Anti-Semitism in the New Deal Era: The Case of Father Coughlin

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Wolfe, Thomas Anthony
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Western Illinois University
This study is a look at the causes, manifestations, and ramifications of racial and religious bigotry in the United States--through the medium of Father Charles E. Coughlin. As a by-product of this study, perhaps one can gain a clearer insight into the workings of a demagogue-a name that clearly fits this famous "radio priest" from Royal Oak, Michigan, Anti-Semitism has always had its followers in the United States, especially in the Northeast where most Jews live, but elsewhere as well. The great influx of southern and eastern European Jews around the turn of the twentieth century found it difficult to assimilate because of their markedly different cultures--even when they chose to do so. Jews did progress in the United States, but they did so at a time of economic depression and fear of yet another war--conditions that exacerbated tensions rather than abated them. As an anti-Semitic propagandist, Coughlin was, for a time, second in notoriety only to the German-American Bund. He was an embarrassment to his church, the administration, and the nation at large. His activities helped create anti-Catholic hostility from many areas at a time when the bitter Smith-Hoover campaign of 1928 was all too fresh in the memory of many Americans. A serious misconception concerning the structure of the Catholic Church manifested itself during Coughlin's time. This was the idea that the Church was rigidly unified to the point that the views of one priest must also be the views of his superiors, including the Pope. American non-Catholics in the 1930's never really understood just who a priest's superiors were and how much authority they had. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church is about as unified as the Democratic Party. Within the entire hierarchy of the Church, there were but two people who could silence Coughlin--his bishop, and the Pope. This misconception led some Americans to wonder if the Catholic Church were not basically antisemitic. Others wondered the same thing about Christianity itself. What little evidence there is on the subject unavoidably leads to the unhappy conclusion that Christian churches, directly or indirectly, have nourished various notions of anti-Semitism. Thus, it is not so surprising that Coughlin and his followers--mainly Catholics but almost all Christians--should have been anti-Semitic. In the case of Father Coughlin, it would seem that his seminary training may well have nurtured anti-Semitism. His religious training had been rather narrow, and it is reflected in his later writings and speeches. He would always reject as necessarily evil anything or anybody non-Christian. Americans have been by no means the first people to entertain notions of anti-Semitism. Indeed, everything that Hitler did to the Jews during his reign of terror had been done earlier by Christians--save, of course, mass annihilation, and even at that, there were many blood baths, notably the Russian pogroms. As soon as Christianity had been introduced to Rome, the Church began placing restrictions on Jews. These varied but increased in intensity. The idea was to keep Jews from "contaminating" Christian life. This practice continued through the centuries. The depression created fertile ground for many demagogues, but none had more success than Father Coughlin, whose popularity among millions of radio listeners in the early 1930's had been matched by very few men. Coughlin's ambition soon over-reached itself. He renounced Roosevelt in 1936; his handpicked candidate, William Lemke, suffered a resounding defeat at the polls; and Coughlin had to search for a new tactic if he ever again were to match his earlier popularity. Coughlin's anti-Semitic campaign began in 1937, reached a popularity peak in 1938 and early 1939, then slowly declined until his radio program was forced off the air in 1940, and his magazine was forced from the mails within a few months after Pearl Harbor. His basic theory about the Jews was deceptively simple. Communism had been the creation of Jews who have worked diligently to spread it everywhere. Nazism was merely a defense mechanism against communism and could never be as bad as communism--the living antichrist. This message Coughlin never tired of reiterating. Some people took the priest seriously and were moved to form groups like the Christian Front. Many ugly incidents were recorded, especially in New York City. Coughlin's forced retirement robbed a mass movement of its leader, but by 1942 the movement had already spent itself. The chief things to be gained from this study are a greater awareness of the dangers of mass movements, whether they are characterized by racial or religious bigotry coupled with demagoguery or by some other manifestation. It is equally important to know what causes them, for knowledge of their causes is surely half their cure.
Call Number: E184.J5 W75