The following is a paper I researched and wrote during my undergrad days at Western Michigan University. I am posting it now, before the 2010 mid-term elections, because I think it applies closely to the present situation of American politics in which pundits of every stripe and creed make extravagant claims they support with neither researched facts nor closely analyzed theories nor yet with anything remotely close to authoritative personal experience. Their ideas go unchecked and predigested into the ether where unsuspecting minds simply take it in as long as the pundit in question supposedly alligns with one’s pre-selected political stance–in other words, as long as the pundit claims the same enemies as the listener.
For those who don’t know, a little background on Father Charles Coughlin may be necessary to strengthen the connection between then and now. Father Coughlin was a Catholic priest who took to the radio airwaves after the Great Depression hit. He thought to give hope to the downtrodden, and by most accounts he did so, but he also rode roughshod over the fields of conspiracy and ignorant bigotry. As long as it sufficed to strengthen his position against the current villain in his sights, he would take an even worse villain’s words (even Hitler and Mussolini) as support without a moment’s pause to reflect. Usually, the first villain was not a villain at all but merely someone who had openly disagreed with him or whose politics were on the other end of the political spectrum from Coughlin.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Coughlin’s appeals were primarily emotional. His “proofs” were dot-to-dot sequences made up of ill-researched and incomplete “facts” gleaned from popular propoganda. His theories were often impracticable and ignorant of the finer details that make up such topics as economics, global finance, and foreign relations. He swayed his audience primarily by the methods of demagoguery, namely: he used labels as epithets to discredit his detractors, which simultaneously assured that his audience (who would of course not want to make themselves worthy of the same label) would shy away from even listening to opposing ideas; he put motivations into his opponents’ mouths that they did not in fact espouse; he pushed the logic of opposing arguments to absurd extremes never intended by those who came up with the arguments; he relied on dubious written works and unverified reports to support his claims (his reliance on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion being an example from the later years of his influence); and so on.
In short, he sounded very much like any number of political pundits on the airwaves today. It is important, therefore, that we consider carefully the rhetorical methods being used by those we listen to. If their rhetorical methods are either unsound or downright dishonest, as Coughlin’s were, the information they give us will certainly be incomplete and misleading. In particular, the “easy fixes” currently being trumpeted by rabble-rousers on the right are unrealistic at best, destructive at the worst, and echo Coughlin’s own methods. Just as with Fr. Coughlin’s attempts to influence American politics, these fixes will not truly fix anything. Disillusionment will follow, I predict, just as it followed Coughlin’s own populist political movement of the 1930′s.
Why do I think so? Well, it seems clear from polling data that many if not most of those who support the Republican/Tea Party initiative do so more out of angst for the party in power and not because they really believe their proposals to be better. In other words, we are about to experience a typical mid-term election swing away from a party that has gained both the presidency and both houses of congress, and such large swings are typically followed by yet another reaction of disillusionment directly related to the magnitude of the swing that caused it (history as witness).
Those who remain undisillusioned even after the mixed results that will come after the looming Republican/Tea Party victory will, I predict, become more delusional than ever due to their continued rationalization of what are irrationally derived positions. There will be another enemy, another villain who will catch their fury for failures that in actuality reflect our society as a whole–Republican and Democrat and everything in between. It will be the blame game that Coughlin used all over again, the same game that right-wing pundits have been peddling for two decades, and what has it accomplished?
Demagoguery makes for large audiences but causes more damage than good. That folks are attracted to such a voice is understandable. Just like in Coughlin’s day, there are a lot of people who feel they have no voice of their own. When they hear someone in the media expressing thoughts they may have had themselves, of course they are attracted to it. We all are attracted to people who profess to think like we do. However, there is a flip side to the right to broadcast one’s views, and that is the responsibility to speak truly and equitably without misleading your audience.
Correspondingly, there is a need for audiences to realize the type of exchange that is going on when they listen to political pundits. Pundits make use of invented ”personalities” just like your favorite Hollywood actor does. The person you hear and/or see and (if you are not careful) come to implicitly trust is at least partially a fabrication — always. I maintain that folks should avoid the implicit trust provoked by such ”personalities.” Don’t just swallow what may later show itself a bitter pill.
