On Nov. 20, 1938, WMCA in New York had enough of Father Charles E. Coughlin’s anti-Semitic bile. After a supposed homily entitled “Persecution: Jewish and Christian,” in which he denounced Jews in language that might have been lifted from Der Stürmer, an announcer broke in to distance the station from Coughlin’s talk. “Unfortunately, Father Coughlin has uttered many misstatements of fact,” he informed listeners. Donald Flamm, the president of WMCA, later pledged “not to permit a repetition” of Coughlin’s inflammatory remarks, words that were “calculated to stir up religious and racial hatred and dissension in this country.”
The story of Coughlin, the demagogic radio priest who dominated American airwaves during the Great Depression, offers an intriguing analog-age precedent to the digital-age debates over the limits of free expression. Then as now, the serene pleasure of no longer having to listen to a noxious voice blare incessantly in the ear coexists with a queasy unease at the realization of how suddenly and imperiously the rulers of corporate media can switch off one’s microphone.
Coughlin was the longest-lived and loudest of the rabble-rousing orators who channeled the grievances of millions of economically desperate and culturally unmoored Americans in the 1930s. The lineup included Louisiana Sen. Huey Long, who wanted to make “every man a king,” or so he said; Long’s self-appointed successor, the unhinged hatemonger Gerald L. K. Smith; and the comparatively sane and lowkey Francis Townsend, who rose to prominence on a scheme for an old-age pension giveaway. Of those figures, only Coughlin’s fame is impossible to imagine without the amplification of radio, beamed out live, coast to coast, the new transmission belt for American culture. For the first time, a politician, an entertainer, or an advertiser could enthrall a nationwide audience at the same existential moment.
Born in 1891 in Hamilton, Ontario, and ordained in 1916 as a priest in the social justice–minded Basilian Order, Coughlin was sent in 1926 to the small parish of Royal Oak, Michigan, a predominantly Protestant suburb outside of Detroit. As Coughlin later told it—and many doubted it was the gospel truth—he was welcomed by a burning cross on the church grounds, the calling card of the Ku Klux Klan, the domestic terrorist group revived in the wake of D.W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation and the lynching that same year of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman unjustly accused of murdering a 13-year-old white girl in Atlanta.
Ironically, as it turned out, the hate crime inspired Coughlin’s transition from pulpit to microphone. Wanting to explain the mysteries of Catholicism to his neighbors, he approached Detroit radio station WJR for airtime—and found another vocation. A classic “hot” personality, he was pitch-perfect for the sonic medium, in full command of a resonant tenor with a touch of an Irish brogue, with a voice whose cadences modulated from booming rage to soft-spoken tenderness. Coughlin’s early sermons-slash-harangues were a mixture of faith and politics, but the balance soon tilted to the latter. The choices were always of the stark, heaven-or-hell variety: “Christ, or the red flag of communism!” he thundered.
Coughlin’s novelty act—a priest on radio? Talking politics?—was a ratings sensation, not least because he was talking about a subject the rest of radio was trying hard to ignore: the trauma of the Great Depression. In the early days, he also cast an easygoing, ecumenical net. “There is nothing of the sour expecting-damnation ecclesiastic about this expostulator,” wrote Variety critic Robert Landry, who had his fill of Bible-thumping evangelists like Billy Sunday, in 1931. “His program is pleasantly free from that depressing species of doleful bemoaning of man’s sinful nature that is so irritating to non-churchmen.”
Even so, the major networks—the behemoth NBC, so big it was divided into two webs, the Red and the Blue networks; and CBS, which had been broadcasting Coughlin over a 20-station circuit—figured a cleric spouting something besides Scripture wasn’t worth the revenue. In 1931, they stopped selling network airtime to Coughlin or any other churchman. Undeterred, Coughlin cobbled together a syndicate of independent stations that, right at the precise historical moment in which radio had achieved near-universal penetration, gave him a platform that by 1938 had grown to 58 stations.
