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Before there was Beck, there was Coughlin
August 27, 2010 8:57 AM   Subscribe

"Many of his speeches were rambling, disorganized, repetitious, and as time went by, they became increasingly full of bigoted rhetoric. But as a champion of the poor, a foe of big business, and a critic of federal indifference in the face of widespread economic distress, he spoke to the hopes and fears of lower-middle class Americans throughout the country." His popularity rivaled that of the President, and he used his pulpit to not only attack Washington's progressive agenda, but America's enemies as well, who he blamed for being anti-family and making divorce too easy.

No, not this guy. In the 30's and 40's, Reverend Charles Coughlin was a prominent voice of populist American anger. His periodical, Social Justice, carried his message of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism far and wide, with a circulation of over a million copies. After the events of Kristallnacht in November of 1938, he said, "Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted," and went on to explain that "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."
posted by mkultra (33 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thank you. I've been making this comparison for years. (Actually, I used to say it about Rush Limbaugh, but I think Beck's faux populism and appeals to emotion actually make him a better fit.)
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:11 AM on August 27, 2010


Champion of the poor. Foe of big business. Antisocial-ist.

One of these things is not like the other.
posted by DU at 9:13 AM on August 27, 2010 [11 favorites]


I took a history course in university (taught by this guy) which went into great detail about Coughlin and his ilk. A lot of the past ten years' worth of fearmongering rhetoric by right-wing media idealogues has been depressingly similar to the Depression-era stuff we covered. Plus ça change...
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:16 AM on August 27, 2010


DU: "Champion of the poor. Foe of big business. Antisocial-ist.

One of these things is not like the other.
"

If he's using the traditional Christian argument, the reasoning is one should be free to sin, but just because you CAN doesn't mean you SHOULD.
posted by charred husk at 9:19 AM on August 27, 2010


I remember riding by his church when I lived in that neck of the woods. It was kind of hard to miss.

One time my Mom said: "That used to be Father Coughlin's church." I asked (I was probably about 10), "Who was he?" My Mom answered: "He didn't like President Roosevelt and he thought everyone was a communist."

I was kind of puzzled, because at that age I couldn't imagine how anyone could not like FDR, I mean, he was the guy that beat Hitler! No one likes Hitler anymore!
posted by marxchivist at 9:27 AM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


...the reasoning is one should be free to sin, but just because you CAN doesn't mean you SHOULD.

We could have, and can even more so today, gone a long way down the road to socialism before we got anywhere close to making big business illegal.
posted by DU at 9:31 AM on August 27, 2010


I knew it was Coughlin as soon as I started reading your first sentence. Amazing how quickly these hotheads fade into obscurity.
posted by TrialByMedia at 9:37 AM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Coughlin is something of a local embarrassment, to put it mildly. Thanks for the post, I wish more people knew that this schtick is quite old.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:41 AM on August 27, 2010


See also pro-FDR priest, Coughlin opponent and Catholic social teaching pioneer Msgr. John Ryan.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:41 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Glenn Beck has talked about this comparison with characteristic inanity.
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:43 AM on August 27, 2010


Speaking of local embarrassments, my hometown of Dubuque, IA has Lord Hee Haw, who was fired from a teaching job for starting an American version of the Hitler Youth. After he was fired, he left for Germany where he became one of Joseph Goebbels' favorite broadcasters.
posted by TrialByMedia at 10:00 AM on August 27, 2010


Amazing how quickly these hotheads fade into obscurity.

I'd argue that he's not really all that obscure, if we're still talking about him (not to mention that reading about him even 70 years after the fact is enough to raise my blood pressure).
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:01 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, not this guy.

Or this one*.

*Except maybe the divorce and morality stuff.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:03 AM on August 27, 2010


Actually, Huey Long and Father Coughlin were the one-two punch that inspired Sinclair Lewis to write It Can't Happen Here.
posted by localroger at 10:06 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


allen.spaulding: Glenn Beck has talked about this comparison with characteristic inanity.

The fact that Glenn Beck can call any argument or comparison "laughable" is so absurd it actually makes me smile; it's like Sarah Palin getting on somebody for rambling or me telling somebody they use too many semi-colons.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:10 AM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


We could have, and can even more so today, gone a long way down the road to socialism before we got anywhere close to making big business illegal.