Why? Read on.
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Father Coughlin: Cut from a Pattern of Catholic History
by Jared Randall
Father Coughlin, radio priest and rabble-rouser in the 1920′s and 30′s, is mostly studied in the context of politics. Most researches have given little specific attention to his roots in the Catholic tradition. However, much that is valuable to understanding Coughlin and his contradictions lies in a knowledge of those roots. To fully appreciate the conditions that allowed his popularity, one must explore the workings of the Catholic hierarchy and the history of Catholic social teaching.
Much of the controversy surrounding Father Coughlin lies in a misunderstanding of the Catholic hierarchy. Those outside the Catholic tradition expect the pope and bishops to silence an outspoken priest who pokes his nose too far into politics. For instance, when Father Coughlin called Roosevelt a “liar” and “betrayer” in his speech to the Townsend Convention of 1936, many people expected the Vatican to act. Sheldon Marcus writes:
Coughlin’s speech also set off a furious chain reaction of queries on the position of the Vatican in tolerating such attacks on the President of the United States. Although it had stated publicly, in June of the same year, that Coughlin’s activities had not violated canon law, the Vatican viewed them with consternation. Direct Vatican intervention in disciplining Coughlin was ruled out for the moment because that was considered to be the responsibility of his bishop. The Vatican also pointed out that before any action was taken regarding the disciplining of an American priest, the matter would first be referred to the Apostolic Delegate in Washington, D.C. 
Mr. Marcus vaguely outlines the workings of the Catholic hierarchy. Firstly, the pope, while responsible for the general direction of the Church, does not often speak out on specific matters of behavior. As Gustave Weigel, S. J., puts it, “In a period of perfect calm where there is no attacking storm, the popes do not speak, for there is no necessity…. the popes will never fail to teach if the problems are more than local.” He also writes, “In the primate [pope] dwells the fullness of episcopal power, and all bishops share it with him. Altogether they have no more than he has and he alone has all that they have.” So Catholic power and policy flows from the pope to the bishops, and it is the bishops who are expected to take action except when the issue becomes widespread.
Now the question becomes one of understanding Coughlin’s bishop. The simple answer is that Bishop Michael Gallagher of the Detroit diocese supported Coughlin all along. Gallagher consistently defended Coughlin’s speeches, claiming them to be without “heresy” and explaining that “Father Coughlin in his addresses is advocating the principles set down by Leo XIII and Pius XI. He is perfectly justified in doing that.” By appealing to the teachings of previous and current popes, Coughlin made it difficult for anyone in the Catholic Church – the Vatican or the Apostolic Delegate in Washington – to openly rebuke him, especially when he had the sanction of his bishop.
It is evident that Father Coughlin was not the first among many brethren to speak out about society, although one might think it from reading his biographies. A long list of Catholic social teachers stretches into the past behind him, providing a rich legacy in which he resides. Though many in the Catholic Church would doubtless want to distance themselves from him, Coughlin openly acknowledged his predecessors. He often quoted and referred to the papal letters of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI as justification for his pronouncements.
Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, or “The Condition of the Working Classes,” was a culmination of Catholic social teaching given in 1891. It was especially important as a document that eclipsed and refined the varied and localized social teachings of the past 150 years and strengthened them by virtue of papal pronouncement. James Healy, S.J., provides more than a glimpse of this background in his The Just Wage. Subtitled “A Study of Moralists from Saint Alphonsus to Leo XIII,” Healy reveals the often imprecise and generalized nature of Catholic social teaching through a rigorous comparison of documents from 1750-1890:
We can see that whatever general principles dictate the amount of a just wage, they are such as are difficult to apply. This diffidence about the details of economic questions is in the best tradition of the really learned theologians.
Healy’s statement clearly applies to Coughlin, whose “basic social philosophy was that of the papal encyclicals.” As Tull writes, “A point too often ignored, however, is that the popes were extremely vague as to the methods to be employed in achieving the cherished but ever-elusive ideal of social justice.” Coughlin was thus following the example of his predecessors with his vagueness concerning the application of his theories and policies.