The programs originated from his parish church, the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, and were sent out over Detroit’s WJR. Initially, Coughlin’s gripes and opinions were conventional enough. A staunch supporter of FDR, he helped galvanize the urban Catholics who made up a core element of Roosevelt’s coalition. “Roosevelt or Ruin!” he proclaimed on the eve of the 1932 election. A grateful FDR lunched with Coughlin in Albany, New York, where the two “talked Depression,” according to Coughlin.
Scheduled at midafternoon on Sundays, at 3 or 4 p.m. depending on the season, Coughlin’s hourlong broadcasts (later truncated to 30 minutes) were a ritual for many Catholics, who tuned in after Mass and before dinner. But by no means did Catholics comprise all, or even the bulk, of his listeners. In the days before Nielsen meters and Roku cookies, the exact number and composition of Coughlin’s listeners were hard to pin down. But at its peak, in the middle of the Great Depression, it’s estimated that Coughlin’s audience was in the neighborhood of 20 million listeners. It is also hard to gauge how many of them were true believers who hung onto Coughlin’s every word, how many tuned in for the entertainment, and how many followed to keep tabs on the opposition. In 1939, well past the height of his popularity, a Gallup survey estimated that during a typical month 15 million listeners tuned in to some part of a Coughlin program, with 3.5 million describing themselves as regular listeners. Only 4 out of 10 listeners were Catholics, with fully one-third of the total of all listeners disapproving of what he said. Of those who didn’t listen to Coughlin at all, 75 percent disapproved of him.
Disenchanted with FDR’s progressive agenda and particularly his recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933, Coughlin navigated further and further away from the mainstream. In the election of 1936, he broke dramatically with FDR—it was no longer Roosevelt or ruin, but Roosevelt and ruin—and urged Catholics to vote for the Coughlin-anointed candidate, a nonentity named William Lemke. In September 1936, the monthly screen magazine The March of Time positioned Coughlin alongside the toxic Gerald L. K. Smith as a “self-styled Messiah of the U.S. Lunatic Fringe.”
What earned Coughlin his place in the era’s hall of lunatic shame was his increasingly explicit anti-Semitism. The Jews were their own worst enemy, Coughlin said in a 1935 interview: Christian America was right to be suspicious of the likes of financier Bernard Baruch, the entertainer Eddie Cantor, and the Hollywood moguls. As the Great Depression dragged on, the nasty insinuations turned more brazen and blunt. Coughlin’s Social Justice, a weekly magazine with a circulation of 1 million, was especially venomous, venting sentiments that were often coded on the airwaves. Leafing through a sampling of issues, screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. was appalled at the “pure unadulterated Jew baiting” in its pages. Social Justice was known to lift copy verbatim from Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious forgery from czarist Russia purporting to document an international Jewish conspiracy. Coughlin denied any anti-Semitic feelings (“some of my best friends—”) and said Jews should be less sensitive to criticism.
It was the forward march of Nazism overseas that would eventually transform the priest into a pariah. The tipping-point year—for both Coughlin and Europe—was 1938. Appropriately, the sound of the Nazi goosesteps came directly into American homes over shortwave radio, live, from Vienna and Berlin: the annexation of Austria in March, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in October, and (though the sounds of the rampage were not broadcast live) the anti-Semitic pogrom now known as Kristallnacht, unleashed on the night of Nov. 9–10.
Though the domestic zeitgeist had become firmly anti-Nazi, Coughlin continued to use his radio platform to slander Jews. It was just 10 days after Kristallnacht that WMCA in New York felt compelled to call out Coughlin’s many “many misstatements of fact.”
Flamm, WMCA’s president, reminded listeners—and by implication Coughlin—that the station was compelled to take action against the airing of such purposeful untruths. Unlike today’s digital frontier, a Wild West ruled by Big Tech cattle barons answerable only to their stockholders, the broadcasting airwaves are patrolled by a posse of sheriffs, the Federal Communications Commission. Under the Communications Act of 1934, the commission is empowered to make sure that stations operate for “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Though it almost never happens, a station deemed to violate the mandate can have its broadcasting license pulled.
