A Lesson in Keeping Politics Away from the Pulpit

Politics and the Pulpit Don’t Mix

I first learned, when I was in South America, to keep politics out of the pulpit as much as possible. Despite liberation theology being prominent then and also something I studied in the seminary, a priest friend of mine warned me not to speak politically in my homilies. I later learned how this opens the door to distorting the Christian message. For example, another priest told me that in Brazil some Eucharistic ministers were saying “vote for (naming their candidate)’ instead of the Portuguese ‘Body of Christ’ as they distributed communion. That is disastrous.

However, if I can sum up my refusal to preach in favor of one candidate or against another, I can do it in three words: Reverend Charles Coughlin.

In Catholic circles, no one more symbolizes the disaster of mixing politics and religion than this fiery media priest of the 1930’s. Even today, long after his battle with Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his death in 1979, those in media circles and politics know the legacy of this famous media cleric/politician.

The election of 1936, which turned out to be one of his greatest defeats, demonstrated why using the pulpit to preach about a candidate is never a good idea. You may end up, like him, having to apologize to the President of the United States — twice in one year.

Canadian born Charles Coughlin was a Catholic priest stationed in the Detroit area. His involvement in politics went on for some time before he supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt against Herbert Hoover in 1932. He saw great promise in what FDR offered to the people. During the former New York Governor’s first term in office, however, Coughlin soured on his administration and in 1936, he turned against him while forming a third party: The National Union for Social Justice. One reason may have been the Washburn Hartley act which gave government a stronger hand over public utilities. He also hated the New Deal because he did not believe it gave the workers a livable wage.

As much as he was a Catholic priest and considered conservative at the time, he clearly today would be deep into the radical side of the Democratic Party. Aside from a difference on the sexual morals planks of today’s DNC, his words are right up there with the economics of Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

The Intense Politics of 1936

Labor Day 1936 was obviously a time for all candidates to rally for the vote. Coughlin stumped for William Lemke, the candidate for the National Union for Social Justice and, of course, against Roosevelt. He warned the laborers of the nation they were entitled to a living wage but would not get one until “You take every international banker and either convert him or start a new party. I mean the Boston Tea Party.”

Calling for the conversion of international bankers may have been an early sign of his growing reputation of being against the Jews. All bankers were not Jewish but in anti-Semitic propaganda they were, especially in NAZI propaganda.

Referring to Roosevelt as both an upstart at one time and liar at another, Coughlin, according to reports, even received the ire of the Vatican.

L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, called for Coughlin to stop and even labeled his actions sinful in the Summer of 1936.

“The holy see wants respect of liberty but also wants its clergy to respect the conventions of the court. It is known that an orator who inveighs against persons who represent supreme social authority with evident danger of decreasing respect of the masses for the authorities themselves sins against convention.”

His apology was a kind of backhanded compliment. He lamented his words while he reiterated he was going to fight back against the New Deal and its “apostolate of crackpots.”

In November of 1936, just prior to the election, he blamed the communists, among others, as working to make the “upstart” FDR a dictator in the line of Hitler and Stalin.

“Mr. Roosevelt was the creator of must legislation he was the revivor of the heresy of the divine right of kings and Mr. Roosevelt was the creator in our day that there should be government by men and not government by law.”

By election day, his bishop, Michael Gallagher, suggested he make another apology to the president. Gallagher stood behind his priest after reports the Vatican expressed displeasure with his politicking but it seems that even his patience wore thin. He referred to Coughlin not as a priest or a cleric but a politician and suggested that his political activities would be curtailed after the election.

In fact, Coughlin ended his The National Union for Social Justice party after it failed miserably to gain even a million votes in the final tally. Expecting nine million votes for his candidate William Lemke, he received less than nine-hundred thousand. Roosevelt won all but two states: Vermont and Maine.

‘Social Justice’ and his more radical voice

Coughlin did continue political writing, forming a magazine called Social Justice. However, six years later it closed at the demand of the US Government. Considered anti-American propaganda, the US Postal Service received orders to refuse to deliver it and Coughlin received a threat of investigation for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. He defended himself by saying that he no longer had any ownership of the publication. He left out the part that his parents actually where the sole owners of the fiery periodical.

This may have followed a move by a New York publication PM laying out an eight page expose on why the publication should be considered enemy propaganda. His anti-Semitic rhetoric by then grew much stronger as well. The article included a form to send to the Attorney General calling for an end to Coughlin’s publication. Two weeks later, the United States Postal Service sent out its order. Coughlin responded saying he was no longer connected to the publication but would be willing to defend it if he was summoned to Washington.

Tex Reynolds, a Racine Wisconsin columnist, supported the silencing of the publication calling it “national suicide to keep our mails open to papers like social justice which openly spread axis propaganda, praise our enemies and oppose our efforts to win this war.”

Even then it was not a simple move. Some warned, wrote Reynolds, that if the government could silence the Coughlin’s publication today, tomorrow it could silence the Chicago Tribune.

After this, Coughlin went silent until his retirement in 1965 remaining the pastor of his shrine in Michigan. He began writing again in 1968, railing against the changed sexual morays and the secular bishops. He died in 1979 and Michigan Bishop John Dearden celebrated his funeral. Ironic, because one of the bishops the retired Coughlin railed against was in fact Dearden.

This past election was one of the stormiest including some priests claiming that people put their souls in jeopardy depending on their vote. In my own Archdiocese, Cardinal Seán O’Malley made it clear that he wanted none of that here. However, I knew from my radio background and my studies that walking down the path of mixing politics with the pulpit is at best a bad idea and at worst an awful one.

My parish is surrounded by Harvard University. It is down the street from Boston University and not far from Boston College and public broadcasting powerhouse WGBH. If there is any place I really should not be too political it is here. If I lean one way, I am preaching to the choir and if I lean another I am setting myself up for a backlash. Either way, the focus on Christ is lost. Of course, the lockdown limited the amount of people at Mass anyway.

I did my best to preach only on Christ. I never wanted to encourage a new Reverend Charles Coughlin or to be like him.

Photo: By Cover credit: Keystone — TIME Magazine cover, 15 January 1934, Time magazine archive. [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8957696


Father Coughlin Retiring at 73, AP, Escanaba Daily Press, Escanaba Michigan Apr 17, 1965 p. 8

PM Launches Attack on Coughlin, WNS, Chicago Sentinel April 2, 1942, p.1

Controversial Priest Dies, UPI, Escanaba Daily Press, Escanaba Michigan Apr 17, 1965 October 29, 1979

Rev. Charles E. Coughlin . . .Challenger to the Jews, (AP) Fayetteville Daily Democrat, August 20, 1936 p.1

Organ Founded by Coughlin Barred (AP)Montana Standard Butte, April 17, 1942. p.3

Kissed Hitler, Central Press, Fayetteville Daily Democrat, August 20, 1936 p. 3

Coughlin Calls F.R. an ‘Upstart’ U.S President (AP), Winona Republican Herald, November 2, 1936 p.2

Coughlin’s Union to Cease Activity (AP), Findlay Republican Courier, November 9, 1936, p.1

Radio Priest Apologizes to Roosevelt for ‘Name Calling’ (UPI), July 24, 1936, Piqua Daily Call, p.1

Infernal Lies Says Gallagher (INS), Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Sep 6, 1936, p.10

New Voice for Radio Priest, (AP) Benton Harbor News, October 25, 1968, p.12

1936 Presidential Election, Wikipedia,