Posted By: Michael Sweeney Mar. 6, 2009 So…here’s a little no-pressure quick-quiz question (and, hey, how many times do you get to write a sentence with three "Q" words in a row?): Do you know who Father Coughlin was?
Posted By: Michael Sweeney
Mar. 6, 2009
So…here’s a little no-pressure quick-quiz question (and, hey, how many times do you get to write a sentence with three "Q" words in a row?): Do you know who Father Coughlin was?
No? Well, if not, you’re likely in the vast majority of Americans. Frankly, the way things went and ended up turning out, there is no reason – unless you happen to have a particularly keen interest in 20th century American history – that you should have any idea who Father Charles Coughlin was. But, with perhaps the exception of the Roman collar then and the rolls of jowls now, 1930s Father Coughlin IS the historical equivalent of the current Rush Limbaugh…
Coughlin was a Canadian-born Roman Catholic priest; in the 1920s, he began working at a parish in Detroit. Almost as a novelty, he began doing radio broadcasts in 1926, giving a local weekly on-air sermon. These broadcasts grew in popularity…and started taking on subjects other than religion. As the broadcasting medium grew – and, following the Wall Street Crash of ’29 – his radio sermons became a nation-wide source of comfort and inspiration to a country trying to make it through tough times. And he continued to morph his "sermons" from religious teaching to more political and economic philosophizing – and, indeed, even very demanding "preaching." It was estimated that more than 40 million listeners tuned in to his weekly programs during the 1930s.
The first important, influential political stands that Coughlin took were – ultimately, ironically – in support of first candidate and then President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was credited with coining and popularizing the phrase "Roosevelt or ruin"…and he supported FDR through his election and the first few (very active) years of his administration. During much of the 1930s, Coughlin was perhaps the second-most-popular person in the entire country, trailing only the either beloved or despised President.
Father Coughlin's radio support for FDR and the New Deal faded later in 1934, when he founded an organization called the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ). NUSJ was a nationalistic worker's rights organization that opposed FDR’s economic policies as only supporting the wealthy or established – not the working-class. Charges of anti-Semitism – and growing descriptions of Coughlin as a "fascist" – followed his increasing radio preaching about what he called "the money changers."
As his programs became more openly anti-Semitic – he blamed the horrible 1938 "Kristallnacht" persecution in Germany on its Jewish victims – some radio stations (including those in New York and Chicago) began limiting or even cancelling his shows unless his scripts were pre-approved. These statements and the resulting reactions even made Coughlin a hero in Nazi Germany; he also made multiple speeches that attempted to rationalize policies being enacted by Hitler and Mussolini.
Coughlin’s fall was both gradual, then sudden. His support of a group called the Christian Front backfired in 1940, when the group was busted by the FBI over a plot "to murder Jews, communists, and a dozen Congressmen." He was not directly linked to the scheme, but he continued to speak in their support. And, after Pearl Harbor, his continued isolationist, right-wing stands were seen as being in direct opposition to what the vast majority of Americans (AND their government) saw as the vitally needed next steps.
As it became more difficult to get his broadcasts – or even written statements via his publications or the US mail – out to his dwindling number of followers, the Catholic Church decided they had had enough as well. In 1942, Coughlin’s bishop demanded he completely stop his political activities and limit himself to – once again – simply being a parish priest. He complied – and remained the local pastor there until retiring in 1966. He turned down all interview requests after that (although he occasionally wrote anti-Communist pamphlets), and died a nearly-completely-forgotten figure at the age of 88 in 1979.
Coughlin is thought of as one of the major demagogues of the 20th century – because he gathered a deep core of followers and attempted to influence politics merely through his broadcasts. He never ran for or held political office…although he founded a short-lived third party and supported a failed candidate in the 1936 Presidential election.
So…a radio demagogue…clearly racist and probably fascist…never offers himself to voters, so they can make their choices about him…opposing – with his inconsequential, coded, and blatantly over-the-top words – a popular US President who is trying to lead the country through very trying times. Hmm – sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?
Then – perhaps another quick-quiz question to leave you with: All things considered – including the fact that, passionate "Ditto-head" supporters or not, Coughlin’s radio audience was more than double what Limbaugh’s is (and that was back when the US population was only about one-third of what it is now) – doesn’t it seem more than likely that in (say…) 2050 or ’60, most people who are asked, "Do you know who Rush Limbaugh was?" will have to scratch their heads a bit to come up with even any tiny piece of trivia about the man blustering and babbling his way into headlines lately?
Or, to recall an appropriate bit of poetry from Percy Bysshe Shelley – regarding the ironic ruins of a long-abandoned statue paying tribute to a forgotten man’s former worldly achievements – "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
…Well, that ain’t exactly the desperate, attention-seeking "Talent on loan from God!" – but, eh, it’s awfully close…
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