Fr. Charles E. Coughlin:
There is something to be said in the critique that Father Charles E. Coughlin’s anti-Semitism barely became a topic before his old-time radio and published commentaries—which graduated from purely religious sermonisings and musings to sociopolitical ones by the time of Franklin Roosevelt’s election—became fodder for critics, once he turned against the New Deal . . . because (according to some sources and writings) it didn’t go far enough for Coughlin’s liking, even though he ultimately accuses Roosevelt of attempted Sovietisation.
Blessed with a mellifluous voice that affected an Irish brogue (he was born to Canadian parents of Irish descent who, reportedly, had never even seen Ireland), Coughlin has been a radio presence since circa 1928, when his weekly broadcast discourses—said to have begun in a bid to raise money to build the Shrine of the Little Flower church in Royal Oak, Michigan—became phenomenally popular Sunday afternoon listening. So phenomenally popular that, though he was hardly the only man of the cloth on the air, he became known as the Radio Priest.
Coughlin’s radio career took its first hit in mid-1931, when CBS, which carried his weekly broadcasts, asked him to tone down his critiques of the Hoover Administration, perhaps fearing he was blurring too heavily the line between religious and political commentary. (This would hardly be the last time religious speakers of any faith would face such accusations, as the televangelists of the 1970s and 1980s would be able to tell people.) Coughlin’s refusal prompted CBS to decline renewing his contract. That prompted the Radio Priest to organise his own network, after a fashion, raising money through donations from the faithful to buy air time on over thirty stations around the country, including some who were CBS affiliates.
Though he will come to be remembered as a vocal and venal opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Coughlin at first welcomed the Roosevelt Administration—he claimed in 1932 that the coming New Deal would be “Christ’s Deal.” (Perhaps Coughlin’s best remembered radio address, before Roosevelt’s election, is “Roosevelt or Ruin.”) Coughlin turned against Roosevelt by 1934, however, continuing his calls for nationalising gold, revaluating the dollar, and other positions much in line with Louisiana Sen. Huey Long’s “share the wealth” proposals.
And with a listenership said to number as high as 40 million—a third of the nation’s radio audience at the time, and double the peak audience conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh would enjoy in the 1990s and 2000s—Coughlin, by the time he forms his National Union for Social Justice, is considered one of broadcasting’s most powerful speakers.
His mellifluous voice was his first attraction, but his messages have become equal to his voice in explaining his popularity by the mid-1930s. An America yet in the throes of the Great Depression, frustrated by a government whose policies seem to exacerbate or at least extend it, is an America enough of which is willing to listen to soothsayers of any persuasion who will tell them what’s wrong and who’s to blame, and let’s bother about the truth some other time.
By 1938, the Radio Priest has been suspected of anti-Semitic inclinations without much in the way of direct, explicit evidence on which to rest the suspcions. That will change as of today’s broadcast, which begins innocuously enough with a choral performance of “Ave Maria” from the Shrine of the Little Flower.
Today, Coughlin will be heard delivering anti-Semitism almost unapologetically. He seems to blame Kristallnacht, the infamous Nazi campaign in which Jewish-owned properties were vandalised and burned, and Jews around Germany were attacked and killed a fortnight before today’s broadcast, on . . . the Jews. Notwithstanding several affirmative references to Jews, notwithstanding several early expressions of disdain over Kristallnacht, Coughlin will call it a defence mechanism against Communisim produced by atheistic Jews. And he urged the United States to shun “unreasonable reprisals” against the Third Reich, asking “charity be the law of our conduct and let justice for all be our guiding star.”
The Kristallnacht broadcast proves a disturbing Coughlin watershed, if not yet his Waterloo. His New York affiliate, WMCA, will dump him when he refuses to allow its management to review his discourses before he speaks. The Christian Front, the successor to Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice (though his weekly magazine will keep the name Social Justice), pickets WMCA and other stations cancelling the Coughlin discourses, launching attacks against Jews in various locations, and in due course seventeen of the group will be arrested after the FBI discovers they plan to kill selected Jews and even government officials.
