Andrew Lapin discusses the rise, fall, and legacy of Father Charles Coughlin.

Producer: Serena Balani
02/28/2023 • 08:44 PM EST

Andrew Lapin, senior reporter from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and creator of the PBS podcast, "Radioactive: The Father Coughlin Story" discusses the dramatic rise and eventual fall of Father Charles Coughlin, the first and often forgotten U.S. mass media demagogue. Lapin explains how Coughlin, a pioneer in using radio to reach a mass audience, used his huge platform of 30 million weekly listeners in the U.S. to parrot fascist talking points and spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

0:00: Serena Balani:

With us today, we have Mr. Andrew Lapin, senior reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and creator of the PBS podcast, Radioactive: The Father Coughlin Story that focuses on the rediscovery of Father Charles Coughlin, his dangerous rise and dramatic fall. Mr. Lapin thank you so much for joining us today.

0:18: Andrew Lapin:

Thank you for having me.

0:20: Serena Balani:

So first, could you tell us who Father Coughlin was and what drew you to create that podcast?

0:26: Andrew Lapin:

Absolutely. Father Coughlin was a Catholic priest who also had a very large media platform in America from the mid 1920s until the early 1940s. So we're talking about a period that encompasses the Great Depression and the run up to the U.S. entry into World War II. And Father Coughlin was based out of suburban Detroit, which is where I grew up. And he was known as the radio priest because of his radio show that was syndicated to radio stations across the country during a time when radio was a brand new technology. And he, at his peak, his radio show, which was a weekly broadcast, was listened to by somewhere between 30 and 40 million Americans every week, which was around a quarter of the country at the time.

And on this radio show father Coughlin would regularly share or spew fascist and anti-Semitic propaganda. This is what he shared with his followers. This is how in some ways he gained the large following that he wound up gaining. So he became a leading right wing populist figure during a very divisive political time in America. He gave a voice to a lot of the kind of working class and blue collar Americans who found themselves out of a job during the Great Depression. He claimed to speak for the common man, which was really kind of the source of his power.

And as the years went on, he used this platform which also included a magazine that he published called Social Justice to share conspiracy theories about how the Jews were controlling communism, were controlling the world financial markets, were suppressing religion, and all of these things that he wanted to share. And so that's why, in my research and in this project that I've undertaken, I call Father Coughlin America's first mass media demagogue. Really the first person in American history to take a tool of mass communication, something like the radio which had never really been seen that kind of scope before in communication history, and use it to further his own ends by spreading hate and fear and divisiveness.

So my connection to the story, as I said, is that I grew up in suburban Detroit, only about a mile from the church that Father Coughlin founded called the National Shrine of the Little Flower, which is still an active church, it's still a very active congregation. And it's this giant, you know, majestic impressive church, recently designated a minor basilica by Pope Francis. So it's has a lot of, you know, historic import. And it's a church that has historically had its own way of remembering Father Coughlin. But the Jewish community that I grew up in had a very different way of remembering who Father Coughlin was. And I wanted to explore not only that dynamic and sort of the real history of him, but also contextualize him for a modern day, an age when I believe that the techniques that Father Coughlin pioneered for mass media demagoguery are continuing to be used across different media today.

3:48: Serena Balani:

So what is it, do you think that drew people to Father Coughlin?

3:53: Andrew Lapin:

I think Father Coughlin was so attractive to so many people, A, because he was an incredibly charismatic figure. He was a very gifted orator, which is a skill that you need if you want to be a priest. And he used those skills to really captivate an audience that otherwise would not have had much of a reason to trust him, right? And so he is a very engaging speaker. He can be a very theatrical one. In his rallies, he really knew how to put on a performance, he could, you know, throw his priest color off, and sort of pound the lectern, and do all of these things that really gave people the impression that he was fighting for them, and he was giving them their voice. And then he also had this sort of implicit backing of the Catholic church, of some degree of religious connotation to what he was saying. And in fact, his radio show began as a, essentially a Bible study program for children. And then the political elements came into it later.