Coughlin’s training for the priesthood began at St. Michael’s College, Toronto, in 1903, when he was thirteen years of age. It is reported that he “had difficulty in economics.” Coughlin was clearly influenced by Catholic teachings that related to economic questions, but, ironically, the economic theories he espoused were often berated by those who had more knowledge in applying those theories – even Catholics. Father Parsons of the Jesuit weekly America wrote in 1935 that the priest was advocating “doubtful economic legislation” and that, “He is now offering plans based on monetary theories which, to say the least, are untried.” Parsons reasoned through the possible effects on Coughlin’s followers:
If people begin to look for prosperity and justice in some easy magic of monetary reform, the long hard job of social justice in the factory will be overlooked and that will be tragic.
At face value, this “easy magic” is exactly what the long trend of Catholic social teachers relied on, and Coughlin was no different. His rhetoric often focused on easy cures. Healy’s study sheds light on this aspect of Catholic teaching. He notes a general ignorance of or only partial reliance on economic theories by the Catholic moralists. Rather than accomplishing their mission of providing moral analysis, “most of the authors erred on the opposite extreme, for they failed to give moral direction on economic theories which profoundly affected moral decisions.” In other words, they neither evaluated the theories of economists on the basis of their moral properties nor expounded on the moral truths that should guide theorists and politicians alike. The “authors of the last [19th] century […] were convinced of some opinion’s universal acceptance, simply because they saw books only from a particular religious family or from a limited geographical area.” They pushed their espoused theories rather than evaluating them, an error of which Coughlin was consistently found guilty.
The following from Healy’s study could almost be a description of Father Coughlin. It places him firmly within the sweep of Catholic social teaching:
[…] the moralists had a static concept of society […].What explanations can be offered for so general a divorce from reality? Perhaps the seminary training was partly responsible: men who have lived in sheltered communities, away from their families since the early age of ten or twelve, can easily miss the experiences which would have helped them to appreciate the conditions under which so many people earned their daily bread. The books available for students may also have encouraged this divorce from the contemporary scene: the revered masters were, of course, the old masters; and at their best the old masters dealt with the concrete circumstances of a bygone age. It is only too easy for a student to become engrossed in old controversies and to imagine that the world of his books is the world actually around him. This it cannot be, unless the books are written recently by people in touch with the facts.
From this we can pull at least two observations that apply to Father Coughlin and link him to his predecessors. 1) The social teachers taught general principles but applied them to an older era of human experience. The outcome was a skewed and not quite practicable form of the principle. 2) The social teachers were ignorant of the circumstances of the common people.
These observations clearly apply to Coughlin, who was quick to espouse any idea that strengthened his views. While Father Coughlin was initially motivated by real experiences with needy people during the depression, his descent into anti-Semitism and radical ideology was increasingly detached from the plight of the common man and was fueled rather by “old controversies” and realities “from the world of his books,” such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the writings of Irish clergyman and theologian Denis Fahey, and Nazi propaganda.
It is hard to dismiss Father Coughlin as only a political demagogue who happened to be a Catholic priest. It seems more accurate to think of Coughlin, first, as Catholic priest and social teacher, and, second, as political demagogue, an outgrowth of his intention to “[restore] principles which have been shelved by that new type of radical who identifies prosperity with the international regime of a plutocracy.”
By most accounts, Father Coughlin began his public career by speaking out for the little people, whether his ideas were right or not. He thought he could “lead the nation out of its dilemma” after the Depression hit. It was after the death of Bishop Gallagher in 1937 that Coughlin’s descent into the manias of anti-Semitism and Nazism took over as he tried to find “an issue” by which he might recover his 1936 political losses. He seemed to have found it in 1938 when Social Justice published the phony Protocols of the Elders of Zion in supposed proof of his allegations of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world through the financial system.
Interestingly, Bishop Gallagher may have been both the source and moderator of this extremism. Both Father Coughlin and Bishop Gallagher were Irish in descent, as their names imply. As Sheldon Marcus writes, the pages of Coughlin’s journal, Social Justice, increasingly:
[…] emphasized hostility to Great Britain and support of most of Germany’s policies. Page after page of the weekly now commented on and criticized British policies and actions. Such criticisms may be partly attributed to the hostile attitude of many militant Irishmen – an attitude that had been shared by both Coughlin and Bishop Gallagher.
