Goldberg on Coughlin

Goldberg on Coughlin January 24, 2008

I imagine some of you will be entertained by Goldbergs’ writing on Father Coughlin, the wildly popular priest of the Great Depression who was pushed into obscurity when he thought he had more power than he did.

This is as good a place as any to tackle the enduring myth that Long and Coughlin were conservatives. It is a bedrock dogma of all enlightened liberals that Father Charles Coughlin was an execrable right-winger (Long is a more complicated case, but whenever his legacy is portrayed negatively, he is characterized as right-wing; whenever he is a friend of the people, he’s a left-winger). Again and again, Coughlin is referred to as “the right-wing Radio Priest” whom supposedly insightful essayists describe as the ideological grandfather of Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter, and other putative extremists.  But Coughlin was in no meaningful way a conservative or even a right-winger. He was a man of the left in nearly all significant respects. ….[page 137]

…In October 1931, in a fiery speech against laissez-faire economics, Coughlin declared that America’s problems couldn’t be solved “by waiting for things to adjust themselves and by eating the airy platitudes of those hundreds of so-called leaders who have been busy assuring us that the bottom has been reached and that prosperity and justice and charity are waiting ‘just around the corner.’” His favorite villains were “international bankers” and similar ilk. Donations and letters poured in.

He excerpts more of his views on Coughlin at the link above.  I offer below an excerpt from one of Father Coughlin’s radio broadcasts:

Establishing my principles upon this preamble, namely, that we are creatures of a beneficent God, made to love and to serve Him in this world and to enjoy Him forever in the next; that all this world’s wealth of field, of forest, of mine and of river has been bestowed upon us by a kind Father, therefore I believe that wealth, as we know it, originates from natural resources and from the labor which the children of God expend upon these resources. It is all ours except for the harsh, cruel and grasping ways of wicked men who first concentrated wealth into the hands of a few, then dominated states, and finally commenced to pit state against state in the frightful catastrophes of commercial warfare.

Following this preamble, these shall be the principles of social justice towards the realization of which we must strive:

1. I believe in liberty of conscience and liberty of education, not permitting the state to dictate either my worship to my God or my chosen avocation in life.

2. I believe that every citizen willing to work and capable of working shall receive a just, living, annual wage which will enable him both to maintain and educate his family according to the standards of American decency.

3. I believe in nationalizing those public resources which by their very nature are too important to be held in the control of private individuals.

4. I believe in private ownership of all other property.

5. I believe in upholding the right to private property but in controlling it for the public good.

6. I believe in the abolition of the privately owned Federal Reserve Banking system and in the establishment of a Government owned Central Bank.

7. I believe in rescuing from the hands of private owners the right to coin and regulate the value of money, which right must be restored to Congress where it belongs.

8. I believe that one of the chief duties of this Government owned Central Bank is to maintain the cost of living on an even keel and arrange for the repayment of dollar debts with equal value dollars.

9. I believe in the cost of production plus a fair profit for the farmer.

10. I believe not only in the right of the laboring man to organize in unions but also in the duty of the Government, which that laboring man supports, to protect these organizations against the vested interests of wealth and of intellect.

11. I believe in the recall of all non-productive bonds and therefore in the alleviation of taxation.

12. I believe in the abolition of tax-exempt bonds.

13. I believe in broadening the base of taxation according to the principles of ownership and the capacity to pay.

14. I believe in the simplification of government and the further lifting of crushing taxation from the slender revenues of the laboring class.

15. I believe that, in the event of a war for the defense of our nation and its liberties, there shall be a conscription of wealth as well as a conscription of men.

16. I believe in preferring the sanctity of human rights to the sanctity of property rights; for the chief concern of government shall be for the poor because, as it is witnessed, the rich have ample means of their own to care for themselves.

These are my beliefs. These are the fundamentals of the organization which I present to you under the name of the NATIONAL UNION FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE. It is your privilege to reject or to accept my beliefs; to follow me or to repudiate me.

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  • SMB

    Coughlin is a good example of how Catholic Social Teaching can take you in other directions than ‘left’ or ‘right’ (in the current American parlance). His views are typical of Corporatism in the 1930s, which influenced such diverse figures as Mussolini, Salazar, and FDR.

  • M.Z. Forrest

    I would agree – I’m not sure I would say corportist so much though – that labeling is difficult although to some it seems awfully important. The problem I have with Goldberg is that he seems to be interpreting everything through a libertarian framework and calling that libertarian framework ‘right’. It doesn’t seem to be a particularly good demarcation point, and in discussing Depression era political philosophy doesn’t seem to be a particularly relevant measure.

  • Blackadder

    Granted that being a non-libertarian isn’t sufficient to make one left-wing, it’s hard for me to see under what valid standard Father Coughlin wouldn’t be described as a man of the left.

  • Morning’s Minion

    There’s nothing wrong with corporatism, and Quadragesimo Anno remains as valuable today as in the 1930s. The fact that Mussolini and Coughlin exploited it and pushed in in statist, nationalistic, and racist directions does detract from that. I believe FDR’s approach was the right one: it prompted the “Great Compression”, 3 decades of strong growth and low inequality– before the retrograde ‘Reagan revolution’.

  • Kurt

    One needs to date any quotes of Coughlin. Without a doubt he came on to the scene as a progressive and ended as a right winger, making a rather rapid transition. He started his radio career as a children’s programmer — a lot of “lets all be friends stuff.” He moved to an adult audience, denouncing the KKK for its racism (courageous but also smart as the KKK was so anti-Catholic). He then moved into politics supporting FDR and had become in the public mind a liberal political commentator. But he rapidly changed his views and certainly made common cause with those who were considered ‘right wing’ at the time. Contrary to what many people believe today, he also lost his popularity as he moved to the right. Sure, there was a little lag time, but basically it was a downward spiral. It is simply a popular misunderstanding of history to amalgamate the public understanding of him to a single place on the political spectrum and a single level of public attraction.

  • M.Z. Forrest

    This is making a pretty bold premise of FDR’s liberality. For his time, FDR wasn’t all that liberal. The first New Deal was grossly tepid. It came on the heals of Hoover’s impotence, a point at which it was nearly and universally agreed, the recovery was no longer just around the corner. The left at that time was communist. Real socialism was gaining support.

  • Blackadder


    Hoover got 39.7% of the vote in 1932. Presumably those people were not to the left of Roosevelt. FDR got another 57.4% of the vote, leaving 2.9% for other candidates. Saying that FDR wasn’t a liberal because he was to the right of around 3% of the electorate doesn’t strike me as being terribly plausible.

    But assume for a moment that FDR was some kind of centrist. Would you say the same of Huey “Share the Wealth” Long? Cause that’s who Coughlin supported after he broke with FDR.

  • Kurt

    Well, all I can say is “Clear it with Sidney”.