So even listeners who were not practicing Catholics found the fact that a priest was talking to them on the radio to, in and of itself, be a sign of trustworthiness because America is, and remains today a very Christian-dominated nation. And so he used this to his advantage. He used the politics of the time, the sort of grievance politics that a lot of populists tend to favor throughout history. He used that to his advantage as well. And so if he's warning people about this invisible enemy of the communists, you know, broaching our shores and coming after our religious freedom and all of this kind of stuff, that sort of rhetoric only made his fans more endeared to him and grew his own power and his own influence. And so the more influence he had the more he could command over the national political dialogue.

And this wound up at a point where even after he was losing huge chunks of his audience, he still had a core of his audience that was devoted enough to what he was saying, and had become radicalized enough where he was actually able to, in essence give them marching orders to go out and commit acts of violent sedition against the United States government. And so this was the kind of power that he developed in his weekly relationship with his listeners over the course of really 14 years. And people were sending him money, people were engaged in the programming that he was putting forth, they were signing up for his, you know, newsletters and pamphlets, and all this kind of stuff. And then when he went into politics, many, many people followed right along with him.

6:41: Serena Balani:

And why do you think that Father Coughlin began including more about politics in his sermons?

6:47: Andrew Lapin:

I think he saw that there was an audience in politics, and there was also this novelty factor that again, it was enough of a novelty that a priest was on the radio, right? That was something that had never been seen before in American life. So like a religious figure who had such a prominent, you know, platform. And he is starting to incorporate the politics of the day into his sermons, which are really like an economic message, because economics is on the forefront of everyone's mind during the Great Depression. And so he is sort of using passages from the Bible and sort of his own interpretations of them to justify certain economic policies that he wanted to see pass. And he is trying to really make himself and the church politically relevant.

This is a challenge that, you know, every religious leader faces, right? Is how much do you get into politics? And this is sort of an ongoing push-pull relationship in American society. But he really kind of grabbed the bull by the horns and that religious side of him was always there. Even as he's tipping more into politics and demagoguery, but he sees an opening that he can fill because the audiences at the time, stop me if this sounds familiar, but they felt the politicians were not speaking to them. They were not speaking to their problems. And so they were looking to outsider figures, to really represent them on the national stage.

8:20: Serena Balani:

So how effective was Coughlin at driving action from his listeners?

8:25: Andrew Lapin:

Coughlin was really extraordinarily effective at driving political action from his listeners, even before he had a name for the political movement he had created. He had a lot, a lot of people willing to follow him into whatever cause he deemed significant. So a good example of this is in the aftermath of World War I and the economic devastation across Europe, you know, the different world superpowers are banding together to form the World Court. And Franklin Roosevelt, the president at the time, really wants the U.S. to enter the World Court. He thinks this is going to be really good for American diplomacy. It's going to give us a seat at the table. It's going to help hold larger figures accountable. Coughlin, who's a staunch isolationist, doesn't really want America to be getting involved in these kinds of affairs, really, really opposes the entry into the World Court. And he lobbies his listeners and he tells them, go write your congressman, go tell them we don't want to get involved in this. We don't want to be a part of the World Court. This is Roosevelt's thing. This is the elite's thing. This is not in the interest of the people. And so Capitol Hill is flooded with all of these letters from Father Coughlin's fans saying, do not enter the World Court. And Roosevelt realizes this is a very politically precarious moment for him. He backs off of his demand. And so even today, you know, close to 90 years later the modern version of the World Court, the International Criminal Court, the U.S. still does not participate in that.

And so that's one example of the long-term political ramifications of these kinds of figures. And obviously, you know, as I said, several years later in his career, Coughlin would succeed in making his listeners active in a very different way, by encouraging them to go out and create this essentially militant organization called the Christian Front. And their stated purpose was that Coughlin thought that America needed a homegrown movement to defend Christianity and Christian principles against, you know, the threat of communism and all this kind of stuff. But in practice, what it was, was essentially a Nazi-sympathizer group and anti-Semitic group that took marching orders from Father Coughlin, and would attack Jewish owned businesses in the U.S. and would, you know, try to incite mobs against the Jews. And was later, several members of the Christian front were later arrested and charged by the FBI with conspiracy to commit sedition against the United States government for what wound up being a very well thought out plan to try to overtake various government institutions. And all of these people really took their orders from Father Coughlin, who continued to stand by this movement that he had fomented up until the very last days of his national platform.