Coughlin’s superior after Bishop Gallagher’s death, Archbishop Mooney, preferred to leave Coughlin to himself after one unsuccessful attempt to rein in his rhetoric. Not until 1942 did Mooney succeed in silencing him.
It is because of Coughlin’s extremism that his legacy is viewed as a negative one. Early on “he had urged the reevaluation [sic] of the gold dollar and the restoration of silver,” but “did not recommend a means of putting this in effect.” Perhaps he helped society by giving a popular radio voice to public sentiment and economic theories. Such public debate enhances the workings of the American system of government. Surely this was in line with the tradition of Catholic social teachers and their preaching on general moral principles – a natural, technology-enhanced function of the clergy.
If he had been more aware of his role as “surrogate spokesman” and stayed within it by not taking his detractors so personally – if he had not lashed out at every perceived threat to his cause and taken his followers with him as if his ideas were the only possibility for the salvation of America – his legacy might be quite different today.
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Carpenter, Ronald H., Father Charles E. Coughlin: Surrogate Spokesman for the Disaffected. Westport: Greenwood Press,1998.
George, Henry, The Condition of Labour: An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII. London: The Henry George Foundation of Great Britain, 1934.
Father Coughlin’s Radio Sermons, October, 1930–April, 1931 (collected) (Baltimore: Knox and O’Leary, 1931), 8, 137. This volume is available at the Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collection.
Fremantle, Anne (Ed.), The Papal Encyclicals in Their Historical Context. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956.
Healy, James, S. J., The Just Wage, 1750-1890: A Study of Moralists from Saint Alphonsus to Leo XIII. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966.
Marcus, Sheldon, Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1973.
Tull, Charles, Father Coughlin and the New Deal. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1965.
1. Marcus, Sheldon, Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1973), 120.
2. Fremantle, Anne (Ed.), The Papal Encyclicals in Their Historical Context (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956), 11-12. This note refers to the introduction by Gustave Weigel, S. J.
3. Tull, Charles, Father Coughlin and the New Deal (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1965), 47.
4. Father Coughlin’s Radio Sermons, October, 1930–April, 1931 (collected) (Baltimore: Knox and O’Leary, 1931), 8, 137. This volume is available at the Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collection.
5. Healy, James, S. J., The Just Wage, 1750-1890: A Study of Moralists from Saint Alphonsus to Leo XIII (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966), 9.
6. Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal, 61.
7. Marcus, Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life, 14-15.
8. Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal, 97-98.
9. Ibid., 242. Tull writes: “A close examination of Coughlin’s monetary and economic theories reveals that his most serious error was to consider nationalization of currency a panacea for economic problems.”
10. Healy, The Just Wage, 469-470.
11. Ibid., 471.
12. Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal, 41-43.
13. Healy, The Just Wage, 469.
14. Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal, 61.
15. Carpenter, Ronald H., Father Charles E. Coughlin: Surrogate Spokesman for the Disaffected (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998), 114-126.
16. Father Coughlin’s Radio Sermons, 138.
17. Marcus, Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life, 30-31.
18. Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal, 243.
19. Ibid., 193.
20. Marcus, Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life, 198-199. From information taken from the General Records of the Department of State indicating that “Bishop Gallagher’s ‘whole career has been an example of rabid anti-British feeling.’” See note on Marcus, p. 257. For predecessor case that mirrors Coughlin’s own and connects to the Irish Land League see Henry George’s The Condition of Labour: An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII (London: The Henry George Foundation of Great Britain, 1934). In its introduction the case of Reverend Dr. Edward McGlynn is discussed, a New York priest who was excommunicated for supporting the theories of Henry George and his candidacy for mayor of New York. McGlynn was subsequently reinstated in 1892 after George’s letter was read by Pope Leo XIII. Among other things, the letter showed a fundamental similarity between the Pope’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, and Henry George’s own theory of the single tax.
21. Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal, 179-185.
22. Ibid., 236; Marcus, Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life, 216.
23. Carpenter, Father Charles E. Coughlin: Surrogate Spokesman, 85-86.
24. [Ibid., 9] The author sets up his argument that Coughlin was a “surrogate spokesman” for those who had no public voice during the Depression era.