A populist priest and a popular president – Fr Charles Coughlin’s campaign against FDR

No matter how vitriolic the exchanges become between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the road to the White House, it is unlikely that Pope Francis will have to dispatch a cardinal (and a future pope at that) to the United States to intervene, as happened during the campaign of 1936. The trouble was caused by an Irish-American cleric, Fr Charles Coughlin, commonly known as the radio priest. Charles Edward Coughlin was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1891 to Irish Catholic parents and entered the priesthood in 1916. After a few years teaching he moved down the lakeside and across the border to Royal Oak, Michigan, to administer a new parish at the invitation of the bishop of Detroit, Michael Gallagher.

Coughlin was a charismatic preacher and was one of the first to use the new and powerful medium of radio to reach a mass audience. His Sunday afternoon talks were relayed across the United States and commanded an audience of up to 30 million listeners. A new post office had to be opened in Royal Oak to deal with his mail. In a national public opinion poll, he emerged as the second most powerful and popular man in the country, behind the president, Franklin D Roosevelt, who was to become his arch-enemy. In his early broadcasts, Coughlin had been an enthusiastic supporter of the president saying, during the Depression, that the nation’s choice was between “Roosevelt or ruin”. The priest regarded Roosevelt as a radical social reformer and was much taken by the president’s promise in his inaugural address to “drive the money-changers from the temple”.

In his early broadcasts, Coughlin dealt mainly with religious topics but as the economy weakened and unemployment rose, he began to communicate a more political message. He advocated social justice and monetary reform and attacked socialism and communism, particularly the Russian model. He also criticised the excesses of American capitalism, warning that commercial avarice would make communism attractive to many workers and the unemployed. “Let not the working man be able to say that he is driven into the ranks of socialism by the inordinate and grasping greed of the manufacturer,” he declared. His core message of economic populism began to include attacks on prominent Jewish figures.

Coughlin became disillusioned with Roosevelt, accusing him of not fulfilling his promises on monetary reform. He referred to Roosevelt as the “scab president” and called him “the great liar and betrayer” who was in cahoots with international Jewish bankers who were behind the Russian revolution. “Franklin D Roosevelt,” he said, “who promised to drive the money-changers from the temple, has succeeded only in driving the farmers from their homesteads and the citizens from their homes in the cities.”

His virulent anti-Semitism resulted in him being condemned by the Catholic Layman’s League as “cowardly and shameless”. Unabashed, Coughlin was instrumental in forming a new far-right political movement, the Union Party, which quickly attracted a membership of 8.5 million and nominated a little-known congressman, William Lempke, to oppose Roosevelt in the 1936 election. By then Coughlin’s growing power and anti-Jewish attacks were causing concern in the Vatican. Pope Pius XI sent his secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII), to America in an effort to contain the problem.

A group of influential Irish-Americans, including Archbishop Francis Spellman of New York and Joseph Kennedy, father of a president to be, were already working to get Coughlin silenced or, at least, brought under control. But even with the backing of the Vatican they were unable to persuade the Bishop of Detroit, Michael Gallagher, standing firmly on his rock of autonomy, to take action against his protege. Coughlin’s attempt to take over the White House failed as Roosevelt gained a landslide victory over the Republican and Union Party candidates. Undeterred, he continued to broadcast his anti-Semitic tirades and became an open supporter of the fascist policies of Hitler and Mussolini. He claimed Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was justified because “the Jews in Germany persecuted Christians first”.

Coughlin’s power and popularity waned with the advent of the second World War. Gallagher’s successor as Bishop of Detroit, Aloysius Mooney, ordered him to cease all political activities and return to his duties as parish priest in Royal Oak in 1942. Coughlin complied without murmur. He retired from the parish in 1966 and died in 1979 at the age of 88.