Today’s lineup of outspoken reactionary US Catholics priests with extremist, conspiratorial, and inflammatory messages (examples include Frs. Altman, Nix, Heilman, Pavone, Zuhlsdorf, Murray, Ripperger, Msgr. George Rutler, and Bishop Joseph Strickland), as well as their even more bombastic lay counterparts (Voris, Marshall, Parrott, Ruse, Arroyo, and many others) owe a great debt to Detroit’s “Radio Priest” of the 1930s, Fr. Charles Coughlin, a Canadian-born priest and founding pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan.
Fr. Coughlin rose from obscurity to to become one of the most influential figures in United States politics, with his weekly radio broadcast reaching an estimated 30 million people at its peak. He was known for his virulent anti-communism, but also for his anti-semitism, fascist sympathies, populist rhetoric, and isolationism. He also published an antisemitic periodical, called Social Justice with an estimated circulation of 200,000, which promoted propaganda such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and—according to Time magazine—in 1938 published an editorial that was “identical, almost word for word, with a savagely anti-Semitic speech made by [Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph] Goebbels, three years before.”
When the second world war broke out, he was finally ordered by Detroit Archbishop Edward Mooney to stop producing his radio program, and the post office halted delivery of Social Justice in 1942 under the Espionage Act of 1917. Afterwards, Coughlin remained pastor at the Shrine of the Little Flower until retiring at 1966. He died of heart failure in 1979.
This is how his New York Times obituary summarized his influence on the political culture at his peak:
Politicians sought to stay in the good graces of the man who could, with a few words, produce an avalanche of Congressional mail. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, at first the recipient of Father Coughlin’s glowing blessings, courted his favor. But the priest later excoriated Mr. Roosevelt as “anti‐God” and, in 1936, ran his own Presidential candidate.
The online Jewish magazine Tablet recently ran an 8-part podcast series called “Radioactive” on Fr. Coughlin’s life, career, and legacy. The final episode was posted this week. The series was produced by Andrew Lapin, who grew up in the shadow of Coughlin’s Shrine of the Little Flower. The more he learned about Fr. Coughlin and witnessed echoes of his influence in many of the disturbing trends in contemporary media, the more Lapin realized that the story of Charles Coughlin needed to be more widely known:
If Father Coughlin’s story was just a footnote, why was I now hearing echoes of him everywhere?
Because there he was whenever conspiracy theorists and demagogic figures found a new toehold in our politics and media. There he was in the barely regulated world of social media, where every extreme voice can find its followers. There he was lurking in the background of the Charlottesville white-supremacist march, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, the Jan. 6 insurrection and a multitude of other horrific moments in recent American history. Few, if any, of the perpetrators behind those events could cite Father Coughlin by name, but they’re following his playbook all the same. The Radio Priest has gone from a historical footnote to the modern era’s biggest progenitor — the one whose increasingly unhinged broadcasts predicted a society where antisemitism, scapegoating, xenophobia and disdain for democratic norms would thrive again in new forms of media.
This is how I realized Coughlin’s story shouldn’t be limited to the whisper networks of a few Jews in Detroit. It needed to be heard by everyone.
The final result, “Radioactive: The Father Charles Loughlin Story,” is at times fascinating, captivating, and horrifying. But it’s a story that needs to be heard and remembered. No one reading this is shocked at the idea of a Catholic priest engaging in hateful rhetoric and embracing profoundly anti-Catholic ideas. But the story of Fr. Coughlin reminds us of just how much harm such a priest can cause and just how much scandal one such man can create.
For more information about Fr. Coughlin’s life and career, this lengthy 1996 C-SPAN interview with Donald Warren, his biographer, offers additional insights, and there are some affordable used copies of the biography available on Amazon.