Monday, January 13, 2014

Father Charles E. Coughlin: Forgotten Founder of Talk Radio? By Chris White

   Charles Edward Coughlin (1891-1979) was born in Ontario Canada to Irish Catholic parents and felt called to the priesthood during his teens.  After graduating from Seminary and teaching at a Catholic college for 7 years, he migrated to the United States by way of Detroit Michigan where he was assigned a small church of about 26 families.

   Father Coughlin was greatly influenced in his thinking by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical On the Condition of the Working Class which was written in 1891 but was part of his seminary training (  In it the pope called for great reforms in western society to improve the lot of the lower classes and create a more just society.  By this time Industrialization had become widely established in the western world, but organizations and laws to protect the rights of the worker, lagged so far behind, that the individual laborer was marginalized while investors and company owners grew fabulously wealthy.  The general mood of the day among the lower classes was to turn towards socialism as a means of redressing the great unbalance that existed.  Pope Leo XIII considered socialism a spiritual error and contrary to human nature which ordinarily and rightly desires private ownership of goods attained through their labors.  The pope called on Church leaders, captains of Industry, and the world’s governments to take positive actions to alleviate the hard working and living conditions of the lower classes.  This became the core of Father Coughlin’s political thinking for the rest of his life but this also regularly came out in his preaching.  He was neither a socialist or capitalist, but stood somewhere in between the two.
  Sometimes bad things happen in our lives that though painful, open the door of opportunity.  In 1926, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the front lawn of Father Coughlin’s parish church because they didn’t appreciate Roman Catholicism in general and Father Coughlin’s reforming views in particular.  Local radio station WJR invited him to speak on the air as sort of a rebuttal to his critics and it was so popular that soon a weekly broadcast was born. 

   CBS picked up the broadcast and began to air it nationwide on their network free of charge.  Over time Coughlin became quite critical of then President Herbert Hoover’s policies which he and many others thought were perpetuating the misery of the Great Depression (in the early years of the depression the national unemployment rate was 26% and there was no social safety net).

   When CBS asked him to tone down his rhetoric, he refused and CBS cancelled their free sponsorship.  When the free sponsorship got cancelled, Father Coughlin began raising funds to continue the broadcast and was quite successful in doing so.  One of the fruits of the radio show was that Father Coughlin attracted more people into the church and soon his parish sanctuary had to be remodeled to accommodate 600 worshippers on Sundays.

  In the 1932 election, Father Coughlin became an ardent supporter of candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt for President.  His line was “It is Roosevelt or Ruin for America” as the Great Depression continued and worsened.  His endorsement of Roosevelt was so strong that he boldly declared “The New Deal is Christ’s Deal” and that “God is directing President Roosevelt”.Ironically, when he began seeing that Roosevelt supported capitalistic ideas, he cooled off about him considerably and founded an organization supporting of worker’s rights called the National Union for Social Justice.  The platform for this organization whose membership was in the millions called for nationalization of major utilities and the railroads and protection of worker’s rights. 

   Father Coughlin wasn’t against capitalism just unfettered capitalism, he was also against communism and socialism.  His political ideas centered around the rights of the common man and in many ways were similar to those of William Jennings Bryan a decade before.  He was deeply suspicious of big government but even more so of big-business.  His belief in the nationalization of utilities sprang from his view that the resources they made their profits from, were actually god-given resources for all of humanity.  In one sense, he was right, but what he failed to see is that while God indeed did create things like coal and electricity, He did not put up power poles and rail lines to deliver these items to the general public.

   One interesting aspect of Coughlin’s political views was on monetary policy.  He latched on to the idea that gold, which was the basis of our currency at the time, was not the measure but the master of its value.  He strongly agitated during the depression that the value of gold be arbitrarily doubled which would then justify doubling the money supply, while people’s debts would be much smaller by comparison.  This was rejected early on by President Roosevelt as a cure for the Great Depression, but components of this idea were studied and adopted by Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve in recent years to prevent a full-on Depression in 2008.  Does this idea work or create even more problems?  This is yet to be determined.  