The Radio Priest himself will never be charged in that plot, nor will anyone suggest plausibly that he was even aware of it, but the fact that his group is involved—and that Coughlin himself never denounces their activities and plans—will put an irrevocable stain on his reputation. As will the fact that Social Justice begins reproducing thinly-disguised Nazi propaganda, disguised at least just enough to fool the fools, if not the federal government.
Coughlin will leave radio, politics, and publishing permanently in the early 1940s. The beginning impetus is a combination of the National Association of Broadcasters, with new rules governing the buying and selling of air time to controversial speakers; the U.S. Post Office, which bans Social Justice from the mails under the 1917 Espionage Act enabling the Post Office to revoke Social Justice‘s second-class mailing permits; and, the Catholic Church itself.
The church is long enough embarrassed by Coughlin; even the Vatican is said to have wanted him silenced for long enough. But not until Francis Mooney becomes Archbishop of Detroit, succeeding an archibishop who has supported Coughlin in the past, will the Radio Priest face an ultimatum—surrender his radio and political activities entirely, or surrender the priesthood.
Coughlin will choose the latter option, retiring to the Shrine of the Little Flower, where he will remain its parish priest until his quiet retirement in 1966. He will die almost forgotten in 1979. But for those who plight their troth to what later generations would call hate radio, left or right (and anyone who thinks hate radio does not exist on the left simply does not listen), we nominate as their patron saint the Radio Priest himself.
Announcer: Franklin Mitchell.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Vic & Sade: A Miserable Object of Public Ridicule; or, Rush is Humiliated on Thanksgiving (NBC, 1941)—Vic (Art Van Harvey) and Sade (Bernadine Flynn), enjoying a quiet evening of dreamy gazing and reading, are alarmed when Rush (Bill Idelson) is ready to paste one on Blazer Scott’s nose over revealing . . . the dinner utensils Sade leaves for him at each meal. Annoucer: Ed Herlihy. Writer/director: Paul Rhymer.
Vic & Sade: Smelly Clark, the Barber (NBC, 1942)—Rush (Bill Idelson) may be taking a big risk letting his buddy give him a haircut. Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Writer/director: Paul Rhymer.
The Clock: Lover Boy (ABC, 1947)—A self-doubting playboy (Ken Wayne) who still manages to fleece his lovers now has more than he can handle, including a sexy drive-in waitress (Wynne Nelson) who only seems numb from the neck up . . . and whose steady boyfriend resembles him almost exactly. The Clock: Hart McGuire. Additional cast: Moyer Redmond, John Urich, Brian James. Writer: Lawrence Klee.
Our Miss Brooks: The Party Line (CBS, 1949)—Nothing to do with politics, everything to do with the telephone, on which a party line’s incessant gossip may block Connie (Eve Arden) from hooking up with the district official who may promote her to department head. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Conklin: Gale Gordon. Walter: Richard Crenna. Boynton: Jeff Chandler. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Al Lewis.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: The Talented Children’s Screen Test (NBC, 1949)—After watching the girls in their first school play, a studio scout wants Phyllis (Anne Whitfield) for a film, Little Alice (Jeanine Roos) handles it the typical Harris manner (withering sarcasm), and Alice (Faye) blanches at what it might do to both girls. Willie: Robert North. Remley: Elliott Lewis. Mrs. Miller: Lois Forman. Julius: Walter Tetley. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris, Alice Faye. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
Gunsmoke: Dutch George (CBS, 1955)—A hustling horse thief (John Dehner) with an apparent knack for evading jury convictions puzzles Matt (William Conrad), who once knew him as a legitimate businessman. Kitty: Georgia Ellis. Chester: Parley Baer. Additional cast: Vic Perrin, Jim Hunter. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writer: John Dunkel. (Advisory: Flawed tape recording.)