Socialist Appeal Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Socialist Appeal, February 1935, Volume 1 No. 1, Page 11-14
Transcribed and Marked Up by Damon Maxwell in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.


By T. E. Rodgers

One cannot profitably discuss Coughlin’s economics without first discussing his motives. It seems likely that in the beginning he was just an ambitious priest out to build a fine church in his parish and fill it with free-giving faithful; and when, as a result of his radio speeches, his fine church popped up like a jack-in-the-box and there was an accompanying shower of money and fan-mail, he undoubtedly was flabbergasted. But not for long. When the first post-office-full of fan-mail arrived one can readily imagine him brushing the mail out of his hair and stuffing the money in his pockets as he scrambled to a Napoleonic pose on an exceeding high mountain, from which he could better survey – with popping eyes – the glory of all the kingdoms that lay before him.

Should he stick to his original mission of increasing the membership rolls and spook-dreading influence of his church? Or should he set out in his seven-league boots to establish for his yearning, self-conscious sect the socially acceptable front-door political influence of, for example, the Methodist Church? Pent up in nearly every Catholic’s breast is a passion to see members of his sect accepted as trustworthy equals by the non-Catholics, who by the very nonchalance with which they have excluded Catholics from front positions up to now, particularly from the Presidency, have driven the faithful to such a frenzy of desire that it amounts almost to a psychosis. Power they have, plenty of it; but it is side-door, back-room power. They want to stick out their chests and walk in the front door.

Catholics know they are intellectually hobbled; they are vaguely conscious of the fact that if their minds were visible as their faces are the distortion would cause strangers to stare at them. For that reason, when they argue bravely with themselves and others that they arc the intellectual equals of non-Catholics, the frustrating doubt lurking in their subconscious minds compels them to realize that they don’t even believe their own arguments. This leaves them with an unshakable feeling of inferiority, which is the racer lying reason why they become so vicious and. often resort to fisticuffs in ordinary discussion with non-Catholics.

To prove that Catholics are normal human beings may be one of the chief motives behind Coughlin’s desire for influence; if it isn’t it certainly ranks well up toward his personal ambition to be a king-maker. It may be that both of these motives rank after his original aim to build up his church. The order isn’t important; the resultant broadcasts could spring from any one or from all three motives.

A man well versed in economics and politics who fell into conversation with a ranter of Father Coughlin’s type would, if he observed usual, social practice, change the subject and get away from him as quickly as possible, feeling that it was unkind to permit the man to make such a .jackass of himself even in private conversation. But, when the ranter turns up with a chain of some twenty-five or thirty radio stations, he cannot be dismissed as an object of pity; to the contrary, he then is a public menace, and it becomes the duty of all citizens who see through him to expose him ruthlessly for what he is – either a peewit or a skunk. One cannot be sure which he is: but since it is difficult to believe that he could be such an ignoramus as his speeches would indicate, it seems more likely that he deliberately set out to serve his church by befuddling the public.

And for the purpose of befuddlement, Coughlin uses a very old and very effective technique, perfected through the centuries by his church. He beats his breast, rolls his eyes, tears his hair, hammers the reading desk, and shouts invective in a perversion of the English language which seems to indicate that he wants his hearers to think he never has been anything but a cultivated gentleman. The whole performance is designed to make everybody believe that his heart bleeds for the welfare of everybody in the country except the bankers, communists, and socialists, whom he regularly takes time out to damn. Having spellbound his hearers into accepting him as a modern messiah, he can, to a considerable extent, lead them where he will.

An understanding of his motives makes sense out of speeches that otherwise would be meaningless. Building the church requires one kind of speech: achieving political and social respectability for catholics requires a different kind of speech; and becoming a king-maker requires still another kind. These three kinds of speeches aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, to some extent they overlap; but they are sufficiently different to make Coughlin seem to rush off in three directions at once – to make it difficult to figure out what he is driving at.

Coughlin would have the public believe that the church wants for working people the same things the radicals (according to the church) only pretend to want for them, but that the church has no use for what they call the murderous, subversive, foreign, radical organizations. He says, in effect, put your faith in Mother Church, and then the Lord will provide at least one chicken in every pot, and the anticipation of the solid gold automobiles, with platinum appurtenances to be had in heaven in exchange for some self-induced holiness here will make everybody actually enjoy getting along with just a magnificent church and no car in the garage at all.

It is amazing the number of non-Catholics who can praise Coughlin and believe that after all they must have misjudged the Catholic Church in the past. How can so many people forget the old saying. “What you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say”? How can they overlook the cruel exploitation to which the church has resorted in every corner of the world where it has come into undisputed power? – in Europe of the Dark Ages, in modern Spain and Austria, in Mexico and all of the other Spanish-American countries?