11:11: Serena Balani:

And in a nutshell, could you talk about Father Coughlin's relationship with President Roosevelt and how that eventually led to Coughlin forming his own political party?

11:23: Andrew Lapin:

Sure. So Roosevelt was first elected president in 1932. And so the late twenties and early thirties, this is really prime moment for Father Coughlin's national significance. It's a couple of years after he started his radio show. As I've said, the Great Depression, you know, has kicked in. And so Coughlin is, has become this sort of voice for the voiceless. And in this moment, he is early on actually a supporter of President Roosevelt. He believes that these policies are really what's going to unite the country. And he stumps for him. He coins a famous catchphrase, "Roosevelt or Ruin" that, you know, is used in all these campaign ads. But Coughlin is doing this kind of out of a self-serving nature. He really wants more power and more influence, and he thinks that if he can deliver his voters to Roosevelt, that Roosevelt will give him some sort of position in his administration.

When Roosevelt is elected the President, he spurns Father Coughlin. He is very wary of this populous movement that seems to be kind of raucous and operating outside the boundaries of normal political dialogue. And so Coughlin never really hears from Roosevelt again, and so very quickly turns on him and becomes the leader of the Roosevelt opposition movement. And so we can see this is at least partially fueled by self-interest, and partially maybe because he sees that there can be a role to play in opposing a president like Franklin Roosevelt. And so Coughlin is sort of allying with several other fringe figures at the time including you know, the firebrand Senator Huey Long, until Long was assassinated. And this is what ultimately leads Coughlin to formally challenge Roosevelt by creating a new political third party called the National Union for Social Justice to run against him in the 1936 election. Which also conveniently gives Coughlin another platform through which to share his latest anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. So all of this entering the political arena in such an overt way against the sitting U.S. President also makes Coughlin into this kind of populist hero.

13:35: Serena Balani:

What was the Social Justice publication?

13:38: Andrew Lapin:

So, the Social Justice publication began in 1936 as the sort of official publication of this Social Justice campaign, this third party that Coughlin had started. He publishes it for a good six years, it actually goes on for two years after his radio show sunsets. And even though it was sort of conceived in this political world, it very quickly becomes a tool for propaganda, fascist talking points, and occasionally some articles and some passages, some, you know, many signed by Coughlin himself that were parroting or even directly plagiarizing speeches that you would hear from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It really becomes this sort of direct mouthpiece for Nazi and fascist ideology in America. Coughlin is publishing material that he would never say on his radio show, which was a little bit more muted, but Social Justice Magazine was a much more direct line to his most intense followers.

And this sort of culminates with Coughlin deciding to publish, in Social Justice Magazine, a copy of this infamous document called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is an anti-Semitic forgery that originated in Russia, purports to show the secret plot by the Jewish world elites for world domination. And it was the sort of thing that was flying around a lot in those days. You know, fellow Detroiter Henry Ford had previously published the same thing in his own newspaper about a decade prior. So Coughlin is doing this, and he is using the rationale of kind of, I'm just asking questions and I just want to put this out there for people to respond to. But it is really, really troubling certainly to Jewish groups at the time. And, you know, even today, this document The Protocols continues to circulate in a lot of spaces that where it probably shouldn't be circulating at all anymore, and yet it's still out there. And it was through publications like Social Justice that allowed it to continue to fester.

15:52: Serena Balani:

What was the connection between Father Coughlin and the Nazi and fascist leaders in Europe?

