Father Coughlin, the Great Depression's Radio Priest

Millions Tuned in to Hear Clergyman's Fierce Denunciations of FDR

photo of radio priest Father Charles Coughlin
Father Charles Coughlin.

 Heritage Images / Getty Images

Father Coughlin was a Catholic priest based in the parish of Royal Oak, Michigan, who became a highly controversial political commentator through his extraordinarily popular radio broadcasts in the 1930s. Originally a devoted supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, his radio sermons took a dark turn when he became a bitter critic of Roosevelt and unleashed fierce attacks tinged with anti-Semitism and flirtations with fascism.

In the misery of the Great Depression, Coughlin attracted a vast audience of disaffected Americans. He teamed up with Louisiana’s Huey Long to build an organization dedicated to social justice, and Coughlin actively sought to ensure that Roosevelt would not be elected to a second term. His messages eventually became so controversial that he was ordered by the Catholic hierarchy to cease his broadcasting. Silenced, he lived out the last four decades of his life as a parish priest largely forgotten by the public.

Fast Facts: Father Coughlin

  • Full Name: Charles Edward Coughlin
  • Also Known As: The Radio Priest
  • Known For: Catholic priest whose radio sermons made him one of the most influential people in America before endless controversy led to his downfall and silencing.
  • Born: October 25, 1891 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  • Died: October 27, 1979 in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
  • Parents: Thomas Coughlin and Amelia Mahoney
  • Education: St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto
  • Famous Quote: "Roosevelt or Ruin!"

Early Life and Career

Charles Coughlin was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on October 25, 1891. His family had mostly lived in the United States, but had crossed the border before his birth when his father found work in Canada. Coughlin grew up as the only surviving child in his family and became a very good student, attending Catholic schools in Hamilton followed by St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. He graduated in 1911 with a Ph.D., having studied philosophy and English. After a year touring Europe, he returned to Canada and decided to enter the seminary and become a priest.

Coughlin was ordained in 1916, at the age of 25. He taught at a Catholic school in Windsor until 1923, when he moved across the river to the United States and became a parish priest in a Detroit suburb.

Portrait of Charles E. Coughlin and His Parents
(Original Caption) Detroit: Owners And Founder Of "Social Justice." Father Charles E. Coughlin, left, says ownership of the weekly Social Justice has for two years been in hands of his mother and father, Mrs. Amelia Couhglin and Thomas J. Coughlin, right. Despite Coughlin's protests, "Social Justice" was denied second class mail privilege.

A gifted public speaker, Coughlin boosted church attendance when he would deliver sermons. In 1926, the popular priest was assigned to a new parish, The Shrine of the Little Flower. The new parish was struggling. In an effort to increase attendance at mass, Coughlin asked a fellow Catholic who ran a local radio station if he could broadcast a weekly sermon.

Coughlin’s new radio program, called "The Golden Hour of the Little Flower," began airing in October 1926. His broadcasts immediately became popular in the Detroit area, and within three years, Coughlin’s sermons were also being broadcast on stations in Chicago and Cincinnati. In 1930 the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began putting Coughlin’s program on the air every Sunday night. He soon had an enthusiastic audience of 30 million listeners.

Turn to Controversy

In his early broadcasting career, Coughlin’s sermons were not controversial. His appeal was that he seemed to be a stereotypical Irish-American priest, delivering an uplifting message with a dramatic voice perfectly suited for the radio.

As the Great Depression intensified and auto workers in Coughlin’s home area began to lose their jobs, his message changed. He began to denounce the administration of Herbert Hoover, which eventually caused CBS to stop carrying his program. Undaunted, Coughlin found other stations to carry his sermons. And when Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign gained momentum in 1932, Coughlin joined as an ardent supporter.

"Roosevelt or Ruin"

In his weekly sermons Coughlin promoted Roosevelt, and to encourage voters he coined the slogan "Roosevelt or Ruin." In 1932, Coughlin’s program was a sensation, and he was said to be receiving many thousands of letters a week. Donations to his parish poured in, and he built a lavish new church from which he could broadcast to the nation.

Father Charles Coughlin
Father Charles Coughlin delivers a radio speech, 1930s. Fotosearch / Getty Images

After Roosevelt won the election of 1932, Coughlin vigorously supported the New Deal, telling his listeners "the New Deal was Christ’s deal." The radio priest, who had met Roosevelt during the 1932 campaign, began to consider himself a policy adviser to the new administration. Roosevelt, however, had become very wary of Coughlin, as the priest’s economic ideas were venturing far outside the mainstream.

In 1934, feeling spurned by Roosevelt, Coughlin began to denounce him on the radio. He also found an unlikely ally, Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, who had also gained a large following through radio appearances. Coughlin formed an organization, the National Union for Social Justice, which was dedicated to fighting communism and advocated for government control of banks and corporations.

As Coughlin devoted himself to defeating Roosevelt in the election of 1936, he transformed his National Union into a political party. The plan had been to nominate Huey Long to run against Roosevelt, but the assassination of Long in September 1935 scuttled that. A virtually unknown candidate, a congressman from North Dakota, ran in Long’s place. The Union Party had virtually no impact on the election, and Roosevelt won a second term.

After 1936, Coughlin’s power and popularity declined. His ideas became more eccentric, and his sermons had evolved into rants. He was even quoted as saying he preferred fascism. In the late 1930s, followers of the German-American Bund cheered his name at their rallies. Coughlin's tirades against "international bankers" played upon familiar anti-Semitic taunts, and he openly attacked Jews in his broadcasts.

Father Coughlin Giving Speech
Over 26,000 people tuned in to hear the speech given by Reverend Charles E. Coughlin in Cleveland. He spoke of President Roosevelt as the Financial Dictator of the United States and pledged his own organization to establish a central, government bank. Bettmann / Contributor

As Coughlin's tirades became more extreme, radio networks wouldn’t let their stations broadcast his sermons. For periods of time he found himself unable to reach the vast audiences he once attracted.

By 1940, Coughlin’s radio career was largely finished. He would still appear on some radio stations, but his bigotry made him toxic. He believed the United States should stay out of World War II, and following the attack on Pearl Harbor the Catholic hierarchy in America formally silenced him. He was forbidden to broadcast on the radio, and told to keep a low profile. A magazine he had been publishing, Social Justice, was banned by the U.S. government from the mails, which essentially put it out of business.

Though once one of the most popular figures in America, Coughlin seemed to be quickly forgotten as America turned its attention to World War II. He continued to serve as the parish priest at the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan. In 1966, after 25 years of imposed silence, he held a press conference at which he said he had mellowed and no longer held his controversial ideas from the late 1930s.

Coughlin died at his home in suburban Detroit on October 27, 1979, two days after his 88th birthday.

Sources:

  • Coker, Jeffrey W. "Coughlin, Father Charles E. (1891–1979)." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 1, St. James Press, 2013, pp. 724-726. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Roosevelt and/or Ruin." American Decades Primary Sources, edited by Cynthia Rose, vol. 4: 1930-1939, Gale, 2004, pp. 596-599. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Charles Edward Coughlin." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Gale, 2004, pp. 265-266. Gale Virtual Reference Library.