Hamilton-born priest who sympathized with Hitler and preached ‘America First’ reached millions
His tone became ever more rhetorical, angry and aggressive. As it did, he became even more popular.
Had the world turned out differently, had the Allies lost the Second World War, with the predictable implications, there might now be statues of Father Coughlin in Hamilton parks, schools named after him and banners in parades with his face next to the Fuhrer’s.
As it is, Father Charles Coughlin’s memory has almost zero presence in this city, far as I can tell.
He once was a household name, at least in the United States, where he boasted upwards of 30 million listeners to his weekly radio show.
That was 80-plus years ago. Until recently, his name rarely came up in the North American conversation, except among students of extremism in the U.S. of the 1930s.
But since Trump began lighting his country’s way forth like a human torch ... through a cloud of propane, he’s invited comparisons with earlier outbreaks of explosive “populism.” Having been invited, the comparisons have RSVPed.
Similarities are duly noted. Trump’s agenda and that of The Know-Nothings of the 1850s — they were hostile to immigration and Catholics, Catholics being, I guess, the Muslims of their day.
Another big wave of American nativism came between the two world wars. Many factors contributed — a sense of defeatism (expressed in Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West”) after the First World War; wariness about internationalism; the triumph of Communism in Russia; the Great Depression; the peak of the KKK; side-taking between fascism and socialism; labour unrest; and a hunger for scapegoats.
Onto this scene burst Father Charles Coughlin, Catholic priest, who in 1926 started broadcasting on WJR in Detroit, where he built up a suburban parish called Shrine of the Little Flower. His was an experiment in radio — a priest, talking to people in their homes.
His rich baritone, charismatic delivery and oratorical powers won him many listeners; as his audience grew, so did his range of themes. By the time his show was picked up by CBS Radio in 1930, he was branching out from homespun Christian values stories and Bible sermonizing to the nakedly political.
He was virulently anti-Socialist, anti-Soviet and he would weigh in, attacking Herbert Hoover, embracing FDR, then turning on him, too, ferociously. His tone became ever more rhetorical, angry and aggressive. As it did, he became even more popular.
Efforts to censor him backfired. At his height, his audience was a third of the country; sports matches were often halted before his weekly radio sermon. Father Coughlin became one of the most famous and influential men in the U.S., presciently tapping into radio’s enormous political potential to excite people, before Hitler did.
He’s credited with, perhaps blamed for, planting the germ of contemporary talk radio.
Father Coughlin was all over the map ideologically. A self-styled champion of the little guy, he favoured unions but not the right to strike. He hated Wall Street, socialism even more. An “America First” isolationist, he claimed to oppose bigotry, though he’s most remembered for his poisonous anti-Semitism. In the latter part of his career — he was eventually pulled off air in 1939 — Father Coughlin openly sympathized with Hitler and Mussolini.
Now, while I’d come across his name over the years, as I’ve picked up bits of history here and there, it wasn’t until lately (as Americans have gone deep diving, with a renewed interest in their own history, for the roots and antecedents of Trump’s “appeal”) that I discovered something.
Father Coughlin was born in Hamilton in 1891, to Thomas Coughlin and Amelia Mahoney. You’d never know it. He lived here until high school and developed that voice in the choir at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Park Street North, between Mulberry and Sheaffe streets.
I guess, as Sinclair Lewis suggested, it can happen (or at least get born) here. And get forgotten here as well, perhaps thankfully.
Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Hamilton-born priest, attracted more than 30 million listeners to his weekly U.S. radio show in the 1930s.