On Sunday afternoons in the 1930s, families would turn on their radios and listen to a comedy, a mystery, or, in millions of households, the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin – the Radio Priest.
After his first broadcast on radio station WJR in 1926 he received eight letters from listeners. At his controversial peak, 30 million listeners coast-to-coast tuned in his broadcasts and he received 80 thousand letters a week.
Stations in London, Rome and Madrid carried his program. Fr. Coughlin was called many things: Social watchdog, Nazi, saint, anti-Semite. In response to the charge of anti-Semitism, he replied that he had also ..assailed prominent Gentiles, both Catholic and Protestant.”
Fr.Coughlin espoused a strange blend of venom and compassion. He demanded “social justice” for the poor and railed against international banking. Originally a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fr. Coughlin turned against the president, calling him “the great liar and betrayer.”
Yet after Roosevelt’s landslide re-election in 1936, Fr. Coughlin called on the public to support him, saying, “The people have spoken and the only American thing to do is abide by the will of the people.”
He was instrumental in the construction of the Shrine of the LIttle Flower on Woodward in Royal Oak, collecting donations of nickels and dimes from listeners. As his influence grew, so did the criticism of his politics. Detroit Bishop Michael Gallagher refused to discipline Fr. Coughlin, saying: “Until a lawful superior rules otherwise, I stand steadfastly behind this priest.”
Archbishop Edward Mooney, newly arrived as Detroit’s first archbishop in 1937, was that superior. Fr. Coughlin was maneuvered out of the limelight and eventually silenced.
Fr. Coughlin continued to serve as pastor of the Shrine of the LIttle Flower until his retirement in 1966. He died in 1979 at the age of 88.
Coughlin in The News
Fr. Charles E. Coughlin attacked everyone from Franklin Roosevelt to big coporations in his radio program and his newspaper “Social Justice.” Some echos of his populist rhetoric can still be heard in today’s political debates.
Here are some of Coughlin’s quotes as reported in The Detroit News:
“I believe that when a banker speaks, you can go the opposite way and be right. That has been proved in recent years.”
— March 6, 1934
“… we shall barter our sovereignty as a free, independent nation or accept the decisions of a World Court as a super-nation to manage our affairs …”
“While we sympathize with the Serbian or the Russian, with the Jew in Germany or the Christian in Russia, the major portion of our sympathy is extended to our dispossessed farmer, our disconsolate laborers who are being crushed at this moment while the spirit of internationalism runs rampant in the corridors of the Capitol, hoping to participate in setting the world aright while chaos clamors at our doors.”
— January 28, 1935
“Roosevelt has a poor brand of Russian communism … I think it is significant the leaders among the communists of the world never once attacked international bankers. Roosevelt will not touch that subject.”
— August 31, 1935
“I need not recall for you that both the laboring and agricultural classes of America are forced to work for less than a living wage while the owners of industry boastfully proclaim that their profits are increasing.”
— April 6, 1936
“If Jews persist in supporting communism directly or indirectly, that will be regrettable. By their failure to use the press, the radio and the banking house, where they stand so prominently, to fight communism as vigorously as they fight Naziism, the Jews invite the charge of being supporters of communism.”
— November 28, 1938
“From European entanglements, from Naziism, communism and their future wars, America must stand aloof. Keep America safe for Americans and the Stars and Stripes the defender of God.”
— January 2, 1939
“Must the entire world go to war for 600,000 Jews in Germany who are neither American, nor French, nor English citizens, but citizens of Germany?”
— January 30, 1939
“On this earth you must belong to the church militant or get the hell out of it. That’s the rightword. You’re either with me or against me’ There is no middle ground in this battle betweenChrist and the anti-Christ. If you step out of (the battle), you’re worse than those boys who ranoff to Norway, Sweden, those boys who deserted the government. You’re deserters, rottendeserters.”
— June 11, 1973