The Priest Turned Media Mogul Who Stirred Up a Populist Frenzy

The Priest Turned Media Mogul Who Stirred Up a Populist Frenzy

Father Charles Coughlin

SourceCBS Photo Archive/Getty

Why you should care

Because he knew how to turn up the volume.

The priest dreamed of building a grand church that seated far more than just his local parishioners back in the 1930s. But in order to host more congregants, Father Charles Coughlin first had to find them.

Luckily, there was a media revolution brewing, fueled by the rapid spread of affordable radios, and those who managed to grasp radio’s early potential would quickly win a mass following. Traditional gatekeepers like newspapers and political parties, meanwhile, were powerless to radio’s trendsetting airwaves.

Coughlin was born into a family of Irish immigrants in 1891 and ordained in 1916; nothing suggested that he would one day have a staff of more than 100 people or reach roughly one in four U.S. homes and 30 million listeners. But he managed to harness the power of radio, and by the mid-1930s, this Ontario-born priest had become the unrivaled king of a new media landscape. As a young clergyman, he was assigned to lead his first parish in 1926 and tasked with the job of building a new parish from scratch in a Detroit suburb very few Catholics called home. Building this new church kindled Coughlin’s ambition, and he quickly hatched a plan for raising the needed funds: He had a mutual friend set up a meeting with the manager of a local radio station.

His platform? That ‘ordinary Americans’ had been given a raw deal by the haughty elites.

 

Commercial radio was in its infancy, but about a million households per year were buying radio sets. The price was dropping low enough that even farming and working households could afford them, and by the mid-1930s, more than half of all U.S. households had one. Coughlin’s innovative idea? To create a new congregation of radio listeners who might donate to help him build his church. His meeting with Detroit’s most influential radio station paid off, and Coughlin launched the country’s first weekly radio sermon.

This proved an instant success, raising roughly $20,000 a week in donations at the height of the Great Depression. It could have stopped there, but Coughlin, sensing that he filled certain untapped needs of listeners, saw the potential of this new medium. So he took the next step typical of new-media entrepreneurs and expanded aggressively. He bought time on CBS, the first network of linked radio stations, and was suddenly being heard throughout half the country. His drive grew with his reach, and he was transformed from a preacher into a self-proclaimed social reformer. His platform? That “ordinary Americans” had been given a raw deal by the haughty elites.

Unemployment was skyrocketing, banks were vanishing along with people’s savings and there were sporadic food riots. Pervasive fear and want, said Coughlin, proved that America was broken. He was just right for the times, according to Ronald Carpenter, professor of communications at the University of Florida: “He seemed to have the answers to solve their plight.” Listeners deemed radio more credible than partisan newspapers and found it easier to digest a simple radio message than a long newspaper story.

Coughlin initially supported Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, but most historians think the priest turned against FDR when the president failed to seek his religious counsel after winning in 1932. That’s when Coughlin turned his radio pulpit into a bully pulpit, calling Roosevelt “anti-God” and union leaders “Bolsheviks.”

In doing so, Coughlin turned away from the Left, seeking another way forward. Mussolini and Hitler — to whom Coughlin sent emissaries in the early ’30s — offered another direction. Coughlin started preaching about a new American order, with unitary strength at the top, single morality, deep suspicion of democracy, brute force toward socialism and taking back the country from “the interests.” He didn’t call it fascism, opting instead for “social justice.” But in the late ’30s Coughlin wrote that “the … principles of social justice are being put into practice by Italy and Germany.” He also targeted Jews, speaking about “international bankers” perpetuating the Depression and later accusing them of being Bolshevik insurrectionists.

In summer 1938, Coughlin’s newsletter serialized the anti-Semitic sham Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and in November that year, he argued that Germany’s Jews had brought Kristallnacht upon themselves. The start of World War II did little to dampen Coughlin’s enthusiasm for Germany and Italy. By this point, says Stanley Payne, history professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Coughlin was “the most important direct apologist for fascism in the United States.” And the radio priest made no secret of his hope that the British — still waiting for the U.S. to join the war at that point — would lose.

Despite Coughlin’s anti-Semitism, Catholic leaders seemed to fear that Coughlin was too popular to shut down. But by 1940, with American animosity growing toward the Axis, the Church finally acted, making Coughlin give up his microphone and, in 1942, halt production of his newsletter, forcing him back into private life as a priest outside Detroit.

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