Hamil­ton-born priest who sym­pa­thized with Hitler and preached ‘Amer­ica First’ reached mil­lions

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JEFF MAHONEY Epi­logue: Fa­ther Cough­lin lived qui­etly as a par­ish priest af­ter be­ing taken off the air. He died in Michi­gan in 1979, age 88. jma­honey@thes­pec.com 905-526-3306

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.

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