15:58: Andrew Lapin:

So, Coughlin was a vocal admirer particularly of fascism. He saw the alliances that the Catholic church was making with Mussolini's fascist Italy and the sort of pitting in Spain of the fascist forces against the communist forces. And so Coughlin really thought, he says at one point, if the future is going to be a decision between communism and fascism, then I take the side of fascism. And so he was pretty open about that. He was also writing what was essentially fan mail to Mussolini himself (il Duce) and inviting Mussolini to use Social Justice Magazine as a platform to share his views with the American public, because Coughlin thought that the mainstream media in America was giving Mussolini a bad rap. And so Coughlin was very interested in platforming Mussolini's views.

And as I said, we also know because he would often lift a lot of his verbiage directly from Nazi propaganda, that Coughlin was also to some degree, an admirer of the Nazi movement, even though in his public addresses, he would sometimes say, well, I don't like the Nazis. I think the Nazis and the Communists are just as bad. But it's pretty clear that not only was he disseminating Nazi ideology through his platforms, but his followers were also often really adherent Nazi sympathizers, especially the Christian Front. There's a record of many of them meeting with Nazi agents in the U.S. and there were a lot of alliances being made within this kind of constellation of the sort of broader right-wing populous grievances in the late 1930s. So certainly these were the forces that Coughlin was aligning himself with, and that his followers were comfortable with. Many decades later, he would claim again that he never liked the Nazis, never had anything to do with them. But we can see from the records that he was certainly tolerant of them to some degree.

18:18: Serena Balani:

How prevalent was Nazi propaganda in the United States at the time?

18:23: Andrew Lapin:

If you were living in America in the late 1930s, you would've seen a fair amount of Nazi propaganda, and you wouldn't necessarily have clocked it as such. This was a time when, whether or not to be with the Nazis was a matter of pretty intense, you know, contemporaneous political debate. It was not decided on, as we sometimes think today, the common myth, oh, America was always opposed to the Nazis. That is not true. There were a substantial number of groups of Nazi-sympathizers, even more overt than the ones that Coughlin kind of started. You know, Coughlin was certainly a nexus of this kind of circle of this network of groups, but he was far from the only one.

There was the German American Bund which would, you know, he held this really infamous rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939, packed to the gills, where their leaders would unfurl the American flag next to the swastika and really sort of openly argue that America needed to decide with Nazi Germany. There were many other groups that were operating in this time or even groups that were not explicitly pro-Nazi. The America First Committee is a good example of this. They were not pro-Nazi. They defined themselves as isolationist, maybe as anti-war. They just didn't want to get America involved in foreign wars. But you dig a little bit under the surface, and most of the key personnel in these figures, in these movements, were avowed Nazi-sympathizers and shared a lot of their beliefs certainly about the Jews.

19:59: Serena Balani:

What can you tell us about the America First movement and Father Coughlin's involvement in that?

20:05: Andrew Lapin:

So, Coughlin kind of is he's like the prelude to the America First Movement. He's largely kind of setting the stage for what would later become the America First Committee. Coughlin's radio show lasts until 1940. He is forced off the air in a secret backroom deal, while the members of the Christian Front are being put on trial, the Catholic Church is kind of desperate to keep their name out of things. And so, they really pressured Coughlin to end his radio show so that he can remain a priest and be in good standing with the Church. And he feels his moment and the sun is over, and he, you know, he does step aside, but that same year, the America First Committee is created and sort of arrives really to fill this void that is being, that has been vacated by the absence of Father Coughlin on the national stage.

And so the America First Committee quickly gets this celebrity spokesperson Charles Lindbergh, this World War I aviation hero, also from Detroit, who really fits that kind of vocal isolationist mode, but was also as we know, a Nazi-sympathizer as well. And so the America First Movement picks up this mantle, runs with it for the next couple of years. After Pearl Harbor is attacked, it no longer becomes politically viable to be an isolationist. That really is kind of what unites America in the war effort against the Nazis and the access powers. And so America first as a political ideology, as an idea, you know, kind of loses a lot of its potency by that point. And certainly this is where we know that Coughlin's influence has really waned is because the U.S. war department is making their own propaganda videos, which are anti-fascist propaganda. And which are very much designed to try to teach ordinary Americans how to recognize and reject a demagogic figure like Father Coughlin.

