Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Priest and the President: Father Coughlin, FDR, and 1930s America

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Priest and the President: Father Coughlin, FDR, and 1930s America

Article excerpt

Coughlin's oratory during its later stages might appear so outrageous as to seem comical in the context of the twenty-first century. But in the context of the Great Depression, and with war clouds looming, it appeared ominous.... His descent into anti-Semitism and red-baiting helped destroy his influence, and his attacks on a popular President, made him eventually a pariah. The war was the point at which his fortunes turned downward permanently. Nonetheless, Coughhn's direct appear to the masses, mixing religion and politics via radio, gave him the largest audience of his time, except for Roosevelt.... He deceived himself into believing that because many of his faith thrilled to the sound of his ingratiating voice, and even mailed him money, they would vote as he instructed them, especially if it meant voting against a popular, formidable incumbent. In the end, the line between God and mammon in Coughlin's career was quite thin. When it came time to go to the polls in 1936, Coughlin's golden voice was but a hollow echo.

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FROM COLONIAL TIMES to the present, religion has played a vital role in America in a multitude of dimensions. From the evangelism of George Whitefield to the speculations of Depak Chopra and Stephen Hawking about the nature of reality, the American quest to answer riddles of the universe endures. The impact of religion involves ministers, writers, philosophers, scientists, and dissenters who seek answers to the riddles of our origins, the hereafter; and the existence of extra-terrestrial life. Religion provokes outrage against wars or reinforces patriotic fervor to sustain morale during military conflicts. Americans fight for God and country, yet quarrel over whether to pray in classrooms or to teach evolution or creationism. Religion has been used to justify the doctrines of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1990s and the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King. Chaplains are attached to military units, yet dissenters such as the Berrigan brothers and Father James Groppi have employed religion to turn Americans against the status quo, whether it represents a war in Asia or racial discrimination in Milwaukee.

Some evangelists, such as Billy Graham, influence the masses through personal evangelism emphasizing the simple doctrine of faith. Aimee Semple McPherson reached enormous audiences during the 1990s via radio and before live audiences, using a flamboyant style and pledging to found a new Christian charity, the Salvation Navy. Others, such as the ex-baseball player Billy Sunday, are spectacular before live audiences, converting thousands. Gospel music has influenced Elvis Presley, the Oak Ridge Boys, Dolly Patton, and Johnny Cash. Other purveyors reach their audiences by writing, such as Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. The writing of Jonathan Edwards is as important as his preaching. His profound probing of the doctrine of predestination endures.

Popularizers have played a role in American religious history from Bruce Barton, who wrote to best-selling biography of Jesus, The Man Nobody Knows, during the 1920s, to New Age gurus such as Wayne Dyer, who sell millions of copies of their works. Some religious figures such as Edgar Cayce, the sleeping prophet, are virtually unique. Cayce, who lacked a formal education, promoted ideas such as meditation, reincarnation, astrology, and holistic healing long before they entered the mainstream.

Father Charles Coughlin was neither the first nor the last cleric to reach the masses via the airwaves, but he perfected the method, opened doors for successors, and showed how they could be slammed shut when he went too far, much as Anne Hutchinson learned in the seventeenth century. Coughlin became, like Hutchinson, a heretic, tamed by his superiors. His medium, radio, enabled him to reach a greater audience, but it did not endow him with his gifts, which were abundant; yet he could veer into hate mongering. An overview of Coughlin's career provides insights into the role of religion in America and the combustible combination of religion and politics. …

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