Father Charles E. Coughlin & the New Deal

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Father Charles Coughlin was a popular radio priest during the 1930s-1940s, best remembered for his inflammatory and conspiracy-laden remarks. This lesson will introduce you to his life, beliefs, and the controversial contents of his radio broadcasts.

A Jekyll and Hyde Story

Father Charles Coughlin had a 'Jekyll and Hyde' personality. In Robert Louis Stevenson's popular novel, the main characters, Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, turn out to be the same man: Jekyll represents the good side of this character, and Hyde the dark side. In the end, the dark side seems to triumph over his better nature. Coughlin began as a popular, compassionate radio priest, but his later career descended into hateful rhetoric and irrational conspiracy theories. This lesson will take you through the rise and fall of the Jekyll-and-Hyde radio preacher.

Canadian Roots of an American Priest

Charles Coughlin was born in Ontario, Canada in October 1891. His parents were strict Irish Catholics, and he grew up a devout Catholic. Coughlin attended St. Michael's College, where he studied for the priesthood. From 1916 to 1923 he taught at Assumption College in Ontario before moving to Detroit, Michigan in 1926. It was in Detroit that Coughlin established his reputation as a radio priest.

Father Charles Coughlin
Charles Coughlin

Rise of a Radio Priest

In Detroit, his church, The Shrine of the Little Flower, was ransacked by the Ku Klux Klan, and he took to the local airwaves to denounce them. Radio was a new medium at the time, its potential to instantly connect to a national audience seemingly endless.

Coughlin felt a deep sympathy for the poor and social justice issues, and he routinely condemned government indifference to helping those most in need. Armed with a message that resonated with the people and a distinguished, inviting voice, Coughlin's radio program exploded in popularity. His show, 'Hour of Power,' began on a local Detroit station, WJR. It went national in 1930, when CBS - then a radio media outlet - picked it up, giving Coughlin a national audience. Coughlin had a flair for the dramatic, and his show was entertaining. At the height of his popularity, his listening audience reached a whopping 30 million!

Presidential Candidate William Lemke
William Lemke

Coughlin and the New Deal

It is estimated that at the height of the Great Depression, one-third of the nation listened to Coughlin's radio program. Leading up to the 1932 presidential election, he used this audience to campaign for Franklin D. Roosevelt; he even coined the phrase 'Roosevelt or Ruin.' For his support of Roosevelt, Coughlin was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention. Within two years, though, Coughlin had grown critical of the New Deal and Roosevelt.

In 1934, Coughlin split with the Democrats and co-founded the National Union for Social Justice, later named the National Union Party. The NUSJ ran William Lemke as a third-party candidate for president in 1936. Coughlin was confident in Lemke, boasting that he would receive 9 million votes. Lemke only polled a dismal 900,000; in frustration, Coughlin threatened to quit radio. A different side of Coughlin, which ultimately destroyed his reputation, was soon revealed .

Charles Coughlins Social Justice Paper
Charles Coughlin Social Justice Paper

Coughlin's Rage

Lemke's loss fueled a bitter rage in Coughlin. In 1936, he began his own newspaper, called Social Justice, which he used as a print outlet for his politics. He soon returned to radio, and did so with a vengeance.

Coughlin's broadcasts became conspiracy-laden and irrational. He blamed U.S. entry into the First World War on manipulative bankers and industrials who supported the war solely for profit. The soldiers, he argued, were nothing more than pawns in a sordid game of financial schemes. Coughlin became increasingly anti-Semitic, blaming the Jews for bankrolling Roosevelt's presidency; at the same time, he praised Hitler and Mussolini. He even published in his paper 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion', an anti-Semitic document that originated in Russia and blamed the Jews for all sorts of social ills. Following the horrible attack on Jewish shops and businesses during the night of Kristallnacht in November 1938 in Germany, he blamed the Jews for bringing it upon themselves.

Attorney General Francis Biddle
Francis Biddle

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