FCC Chairman Frank R. McNinch had recently warned broadcasters that should anyone try to “debase radio” as “an instrument of racial or religious persecution,” the FCC would step in and “prevent any such shocking offense.” McNinch emphasized that FDR, a radio expert in his own right, “has consistently sought the safeguarding of radio as an instrument of democracy, never to be used to injure any racial, religious, or other group.” Backed up from on high, WMCA refused to air Coughlin’s next homily, covering its flank by devoting the time slot to alternative Catholic programming.
Coughlin was also repudiated by a voice that was nearly as influential among Catholics as FDR: Cardinal George Mundelein, archbishop of Chicago. In a formal statement issued over NBC Radio and read by the Rev. Bernard J. Sheil, his eminence rebuked Coughlin, calling him a rogue cleric “not authorized to speak for the Catholic Church, nor does he represent the doctrine or sentiments of the Church.” The sentence was read slowly—and twice—for emphasis.
During the blowback, Coughlin could still count on support from one corner. Nazi Germany characterized the efforts to rein in Coughlin as “a typical case of Jewish terrorism of American public opinion.” Coughlin agreed, portraying himself as a victim of Jewish-owned media.
It got worse. On Dec. 5, 1938, in Coughlin’s house organ Social Justice, under his own byline, he plagiarized a speech by Nazi Propaganda Minister Paul Joseph Goebbels, originally delivered in 1935 at the Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg. By then, quipsters were referring to Coughlin’s church as “the Shrine of the Little Führer.”
On Sept. 17, 1939, shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe, Coughlin crossed the line from insult to incitement. He urged his followers to organize “an army of peace” and march on Washington to protest any change in the neutrality laws that would permit FDR to aid European democracies in the path of the Nazi blitzkrieg. Anti-Nazi groups called on the FCC to stop the priest’s “use of the airwaves for the purpose of inciting the American people to riot and civil war.” Coughlin, said the Friends of Democracy of New York, was “an enemy of democracy, a disciple of fascism, an advocate of violence, and a purveyor of racial hatred.”
Finally, on Oct. 1, 1939, the National Association of Broadcasters, representing 428 member stations, none of whom wanted to run afoul of the FCC, decided to pull the plug. The group acted under the authority of a new “controversial issue clause” mandating stricter standards of “social responsibility” in the medium. Basically, it meant that broadcasters could not sell airtime for divisive religious or political commentary. The language had been written into the NAB’s Code of Ethics with Coughlin specifically in mind. If the priest confined his sermons to “purely theological issues,” he might still be allowed to purchase airtime, but the doctrine of transubstantiation was never his preferred topic.
After the NAB edict, Coughlin’s syndicated network fell apart. In September 1940, with only two major stations broadcasting the voice that had once rung out coast to coast, Coughlin announced in Social Justice that “men powerful in radio and other activities” who had “long wished to silence him” had succeeded in doing the devil’s business. In a prophetic choice of words, he charged “virtual censorship.” The church hierarchy ordered him to return to his ministry in Royal Oak, where he spoke only from the pulpit. He retired in 1966 and died in 1979.
Outside of a core of loyal supporters at home and in Germany, Coughlin’s permanent hiatus from the airwaves went unlamented. “Yes,” admitted Variety in September 1940, “radio `conspired’ against Coughlin. It was a conspiracy of self-defense, a conspiracy to stop free speech from running amok.”
There were only a few lonely exceptions to the consensus. Max Lerner, the journalist, historian, and future author of the optimistically titled America as a Civilization, published in 1957, declared that, to be sure, Coughlin was “spreading lies and poison” but he was just a symptom of a bigger problem. “Put people back to work and they won’t listen to lies, won’t swallow poison,” he argued. Luther A. Harr, the treasurer of Philadelphia, defended the right of even Coughlin’s reprehensible speech to be heard. “I am sure Father Coughlin is intemperate and inaccurate,” he said, “but to interfere with his program was a dangerous precedent because radio is allied to the press and the censorship of one is a step to the censorship of another.”
However—then as now—not many people were willing to raise their own voices to defend the speech of a vulgarian spewing hate over a mass medium. Most welcomed the deplatforming of Father Coughlin.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.