1979, October 28). Charles Coughlin, 30’s ‘Radio Priest,’. The New York Times.

    Retrieved from

    https://www.nytimes.com/1979/10/28/archives/charles-coughlin-30s-radio-priest-dies-fiery-sermons-stirred-furor.html

    Radio Show. Father Coughlin.

    Retrieved from

    https://www.fathercoughlin.org/father-coughlin-radio-priest.html#supportFDR

    Reverend Charles E. Coughlin (1891-1979). PBS.

    Retrieved from

    https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/holocaust-coughlin/

    “Roosevelt or Ruin”, Asserts Radio Priest at Hearing. (1934, January 17). The Washington Post.

    Simkin, J. (2020, January). National Union of Social Justice. Spartacus Educational.

    Retrieved from

    https://spartacus-educational.com/USAnationunionsocial.htm

    Steele, R.W. (1999). Free speech in the good war. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

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