Father Charles Coughlin

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Father Charles Coughlin began spouting anti-Semitic comments on the radio in the 1930s.

Father Charles Coughlin

The famous “radio priest” Father Coughlin, pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower, became one of the most virulent anti-Semites of the 1930s.

Born in Hamilton, Ontario, on October 25, 1891, Charles Coughlin was ordained a Catholic priest in 1916 and became the pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, in 1926. Coughlin accepted the role of a “radio priest” in 1930 and slowly gained a following until shortly before the presidential election in 1932. On the CBS network Father Coughlin railed against Herbert Hoover and became an ardent supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Coughlin became the voice of the common man when he vented his frustrations over the machinations of bankers and the uneven distribution of wealth. Far from being a socialist or Communist sympathizer, however, the priest used his electronic pulpit to blast liberalism and socialism in the government.

Because he had become such a vocal and enthusiastic endorser of the candidacy of Roosevelt, many among Father Coughlin’s radio constituency expected that the outspoken priest would receive a high post in the new administration. Although he may not have admitted it openly, Coughlin harbored such expectations himself. He confided to certain friends that if Roosevelt should so reward him, he would quit the church and become a positive force within the government. When the rumored post did not materialize, Coughlin became openly disgruntled. By 1937 his attacks on Roosevelt had grown so virulent that he received a rebuke from Pope Pius XI.

Dropped by CBS, Father Coughlin was certain that NBC would welcome him and his radio parish of millions. Unwilling to rile the Roosevelt administration, NBC informed Coughlin that they had a policy of not accepting commercial religious broadcasting. Incensed, the volatile cleric used WOR New York and WJR Detroit as his flagship stations and then, with the thousands of dollars of voluntary contributions from his radio audience, bought time on individual stations throughout the United States.

Coughlin developed a magazine called Social Injustice to supplement in print his rants over the airwaves. He continued to fulminate against the Roosevelt administration, but his invective now included Jews. To the horror of many of his steadfast listeners, he became perhaps the foremost preacher of anti-Semitism in the nation. He was an embarrassment to Catholics, and prominent leaders within the church fomented a movement to remove him from the airwaves. In l942 Social Injustice was banned from the mail by enforcement of the Espionage Act invoked during World War II.

In that same year, yielding to pressure from both the secular and religious establishments, Coughlin left his bully pulpit on the radio and returned to the Shrine of the Little Flower. He remained active as pastor until 1966. He died on October 27, 1979, at the age of eighty-eight.