Matthew Hill received Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Psychology from Columbia International University. Hill also received an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Georgia State University. He has over 10 years of teaching experience as a professor and online instructor for courses like American History, Western Civilization, Religious History of the United States, and more.
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.
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!
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 .
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.
The End for Coughlin
Coughlin did not curb his inflammatory and anti-Semitic remarks, even when the Second World War broke out. His ranting unnerved Roosevelt. Given the backdrop of the war, Coughlin's remarks were deemed unpatriotic; he was even investigated by the Attorney General Francis Biddle for possible collusion with the Axis enemy. The U.S. Postal Service stopped mailing his Social Justice paper, citing the Espionage Act of 1917 that had forbidden organized efforts to undermine the war. Largely due to his anti-Semitic remarks, Coughlin had become an embarrassment to the Catholic Church; in 1942, Detroit Archbishop Edward Mooney, his senior in his diocese, ordered him off the airwaves, threatening to remove Coughlin from his parish if he didn't comply. Coughlin never recovered professionally from his ordeal, and when he died in 1979, he was little remembered in the media.
In many respects, Father Charles Coughlin was like Jekyll and Hyde. In the early part of his career, his compassionate broadcasts on behalf of the poor and social justice made him very popular. His signing with CBS gave him a national audience that reached into the millions. Early on, he supported FDR and his New Deal, but his frustration with the slow process of economic recovery led him to support a third-party candidate. He also found his own newspaper, Social Justice, to air out his views, but this was pulled by the federal government due to suspicion that he was colluding with the Axis powers. His broadcasts became so erratic, conspiracy-filled, and hateful toward Jews, though his audience dwindled and the Archbishop of Detroit ordered him off the air. Sadly, Coughlin proved to be his biggest enemy as his own broadcasts, which had once provided inspiration for millions, became associated with the rantings of a bitter man.
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