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August 27, 1939 – Sermon by Father Coughlin – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
Throughout the 1930s, Charles E. Coughlin was one of the most influential men in the United States. He was a Catholic priest in the metro Detroit area who became politically active. Foreshadowing modern talk radio and televangelism, Coughlin led radio broadcasts that reached tens of millions listeners. He broadcast religious services with political overtones and expressed antisemitic views. He also voiced pro-Nazi opinions that made him a person of interest for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1942.
In 1935, Coughlin created the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ) as a political action group that would represent the interests of his listeners in Washington, DC. By the 1936 presidential election the NUSJ had over one million paying members.
During the 1920s, Coughlin’s antisemitic views were muted on the air. After his split with Roosevelt and with the rise of National Socialism and fascism in Europe, however, he attacked Jews explicitly in his broadcasts. Some historians attribute this change to Coughlin taking advantage of rising antisemitism around the world in order to keep himself relevant. Based on his speeches, writings, and associations, however, he appears to have had significant antisemitic sentiment throughout his career.
In the days and weeks after Kristallnacht, Coughlin defended the state-sponsored violence of the Nazi regime, arguing that Kristallnacht was justified as retaliation for Jewish persecution of Christians. He explained to his listeners on November 20, 1938, that the “communistic government of Russia,” “the Lenins and Trotskys…atheistic Jews and Gentiles” had murdered more than 20 million Christians and had stolen “40 billion [dollars]…of Christian property.”
For years Coughlin publicly derided “international bankers,” a phrase that most of his listeners understood to mean Jewish bankers. Such antisemtic views were expressed on the pages of Social Justice. In a series of articles published in 1938, Coughlin lambasted “Jewish” financiers and their control over world politics. These articles culminated with a story recounting his own version of the infamous antisemitic publication, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which falsely purported to be minutes from meetings of Jewish leaders who were plotting to take over the world.
As war approached, Coughlin’s politics shifted further toward the right. He promoted fascist dictatorship and authoritarian government as the only cure for the ills of democracy and capitalism.
In a 1938 broadcast, Coughlin helped inspire and publicize the creation of the Christian Front, a militia-like organization that excluded Jews and promised to defend the country from communists and Jews.
The Front organized “Buy Christian” rallies throughout the country. In New York City, police arrested several of the militiamen for harassing Jews on the street, many of them seniors, women, and children. In the context of increasingly violent language, the Christian Front made national news in 1940, when the FBI arrested 18 members in Brooklyn, New York, on suspicion of conspiring to overthrow the government. Its members continued to attract headlines during the early 1940s for violent acts against Jews.
For a reminder, or an introduction to a prominent figure in 1930s disenfranchised America, here is a broadcast, typical of his style in the 1930s, as it was delivered on August 27,1939. Ironically, war would break out in Europe only days later, and Coughlin ramped up the rhetoric until December 7, 1941.