It should be axiomatic to all students of modern, and medieval times that any Catholic clergyman lies who says that the hierarchy wants economic security and self-government for working people. The clergy know? perfectly well that the charity racket gives them their firmest grip upon their victims; that elimination of their pious self-seeking charity can be brought about only by a degree of enlightenment and co-operative organization among workers that would destroy the church; and that self-government presupposes unfettered, rational thinking, which is the exact opposite of the irrational catechising and timorous half-learning which the church, by its spook-dreading influence, forces upon its communicants.

Where is a more degraded man than the one who meekly agrees that he is not intellectually competent to judge the value of any printed thing he may run across – who will explain to you seriously that Mrs. O’Flaherty’s boy, Timothy, who was just an ordinary back-of-the-yards kid, underwent some magical transformation, during the hocus-pocus of ordination, which gave him special powers to judge the fitness of all writing for his parishioners, of whom our man is one? Naturally the church is in favor of self-government for such people, because it means government by the priesthood, who toll their victims what they may read.

And in this connection, it would be laughable, if it weren’t serious, the way Coughlin furthers the common American notion that radicalism is strictly foreign. As though the Catholic Church were not the most foreign institution in the country, acknowledging supreme allegiance – not just formally, but seriously with religious sanction – to the Italian pope in Rome. What kind of “Americanism” is that?

Of course we’re supposed to overlook the Catholics’ foreign allegiance because it is under the guise of religion; we’re supposed to be tolerant. Few Catholics know that the word toleration means anything besides permission for Catholics to hold and spread their intellectually crippling religion. They believe in freedom of speech for themselves and all who agree with them, but not for anyone who disagrees with them. And it is astonishing how many non-Catholics can remain quiescent when the church clamps its medieval censorship down upon non-Catholic and Catholic alike in a great city like Boston, where the Watch and Ward Society decides what books and magazines the intellectually free and civilized citizens may read.

Coughlin says he and his church would not reduce the wealthy but elevate the poor. That sounds nice, but where has the Catholic Church ever done anything but the reverse? He says the Constitution was designed first to protect property rights and only incidentally to protect human rights, which is unquestionably true; but thon he goes on to say that his National Union is for distinguishing between the right to own and the right to use property – which sounds about as rational as Hitler’s distinction between capital undefiled and capital defiled. He is going to perform the miracle – and Catholics, it seems, are still supposed to believe in miracles – of leaving the great industries in private hands and at the same time eliminate excessive financial riches for the few. Presumably this will be accomplished by inculcating in our industrial masters the benevolent religion of the peon masters of Mexico and the feudal slave-drivers of the Middle Ages.

He wants a permanent program of public works, on which he would pay the slaves a wage on which they could exist but which would not be commensurate with wages in private industry. That program is fine if you are sure you will never be unfortunate enough to be one of the public-works slaves to be knocked about from pillar to post – just as the laissez faire theory is fine if you are cunning and brutal enough to win out in the dog-eat-dog fight.

Principally Father Coughlin and his church are interested in protecting anybody who will contribute to their racket – as evidenced by the fact that Harold Stuart’s largo gifts were sufficient proof of his unimpeachable character for Cardinal Mundelein to testify in his behalf in the Insull trial when nobody but the jury was in doubt of his guilt as a swindler. This would seem to be out of line with Coughlin’s attacks upon bankers, but Coughlin goes after them with a fine frenzy because he knows that under the capitalist system the evil, greedy bankers are like the weather – everybody talks a great deal about them, but nobody does anything about them; and it makes him sound like a real friend of the people to attack the bankers – who probably furnish part of the money to keep him on the air.

There are so many holes In the case for Coughlin that to enumerate them would require a big book. It is possible, however, to point out the chief reasons for his success: 1) Everybody knows that some thing serious is the matter with our economic machine; thus he has an eager audience. 2) As mentioned in the beginning of this article, he uses all the tricks of the religious and political mountebank, centering his attacks upon the big bankers, the most popular bogymen extant. 3) He sounds intellectual when he discusses economics with much heat and little light; he talks monetary theory, in which field, because of the complicated nature of the subject, laymen, who have neither time nor inclination to study, can be easily hoodwinked. It isn’t likely that he can be so ignorant about money as he sounds; therefore he must be deliberately bamboozling the public, 4) He uses a now medium, radio, which because of the one-way nature of the discussion, makes it possible for a speaker, by fiery oratory, to hammer home wrong ideas week after week without the interference of hecklers who could quickly expose the speaker’s falsehood.

Not the least of the reasons is the last one. Coughlin is vulnerable at hundreds of points, but the only way ho can be fought Is by means of the same medium he uses, a chain of radio stations. If the radicals want to fight Coughlin and the avowed fascists – the lily-livered variety that Preston Bradley is, as well as the real ones whom he is front-man for on the Crusaders’ hour – they must got on the air. Combatting radio with meagerly circulated printed matter illustrates the industrial and social lag behind technical development that Marxists talk so much about.

Top of page

Socialist Appeal Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 08 February 2009