22:05: Serena Balani:

And how did Father Coughlin's journey end, finally?

22:09: Andrew Lapin:

So his journey ended in kind of fits and starts. The exact chronology of it, as I've said, is that, you know, he was encouraging the growth of this Christian Front movement in the late 1930s into 1940. This was also the period when he was sharing his sort of most virulently anti-Semitic material on the air as well as in Social Justice magazine. After the infamous events of Kristallnacht in Nazi occupied Europe, when Jewish homes and Jewish businesses are looted, and set on fire and hundreds of thousands of Jews are shaken from their homes and this horrifies the western world. And Coughlin is on his radio show, and he says maybe the Jews deserve what happened to them.

And so this is kind of the moment when he's starting to lose a lot of national influence, radio stations start dropping him. This trial happens in 1940 of his followers, the Christian Front, which by that point has become pretty much all that Father Coughlin is known for. And so he's not being taken seriously as like a political idea-maker anymore. He is just seen as this sort of fringe far-right radical. So he vacates its radio show in 1940, because the Catholic Church is finally able to put enough pressure on him to get him to do so. He keeps publishing Social Justice magazine for another two years. That material doesn't really change. It is still pretty openly conspiratorial and anti-Semitic and largely pro-Nazi. But then he gives that up in 1942 as the political winds are changing.

And the thing about Father Coughlin's final years is that they were relatively peaceful. You know, after this period of intense volatility, where he was this leading American voice for fascism and railing against Jews and railing against all of these things. And he is allowed to go back to Royal Oak Michigan, where his church is, and lead his church for another two decades and retire in good standing with the Church, with the Catholic church overall. There are a few sort of grumbles here and there, largely from the Jewish community, but his legacy, more or less remained intact for a long period of time. And his church chose to remember him as the leader of the church and not as this accomplished propagandist. So he really kind of wins in the end.

24:45: Serena Balani:

And you mentioned that Father Coughlin changed American culture and politics. Could you elaborate on how those changes are still relevant today?

24:53: Andrew Lapin:

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like because Coughlin arrived at this perfect moment, the dawn of mass communication, he created what really became the blueprint that we understand today for how to be a demagogue in America. And this is something that, again, along the lines of the myth we tell ourselves about America's, you know, relationship to the Nazis, we tell ourselves a similar myth about it can't happen here, that the ideas of fascism can't possibly take root in the cradle of democracy. But we've seen time and time again that that is not true either. And Coughlin is our best example of that.

He was able to sort of use the rhetoric of kind of pro-America and patriotism and pro-Christianity to push really, really odious and dangerous ideas across a broad swath of the American public. He commanded many, many times the audience then that any major news channel has today. This was a time when the media audience was obviously a lot less fragmented, but the basic principles of what Coughlin did then we very much can still see those today. We can see figures who are in their own ways like Coughlin, maybe they're independent self-made, maybe they're outsiders. They sort of came at their public platform through different means. They really latched onto this idea of speaking for the common man, speaking for the working class, the downtrodden. Finding different grievances to kind of poke at and exploit, but very much still kind of operating in that same space.

And the thing is, you know, American society has not really gotten much better at figuring out how to dismantle and encounter this kind of propaganda because with every new innovation in media whether it's television, whether it's the internet, social media, we see time and time again the rise of very, very Father Coughlinesque figures, using more or less the same exact ideas and methods that Coughlin used back then. And that was really my motivation for wanting to create the podcast and to work with the teams at Tablet Studios and PBS's Exploring Hate, to put this together and try to make people understand that father Coughlin in many ways is very much with us today.

27:19: Serena Balani:

So, looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Mr. Andrew Lapin, senior reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and creator of the podcast, Radioactive: The Father Coughlin Story. Mr. Lapin, thank you so much for joining us today.

27:32: Andrew Lapin:

Thank you for having me.