   After 1936, Coughlin fell into great public disgrace for being supportive of the fascist policies of Hitler and Mussolini.  His view was that their policies were the antidote to communism.  He also blamed the Great Depression on a conspiracy of Jewish bankers and believed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was also the work of the Jews.  He felt that Nazism and Fascism were nothing more than European responses to the threat of Bolshevism which was being instigated by a group of evil Jews.  Despite this, Coughlin claimed he was not anti-semitic and that he welcomed all Jews of good will.  When WWII began, Coughlin denounced the atrocities and the Nazis, but his reputation had already been damaged by then having been on the wrong side of Naziism.  Many radio stations started dropping his show, but faced with angry picketers for doing so, they found themselves restoring the program to their schedules.  
  He also began a newspaper called Social Justice that became a forum for his Anti-Semitic views.  Although the Vatican certainly wanted him silenced, it was pressure from the Roosevelt administration that led to the cancellation of his radio program.  Interestingly, Roosevelt who was a Protestant, went to Joseph P. Kennedy, president Kennedy’s father and a Roman Catholic himself, and asked him to help tone down Father Coughlin.

   After Pearl Harbor, America was a different place.  Father Coughlin was considered seditious and controversial and the rules of Broadcasting were changed by the FCC to contain anyone who was quite controversial or in opposition to the government.  When Father Coughlin’s radio show was finally cancelled, he continued to produce his newspaper, but this got shut down when the Postmaster general shut down Coughlin’s right to use the U.S. mail to distribute his paper because its views were not supportive of the administration or the war effort.  Essentially the Roosevelt administration changed the laws on free speech even though it was their constitutional responsibility to protect it, and all of their efforts were targeted to shut down Father Coughlin.  Many of the FCC rules were still in place until the era of Ronald Reagan when he had them revised back in favor of free speech.  This deregulation paved the way for the modern era of talk radio where equal time for alternative viewpoints is no longer required.
   In 1942, Father Coughlin’s bishop ordered him to cease and desist from all politics and to return to his duties as a parish priest which he did until his retirement in 1966.  From then until his death in 1979, Father Coughlin continued to write pamphlets denouncing the evils of communism.
During his peak years on the radio as many at 30 million listeners regularly tuned in to his broadcasts.  Just to give some perspective, this number is the equivalent to having the combined  audiences of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.  The difference of course is that Father Coughlin worked at a time when there were substantially less choices of who to listen to than there are today.  His mailroom received 80,000 letters a week.  

   Many commentators suggest the appeal of Father Coughlin in America was his isolationist views (America first, International relations second) and his penchant for conspiracy theories about Wall Street, The Federal Reserve, and the Federal Government.  Contemporaries of the era said that he spoke with such passion that even though he rambled and often repeated himself, it was a thrill to hear.  When people came to his rallies, the excitement was said to be comparable to what was happening in Germany with Hitler and his Nazi rallies.  People were worked up into state of great excitement and excess.  Other commentators on the art of radio said that Coughlin had a deep, rich, honey-like voice that was very manly and soothing and that even if you wanted to turn the dial past him, the quality of his voice would draw you back.

   From the perspective of today, Father Coughlin looks like a bit of a hate-monger and bleeding-heart liberal blended with populism and a potent elixer of religion .  He definitely demonized people he disagreed with and in some cases quite unjustly.  But it is always best to try to understand a man in the context of his times.  The Great Depression was a desperate time for 1 in 4 Americans.  There were many voices in this time calling for America to try socialism because it seemed that capitalism had failed us.  It doesn’t seem untoward that Father Coughlin, in touch with the needs of his congregation and a common man himself would hold such views.  He was no economist or politician, just a shepherd of souls.  Perhaps we should indulge him a bit for his very un-nuanced views.
On the other side of the equation, while I can sympathize with the need for national unity in a time of great peril, as was World War II, my personal opinion is America has always been well-served by its Constitution and Bill of Rights.  In light of that, the suppression of Father Coughlin’s rights to be a voice of dissent, looks to me like the government over-reach of the worst kind.  Nevertheless, Father Coughlin truly was a broadcasting pioneer and being a pioneer of any kind has always been fraught with peril.