JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Friday, September 12, 2008


I would call it a “character flaw arch”: not in him but in us. In his beginnings the life of Charles Edward Coughlin was marked with omens and portents. In the end it was marked by farce and melodrama. And that may not have been entirely his fault. I suspect it was also and mostly ours. As for his own part, Charles Coughlin wanted to be a politician. Instead his mother pressured him to put on the collar and in 1916 Charles was ordained. Assigned as a teacher at Assumption College, in Sandwich, Ontario, on Sundays he crossed the border to preach at churches in Detroit.It was in Detroit that Charles used his God given talents for making political connections. His sermons impressed the Bishop of Detroit, Michael Gallagher, who made certain the young man met the right people – rich and important people - like City Councilman John Lodge, and his niece, Evangeline Lindberg, and auto maker Henry Ford. In 1923 Bishop Gallagher offered the rising star his own parish, a new suburban church, “The Shrine of the Little Flower”, in Royal Oak. Initially there were only 25 members of the congregation, and Father Coughlin’s mother had to sell trinkets in the gift shop. Faced with empty coffers and pews, Father Coughlin used his connections with Mrs. Lindberg and her son, the flyer Charles Lindberg, to convince the management of radio station WJR to provide him with a free hour on Sunday afternoons. His first broadcast, on October 3, 1926 produced only eight letters in response. But it was a beginning.It is interesting to note in retrospect the commonality of the message supported by all those powerful and wealthy names from Detroit; religious certainty, anti-communism, anti-Semitism, and an affinity for fascism. Certainly all these threads came together in Father Coughlin, but clearly they were aleady present in much of upper class and Catholic Detroit in the 1920’s.By 1930 Father Coughlin’s audience numbered over 40 million and it was said you could listen to “The Fighting Priest” and his entire “Golden Hour of the Little Flower” through open windows as you walked down any residential street in America on a Sunday afternoon. Father Coughlin preached a practical Christianity with “…a voice of such mellow richness, such manly, heart-warming, confidential intimacy, such emotional and ingratiating charm,…A voice made for lies.” His magazine had 30 million readers. And the subscriptions that poured in built a magnificent octagonal religious edifice on Twelve Mile Road and Woodward, in Royal Oak, and paid for his network of broadcast stations.Coughlin blamed communism for the rising divorce rate and called for old age insurance for American workers, what would eventually become Social Security. He supported Roosevelt in the 1932 election (“Roosevelt or Ruin”), but by 1935 Coughlin was calling him “The great betrayer and liar…Franklyn Double-Crossing Roosevelt”. Coughlin renamed the “The New Deal” the “Jew Deal” and sent demonstrators into the streets to block the acceptance of any more Jews escaping Nazi persecution (and execution). He justified his anti-Semitism by claiming “Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted” and promised, “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.” Some of the "art" from Father Coughlin's magazine is below. He preached the same strain of ugly hatred that underlay Henry Ford’s American publication of the Czarists fraud the “Protocol of the Elders of Zion”, and Charles’ Lindberg’s “America First” committee. It is also clear in retrospect that Father Coughlin was not above enlightened self interest. After Roosevelt took America off the Gold Standard, Coughlin campaigned strongly for substitution of the Silver Standard. Few knew at the time that Father Coughlin was one of the largest holders of silver in the country. But what really destroyed Father Coughlin was his support for “The Christian Front”.Coughlin’s association to "The Front" was not merely philosophical. He spoke at Front rallies, and allowed his name and image on Front advertising. Then in January of 1940 the F.B.I. swept into the Front's Brooklyn offices, arresting nine men and seizing 15 bombs, 18 cans of cordite, dynamite, fuses, incendiary chemicals, 16 rifles, 750 rounds of machine gun ammo and “one long sword”. At a press conference Director J. Edgar Hoover announced that "The Front" was plotting to blow up a Jewish newspaper, a movie theatre showing Russian films, a Post Office, and the Federal Reserve Bank, and thus spark a revolution (Oh, and they also wanted to assassinate President Roosevelt). The trial of "The Christian Front" conspirators was no easier than the conspiracy trials of the 21st century. The defendants were largely acquitted. But with the revolations and the debate, much of the public support for Coughlin evaporated.Lord knows, the Catholic church had long wanted The Fighting Priest to shut up. And with the coming of the war the U.S. government no longer felt the need to handle Father Coughlin with care. First his radio network was squeezed under new fairness rules, and then the Post Office deemed his magazines as anti-American. More "art" from it is presented above. And when Bishop Michael Gallagher, the primary support for Coughlin's attacks, finally died in 1942, the new Bishop of Detroit, Frances Mooney, immediatly ordered Coughlin to stop his public crusades. With the discovery of Hitler’s death camps in 1945, Coughlin's brand of virilent anti-Semitism was also finished as a mass movement in America, at least for a time. Thus the curtain finally fell on the career of the first priest who wanted to be a mass media star. This bitter, hate spewing little man died in well deserved obscurity in 1979.But for about ten years America seemed willing to go along with anything the “Fighting Priest” had to say. And the American electorate’s eventual rejection of “The Father of Hate Radio” may not have had as much to do with common sense or a sense of basic decency, as it did with the public's shallow, fickle changing tastes, and their fascination with the latest fad. When Father Coughlin was no longer a "curiosity" or "a fresh face" he no longer had as much power. It is an enduring truth about both politics and religion, and twice as true, twice as fast when the two are combined: today’s hotest fad, is usually the first to fade. Or, as Abraham Lincoln put it, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."
You can see a little hope in that, if you wish to. It’s up to you.

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