Which seems to have been Fr. Coughlin's desire and part of why he broke with FDR.
posted by Jahaza at 10:16 AM on August 27, 2010


My grandfather's uncle pulled some strings and got him and his wife married by Fr. Coughlin. They had to elope, you see, for she was a Protestant. I didn't find this out until after they were both dead, but I think I have a video somewhere taken off film of their wedding.

I'm pretty sure they didn't endorse his politics, but I'm not entirely sure. After all, a year before his death, my grandfather voted against a Muslim candidate for the House for religious reasons alone.


Sorry for the semi-derail, but I thought I'd bring up my little angle on Fr. Coughlin.
posted by Xoder at 10:37 AM on August 27, 2010


It's undeniable that Beck's act is consciously styled on revivalist preaching. For example, Beck's "The American Revival" tour, or that time this guy fainted on his show.
posted by mek at 10:38 AM on August 27, 2010


The fact that Glenn Beck can call any argument or comparison "laughable" is so absurd it actually makes me smile; it's like Sarah Palin getting on somebody for rambling or me telling somebody they use too many semi-colons.

Another good hypothetically, over-the-top absurd comparison would be "it's like Glenn Beck writing a book called Arguing With Idiots."
posted by DU at 10:43 AM on August 27, 2010


Actually, Huey Long and Father Coughlin were the one-two punch that inspired Sinclair Lewis to write It Can't Happen Here.

I thought "wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross" would have been a fantastic slogan for the Giuliani '08 campaign, especially once Pat Robertson jumped on board.

I remember learning about Coughlin, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and Watergate when I was in high school in the 1990s, and thinking, "how fortunate we are to have learned these lessons from history. That certainly can't happen here now!"

Oh well.
posted by ibmcginty at 10:48 AM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I like how Beck tries to demonstrate that he's not like Coughlin because they disagree on specific issues.

Thank you; we would not have noticed that. Yes, you haven't shown yourself to be antisemitic. But is there any sort of contemporary parallel, any kind of contemporary minority whose hatred you might be fanning in your audience. Think real hard, Mr. Beck; I feel sure it will come to you.

Not that you have learned to extrapolate a parallel, perhaps you can also locate some other areas, Mr. Beck, where you are similar to Father Coughlin. Let me give you a starting point -- look into demography. I am sure, Mr. Beck, you will be fascinated by what you learn.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:04 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Demagoguery, rather. Although the study of human populations might be useful.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:19 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a native of Southeast Michigan who wrote my senior honors thesis in history on Coughlin, this post is dear to my heart.

Champion of the poor. Foe of big business. Antisocial-ist.

One of these things is not like the other.


Coughlin was heavily influenced by a set of papal encyclicals, Rerum Novarum ("Of New Things," subtitled "Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour," Leo XIII, 1891) and Quadrigesimo Anno ("In the Fortieth Year," Pius XI, 1931), both of which attacked both "unrestricted capitalism" and socialism/communism and called for greater solidarity between labor and capital.

In many (Catholic) parts of Europe, these encyclicals encouraged men like Father Daens in Belgium, who founded parties which called for more economic and political rights for workers and but which were fiercely anti-socialist (as socialism was seen as atheist). However, traditional Italian Fascist economic theory ("corporatism") may also be seen as a mutation of this line of thinking.

Coughlin expressed hints of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory before 1936, but the failure of the third-party presidential campaign he was involved in that year may have added to his radicalization. He was also influenced by an Irish priest, Denis Fahey, who basically envisioned a Manichean battle on Earth between good ("the mystical body of Christ") and evil (incarnated as Judaism/Communism, which were often seen as interchangeable).

According to Michael Kazin, interestingly, Coughlin never expressed anti-black prejudice (not to say that he didn't have it, but I can verify that I never saw it in Coughlin's wiritings). Coughlin was also (as a Catholic) a fierce opponent of the Klan and opposed Hugo Black's appointment to the Supreme Court. His house had been firebombed in the 1920s when he moved to Michigan, a crime which was not solved but which was widely attributed to the KKK.

Coughlin continued to publish his newspaper Social Justice after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and continued to prophesy the victory of the Axis. The Post Office revoked his ability to use bulk rates and his superior threatened to defrock him, leading to his complete silence as of April 1942 -- he became just another parish priest.
posted by dhens at 11:22 AM on August 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


But as a champion of the poor, a foe of big business, and a critic of federal indifference in the face of widespread economic distress, he spoke to the hopes and fears of lower-middle class Americans throughout the country.

