You haven’t truly arrived as a right-wing demagogue on the American airwaves until you’ve been compared to Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, the undisputed “Father of Hate Radio,” as one biographer described him. Those pegged as modern-day Coughlins have been, at various points in our recent history, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Pat Buchanan, Sean Hannity, and Andrew Breitbart (who LA Observed described as “L.A.’s Father Coughlin,” which is a start).
But no one has been accorded the honor more these days than Glenn Beck, who devoted a segment on his Fox television show back in March to debunking what he called the “laughable” Coughlin comparison made “over and over again” against him by “the Left.” In the wake of Beck’s triumphantly anodyne palooza on the Mall in Washington D.C., the charge has been made with even greater frequency. Keith Olbermann started calling him “Father Cough-Glenn.” Bloomberg’s Al Hunt wrote a column comparing the two “mesmerizing broadcasters able to articulate the anger and frustration of a flock frightened by economic hard times.” And, in his new book about Beck—Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America—Dana Milbank devotes a chapter to placing the two men’sstatements side by side, showing that both railed against government tyranny (our own and others), floated crackpot theories, celebrated the founders and their works, warned of the predations of Europe and international bureaucrats, and heaped praise on an awesome deity. With Beck’s recent Coughlinlike indictment of George Soros as an unrepentant accomplice in the deaths of other Jews and a “puppet master” able to topple governments at will, it’s a surprise more commentators haven’t drawn the comparison.
But Beck is no Coughlin. Beck’s comments and work certainly aren’t defensible. But the comparison to Coughlin is not only flawed—it is historically illiterate, denying Coughlin, pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, his rightful place as one of the most odious characters in American history.
Coughlin was a giant in the history of radio, both the prototypical televangelist (he raked in the bucks) and the first political loudmouth with a mass following: He drew 40 million listeners in the early thirties to his Sunday afternoon program, double the 20 million that Rush Limbaugh has claimed for his audience. But he didn’t just talk; he urged action—illegal and terrifying. By1938, increasingly unhinged and openly anti-Semitic, Coughlin was using his radio pulpit and his 200,000-circulation newspaper, Social Justice, to advocate for the creation of a violent hate group, the Christian Front. The group soon boasted members numbering in the thousands throughout the cities of Northeast. It has largely been forgotten that Coughlin’s “platoons,” as he called them, were responsible for a months-long campaign of low-level mayhem in New York City: They attacked Jews with fists and sometimes knifes. They boycotted Jewish-owned businesses (guided by a “Christian index” of shopkeepers) and sometimes smashed their windows in the German fashion. This ugly episode culminated when 17 Coughlinites were arrested by the FBI in January 1940 and charged with planning acts of terrorism against Jewish individuals and institutions (and those deemed their allies).
Although he didn’t have a role in orchestrating the plan, Coughlin, after a brief hesitation, gave his full-throated support to the “Brooklyn Boys,” saying in a January 21,1940, broadcast that “I take my stand beside the Christian Fronters … [and] … reaffirm every word which I have said in advocating [the Front’s] formation.” Beck hasn’t come close to scaling those heights.
The proximate cause of the Christian Front’s campaign in New York was Coughlin’s Kristallnacht address of November 20, 1938, perhaps the vilest in the history of American broadcasting. With the world unable to deny that the Nazi regime was prepared to commit mass violence against Jews, Coughlin argued with his phony Irish brogue (his parents had never seen the oul sod) that the atrocity was merely a “defense mechanism against communism,” which was the product of “atheistic Jews.” He sneered at the attendant publicity, “attributable to the fact that Jews, through their native ability, have risen to such high places in radio and in press and in finance.” In the end, he said America should avoid any “unreasonable reprisals” against the Hitlerite regime. “Let charity be the law of our conduct,” he concluded, “and let justice for all be our guiding star.” The Little Flower Choristers then took the microphone to sing the hymn “O What Could My Jesus Do More” with Cyril Dutherell at the console of the organ.
