Charles Edward Coughlin, the son of third generation Irish immigrants, was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on 25th October, 1891. After graduating from St. Michael's College in Toronto, he studied for the priesthood at St. Basil's Seminary and was ordained in 1916.
During his training Coughlin was deeply influenced by the encyclical On the Condition of the Working Class, published by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. In this document the Pope called for far-reaching reforms to create a more just society in order to counter the growing support for Socialism in the world.
After assisting in several parishes in the Detroit area, Coughlin was assigned to the new Shrine of the Little Flower Church in Royal Oak, Michigan in 1926. At the time the parish only had 25 families, but Coughlin was such a popular preacher he was later able to build a church to hold 600 people.
On 3rd October 1926 he started a weekly broadcast over the local radio station. Initially, the broadcast was intended for children but it gradually changed to adult topics and Coughlin began expressing his views on the need for social reform. The Ku Klux Klan, upset by his views, arranged for a blazing cross planted on the lawn. However, he was very popular with most people and within four years CBS was broadcasting Coughlin's radio programme throughout the nation.
Coughlin was highly critical of the government in the Soviet Union. He argued that the communist government had made divorce very easy and claimed these anti-family ideas were spreading to the United States. Coughlin called this process the "Bolshevism of America". He pointed out that more than two million men and women had obtained divorces in the last ten years and people had therefore "scorned the basic family and national doctrine of Jesus Christ."
Coughlin warned of the dangers of "socialism, communism, and kindred fallacious social and economic theories". Like Pope Leo XIII, Coughlin believed the best way of combating the appeal of these ideologies was the introduction of reforms that would make America a more equal society. This included industrialists paying their workers a "just and living wage" and "providing old age compensation insurance." He also denounced the greed and corruption of America's industrialists and warned about the dangers of the "concentration of wealth in the hands of the few."
Coughlin developed a reputation for being an expert on the growth of the Communist Party in the United States and in July 1930, Hamilton Fish invited him to appear before the House of Representatives Committee to Investigate Communist Activities. Coughlin took the opportunity to criticize left-wing groups in America but he shocked the Committee by also attacking leading industrialists such as Henry Ford.
At this time Coughlin began to criticize the government of President Herbert Hoover. CBS, concerned by this development, warned him to "tone down" his broadcasts. When Coughlin refused, CBS decided not to renew his contract when it expired in April 1931. Coughlin responded by organizing his own radio network which eventually grew to over 30 stations.
During the 1932 presidential election, Coughlin advocated that his listeners should vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt. After the election Coughlin gave his support to Roosevelt's New Deal. He continued with his radio broadcasts where he advocated the nationalization of gold and the revaluation of the dollar. Coughlin continued to be extremely popular and the first edition of his complete radio discourses, published in 1933, quickly sold over a million copies.
In 1935 Coughlin started a campaign to restructure the Federal Reserve System and urged Roosevelt to take full government control over the nation's banking system and to establish a Central Bank. Coughlin also became involved in trade unions. He established the Automotive Industrial Workers Association (AIWA) in Detroit in direct competition with the more radical United Auto Workers. Coughlin also joined Huey Long in the campaign to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support the paying of the Bonus Bill, a large sum of money owed to the American veterans of the First World War.
Coughlin gradually grew disillusioned with Roosevelt and on 11th November, 1934, he announced the formation of the National Union of Social Justice. At this time some observers claimed that Father Coughlin was the second most important political figure in the United States. It was estimated that Coughlin's radio broadcasts were getting an audience of 30 million people. He was also having to employ twenty-six secretaries to deal with the 400,000 letters a week he was receiving from his listeners.
According to Wallace Stegner "Father Coughlin had a voice of such mellow richness, such manly, heart-warming, confidential intimacy, such emotional and ingratiating charm, that anyone tuning past it on the radio dial almost automatically returned to hear it again." As well as his radio broadcasts, Coughlin also began publishing Social Justice Weekly, a journal which soon achieved a circulation of over one million copies.
In May 1935 Coughlin began having talks with Huey Long, Francis Townsend, Gerald L. K. Smith, Milo Reno and Floyd B. Olson about a joint campaign to take on President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential elections. Long was expected to the candidate but he was assassinated on 8th September, 1935.
After the death of Long, Joseph Kennedy attempted to reconcile Father Coughlin and Roosevelt. The conference in September 1935 was a failure and the following year Coughlin joined with Francis Townsend, Gerald L. K. Smith and followers of the late Huey Long to take on Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election. The National Union of Social Justice selected William Lepke from North Dakota, as the party's candidate, but he won only 882,479 votes compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt (27,751,597) and Alfred Landon (16,679,583).
After this defeat Coughlin's replaced the National Union of Social Justice with the Christian Front and concentrated on the dangers of communism. Coughlin also became an isolationist and one of his campaign slogans was: "Less care for internationalism and more concern for national prosperity."
In the late 1930s Coughlin moved sharply to the right and accused Franklin D. Roosevelt of "leaning toward international socialism or sovietism". He also praised the actions of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in the fight against communism in Europe. On 20th November 1938, Coughlin defended the activities of the Nazi Government as a necessary defence against the Soviet Union.
Arthur Miller wrote: "Father Charles E. Coughlin, who by 1940 was confiding to his ten million Depression-battered listeners that the president was a liar controlled by both the Jewish bankers and, astonishingly enough, the Jewish Communists, the same tribe that twenty years earlier had engineered the Russian Revolution... He was arguing... that Hitlerism was the German nation's innocently defensive response to the threat of Communism, that Hitler was only against 'bad Jews', especially those born outside Germany."
Like Joseph Goebbels, Coughlin claimed that Marxist atheism in Europe was a Jewish plot. Coughlin also attacked the influence of Jews in America and this resulted in him being described as a fascist. In April 1941, Coughlin endorsed the America First Committee. However, his now open Anti-Semitism made this endorsement a mixed blessing for the organization.
In January 1940 the FBI raided the New York branch of the Christian Front and uncovered a cache of weapons. J. Edgar Hoover claimed that his officers had discovered that members of the organization planned to murder Jews, Communists and "a dozen Congressmen." Although Coughlin was not directly involved in this plot, the publicity it generated severely damaged his reputation.
Coughlin's opinions became more extreme. In September 1940 he described President Franklin D. Roosevelt as "the world's chief war-monger". The following year he wrote in Social Justice: "Stalin's idea to create world revolution and Hitler's so- called threat to seek world domination are not half as dangerous combined as is the proposal of the current British and American administrations to seize all raw materials in the world. Many people are beginning to wonder who they should fear most - the Roosevelt-Churchill combination or the Hitler-Mussolini combination."
When the United States entered the Second World War the National Association of Broadcasters arranged for Coughlin radio broadcasts to be brought to an end. The Post Office also banned his weekly newspaper, Social Justice, from the mail. On 1st May 1942, Archbishop Francis Mooney ordered Coughlin to bring an end to his political activities. He was warned that if he refused he would be defrocked.
Charles Edward Coughlin retired from the Shrine of the Little Flower Church in 1966. He continued to write pamphlets denouncing Communism until his death on 27th October, 1979.