That's the part that gets me. Back then, they were shouting at the federal government "For the love of God, DO SOMETHING!" while today's modern teabagger seems to be shouting at the government "For the love of God, DO NOTHING!"
posted by fungible at 11:25 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Back then, they were shouting at the federal government "For the love of God, DO SOMETHING!" while today's modern teabagger seems to be shouting at the government "For the love of God, DO NOTHING!"

IMHO, you have to look to the lasting impact of anti-government Southern Strategy rhetoric and mentality, and the efforts of donors to whip up resentment whenever the government contemplates rational policy.
posted by ibmcginty at 11:32 AM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just finished Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression by Alan Brinkley. It's a great read if anyone wants to learn more about Coughlin, Long, and the forces that created them.

Also, don't forget Gerald L.K. Smith. He hung around Huey Long, but according to Brinkley, Long could not stand him and instructed his bodyguards to keep Smith away from him prior to his death.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 1:00 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nehemiah Scudder?
posted by The Tensor at 1:23 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I saw 'Beck' and "rambling, disorganized, repetitious" and thought it would be a post about a precursor to Beck Hansen.
posted by mattholomew at 2:14 PM on August 27, 2010


After all, a year before his death, my grandfather voted against a Muslim candidate for the House for religious reasons alone.

If that was Keith Ellison, then your grandfather voted against a guy who went to my (Jesuit, Catholic) high school. I will not speak ill of the dead, so I will just say: if it was Keith, then your grandfather missed a chance to vote for a principled, smart man.
posted by joe lisboa at 2:35 PM on August 27, 2010


Further recommended reading, besides the books by Athans and Kazin which I linked to previously as well as the great Brinkley book linked by Coyote at the Dog Show:

Geoffrey Smith, To Save a Nation: American Countersubversives, the New Deal, and the Coming of World War II (out of print)

David Harry Bennett, Demagogues in the Depression: American Radicals and the Union Party, 1932-1936 (out of print)

Philip Jenkins, Hoods and Shirts: The Extreme Right in Pennsylvania, 1925-1950 is an interesting local study of the interaction between various types of right-wing organizations, including Coughlin's National Union for Social Justice (1934-1936) and his later Christian Front (1938-1940). (Full disclosure: Jenkins is a faculty member where I am doing my PhD.)

The (relatively) recent biography of Coughlin by David Warren is uneven, and contains a few poorly documented assertions.

Finally, those of you with access to JSTOR (or access to the paper journal version of History Teacher) might be interested in this article.
posted by dhens at 8:58 PM on August 27, 2010


^^^ Donald Warren, not David. Oops.
posted by dhens at 9:01 PM on August 27, 2010


I happen to have a copy of It Can't Happen Here, which I bought at a point when I was convinced that not only could it happen here, it was (and to some extent still is) happening here.

From Michael Meyer's introduction to the 2005 reprint: "the administration of the New Deal seemed hopelessly bogged down [in March of 1935] and the fierce strident polemics of popular leaders such as Huey Long and Father Coughlin seemed to speak more directly than the president to the poor, the dispossessed, the frustrated, and the angry."

Sub in Palin, Beck, and Obama as president there. Yep, quote still works.

Again from the (excellent! also, short) introduction: "invoking the highest patriotic principles, Windrip [Sinclair's fictional, fascist president] disguises his fascism in the historical trappings of the Republic; his gestapo, for example, is called the Minute Men."

Oops. Guess we can check that one off the to-do list.

Finally, from the novel itself: "Blessed be they who are not Patriots and Idealists, and who do not feel they must dash right in and Do Something About It, something so immediately important that all the doubters must be liquidated--tortured--slaughtered!"

Father Coughlin, Huey Long, the Fireside Chats, It Can't Happen Here and other trappings of the politically polarized, economically depressed '30s are definitely something to check out for those interested in the politics of Glenn Beck, the Tea Party Express, Sarah Palin, and others of this modern era of political polarization and economic depression.
posted by librarylis at 8:06 PM on August 28, 2010


And there was William Jennings Bryan
posted by grobstein at 7:57 AM on September 3, 2010


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