Alone among Coughlin’s more than 60 affiliates—the priest had an audience of about 15 million listeners at this point in his career, author Donald Warren has estimated—WMCA in New York had heard enough. Management canceled his show after Coughlin refused to allow them to alter his scripts before he delivered them. (A Newark station promptly offered him airtime.) Coughlin’s militia—he had called for “a virile, closely woven Christian Front” to serve as “defense mechanism against Red activities and as a protector of Christianity and Americanism” and many chapters had formed throughout the five boroughs and in Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and other cities—was outraged. Hundreds began picketing the WMCA station in midtown Manhattan every Sunday, shouting anti-Semitic slogans, stopping traffic, and instigating fights with passing Jews (or those who seemed to the thugs to be Jews). The CF held street-corner rallies throughout the city, often at highly trafficked intersections in communities populated by Jews and Irish. (“Most members of the Front were Irish Catholics,” wrote scholar Ronald H. Bayor). In July 1939, James Wechsler wrote in The Nation of “several stabbings, a multitude of street fights, deepening tension in mixed neighborhoods … [which is] almost uniformly ignored by the press, partly because it fears to tread on Catholic toes and partly because it still believes in the silent treatment for anti-Semitism.”
But that changed in January 1940. J. Edgar Hoover was flown into town to announce the arrest of 17 Coughlinites who had hatched a delusional plan to overthrow the United States by committing acts of terror against Jewish life and property but also against U.S. elected officials and installations (the Customs House, post offices). The plot followed the form of the classic Irish rebellion. The rebels did not think they could possibly overthrow the government themselves. No, they hoped that the government’s draconian response in putting down their “revolutionary gesture” (as Irish historian R.F. Foster described the failed 1848 Young Irelander rebellion) would inspire the slumbering (anti-Semitic, they hoped) masses to rise up against their rulers. They would then set up a right-wing dictatorship and suppress the Jewish population. It didn’t work, of course. Even though the case against the Christian Fronters fell apart—the jury had a hard time believing that they had the means to pull off such a far-fetched plot—the group was forgotten as the United States entered World War II and the vast majority of Americans joined the fight against the Axis powers.
All, it seems, except for Father Coughlin. He left the radio airwaves of his own volition in 1940, but he continued to publish Nazi propaganda in Social Justice until the spring of 1942, when the U.S. government suspended his second-class mailing permit, charging that the paper obstructed the war effort in violation of the 1917 Espionage Act. Coughlin’s boss, Detroit Archbishop Edward Mooney, was roused to put his foot down and demand that Coughlin not fight the government’s action in court. He bowed to ecclesiastical authority. At least, that’s been the standard story for decades. Author Richard Sipe, a former priest who has written several books about the sexuality of Catholic priests, offers evidence that Coughlin stayed silent only after Hoover called him up and threatened to go public with “proof of Coughlin’s homosexuality.”
Coughlin lost his standing in American society (although not the Catholic Church, which allowed him to maintain his pastorship until his retirement in 1966) when he sided too openly with our avowed wartime enemies. But he never faced real punishment for his other sins: Coughlin didn’t merely use hateful rhetoric against Jews. He wasn’t just willing to use the American airwaves and mail system to foment violence against a minority of his fellow Americans. He celebrated the criminals who attempted to spark an American pogrom.
Yes, you can hear the strains of Coughlinism on the airwaves today. And, in many ways, Glenn Beck, with his fervent piety and wild-eyed talk of conspiracy, is closer to Coughlin than steakhouse Republicans like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh. Like Coughlin, he comes off as a somewhat unbalanced Seeker of the Truth who thrives on the scorn of his enemies.
But there is currently no Father Coughlin, properly understood, engaging an appreciable audience in our country today—no one urging or condoning violence to millions of followers. We should all hope that it remains that way.
Peter Duffy is an author and journalist in New York.