Father Charles Coughlin: Right Wing Radio Priest?

The following is an excerpt from The Right Frequency.

Just as Rush Limbaugh was becoming a superstar, U.S. News & World Report wrote “Some Democrats see Limbaugh as a direct descendant of demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin and Senator Huey Long, who used radio in the 1930s to stir hatred against panoply of enemies, from Big Oil to Jewish bankers.”

Limbaugh targets big oil and bankers?

It has been a comparison frequently made throughout Limbaugh’s rise to prominence during the Clinton presidency. Again, in 2009, just months into the Obama presidency the ultra-liberal but often thoughtful media commentator Neal Gabler wrote, “In another era, a vicious blowhard like Limbaugh would have been driven from the air just as Coughlin was because there wouldn’t have been sufficient numbers of listeners who would have wanted to continue to identify with him. He would have disgraced them. That Limbaugh, Beck, Sean Hannity, and others remain on the air is partly a testament to how ’nichified’ our media have become—how much the mainstream has divided into rivulets.” Newsweek, in a 2008 article, referred to Coughlin as a “right wing radio priest of the 1940s.” In 2009, former Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis wrote about the “1930s right-wing radio commentator, Father Charles Coughlin” in an op-ed on the spat between Obama and Fox News.

In 2010, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a piece with the headline, “A Distant Echo: What Father Coughlin tells us about Glenn Beck.”86 The Guardian, a U.K. newspaper published a piece that said, “It is, in fact, a description of Father Charles Coughlin, the infamous rightwing ‘radio priest,’ whose broadcasts in the 1930s disturbingly echo those of Beck today. Indeed, some experts see Coughlin as a father figure to the extremist broadcasting Beck has honed so well.”
Harrison, of Talkers Magazine, considered the comparisons of Coughlin to modern radio show hosts a little ridiculous. “It’s not a good comparison. I think looking at history, Father Coughlin was far more of a negative influence on America and on the decisions facing America at that time than Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh could ever be accused of,” Harrison said. “The politics was different, and again the role was different. There was a specific anti-Semitism element to what Father Coughlin did that I do not believe exists with a Rush Limbaugh or a Glenn Beck. I do not believe that Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck are anywhere near as hateful as their detractors accuse them of being.”

Coughlin has so frequently been called “right wing” it became an article of faith despite the fact that nearly all of the policies he advocated were radically progressive. He was a staunch supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, telling his vast audience in the 1932 election it was “Roosevelt or Ruin.” When Roosevelt took office, Coughlin insisted that no good Christian could oppose the policies of the New Deal, and he declared an end to capitalism. So how did he earn the label rightwing? He became a virulently anti-Semitic on the airwaves and grew to sympathize with Nazi Germany. It is difficult to understand how either of those would qualify someone as a conservative. But the justification for liberal writers would be that he
became just as virulently anti-Roosevelt. Never mind that the anti-Roosevelt tirades were because he thought the New Deal did not go far enough and simply lost patience with the president he so vehemently supported in the 1932 election.

Imagine 40 years or so from today, if media commentators refer to the conservative commentators of that day as the heir to “rightwing filmmaker Michael Moore.” Moore has been highly critical of President Obama for the last two years for not going all the way in implementing a single payer health care system and for not abandoning the wars the U.S. first entered in the previous administration and for entering another war in Libya. To say Obama is liberal, Moore criticizes Obama, thus Moore is right wing, is almost the same logic that allows critics of conservative radio today to refer to Coughlin as a man of the right.

To read more on Father Coughlin and other legendary talk radio voices, click here to get a copy of The Right Frequency.

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