Father Charles Edward Coughlin was a controversial Roman Catholic priest at Royal Oak, Michigan’s National Shrine of the Little Flower church. He was one of the first political leaders to use radio to reach a mass audience, as possibly thirty million listeners tuned to his weekly broadcasts during the 1930s [much like a modern Rush Limbaugh]. Early in his career Coughlin was a vocal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his early New Deal proposals, before later becoming a harsh critic of Roosevelt as too friendly to bankers. In 1934 he announced a new political organization called the National Union for Social Justice. He wrote a platform calling for monetary reforms, the nationalization of major industries and railroads, and protection of the rights of labor. The membership ran into the millions, resembling the Populist movement of the 1890s.
After hinting at attacks on Jewish bankers, Coughlin began to use his radio program to issue anti-Semitic commentary, and later to support some of the policies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. 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, first with, and later against, the New Deal. Many American bishops as well as the Vatican wanted him silenced, but it was the Roosevelt administration that finally forced the cancellation of his radio program and forbade the dissemination through the post of his newspaper, Social Justice.
After the 1936 election, Coughlin increasingly expressed sympathy for the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini as an antidote to Communism. He claimed that Jewish bankers were behind the Russian Revolution, and that Russian Bolshevism was a disproportionately Jewish phenomenon.
He promoted his controversial beliefs by means of his radio broadcasts and his weekly rotogravure magazine, Social Justice, which began publication in March, 1936. During the last half of 1938, Social Justice reprinted in weekly installments the fraudulent, antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Charles Tull states, “Originally published in Russia in 1905, the Protocols purports to be an account of a Jewish conspiracy to seize control of the world”.
On various occasions, Father Coughlin denied that he was antisemitic. In February 1939, when the notorious American Nazi organization the German American Bund held a large rally in New York City,Father Coughlin, in his weekly radio address, immediately distanced himself from the organization and clearly stated: “Nothing can be gained by linking ourselves with any organization which is engaged in agitating racial animosities or propagating racial hatreds. Organizations which stand upon such platforms are immoral and their policies are only negative.” In August of that same year, in an interview with Edward Doherty of the weekly magazine Liberty, Coughlin stated:
- My purpose is to help eradicate from the world its mania for persecution, to help align all good men, Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile, Christian and non-Christian, in a battle to stamp out the ferocity, the barbarism and the hate of this bloody era. I want the good Jews with me, and I’m called a Jew baiter, an anti-Semite.
On November 20, 1938, two weeks after Kristallnacht, Coughlin, referring to the millions of Christians killed by the Communists in Russia, said “Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted.” After this speech, some radio stations, including those in New York and Chicago, began refusing to air his speeches without pre-approved scripts; in New York, his programs were cancelled by WINS and WMCA, leaving Coughlin to broadcasting on the Newark part-time station WHBI. On December 18, 1938 thousands of Coughlin’s followers picketed the studios of station WMCA in New York City to protest the station’s refusal to carry Father Coughlin’s broadcasts. A number of protesters made antisemitic statements such as “Send Jews back where they came from in leaky boats!” and “Wait until Hitler comes over here!” The protests continued for several months. Donald Warren, using information from the FBI and German government archives, has also argued that Coughlin received indirect funding from Nazi Germany during this period.
After 1936, Coughlin began supporting an organization called the Christian Front, which claimed him as an inspiration. In January 1940, a New York City unit of the Christian Front was raided by the FBI for plotting to overthrow the government. Coughlin had never been a member.