In January 1940, eighteen members of the Christian Front were arrested for conspiracy to assassinate members of Congress. Police found weapons and bomb-making materials. Coughlin distanced himself from the group, but his exile to the political fringe was accelerating. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, Coughlin’s harping on international conspiracies ran afoul of both wartime sentiment and the Justice Department’s tolerance for criticism of the government.
Threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act, Coughlin and his superiors in the church agreed that he should retire from radio and close his newspaper. He returned to being a parish priest, serving quietly (for the most part) for the next quarter-century. He died in 1979, and was buried at the church in Royal Oak, whose construction had launched his career.
Viewed against the backdrop of Coughlin’s clout during the Roosevelt years, the influence of today’s cadre of conservative critics seem tame. The priest was too hot to handle. Even as FDR privately fumed about Coughlin’s invective and influence, he studiously avoided discussing him in public. Roosevelt never returned fire directly, and was careful not to make Coughlin a martyr or play to his already well-developed sense of persecution. This was not only principle but realpolitik in action: FDR legitimately feared alienating Coughlin’s Catholic following, some of whom already harbored suspicions about the New Deal.
As for the ultimate root of Coughlin’s appeal, perhaps no one summed it up better than the philosopher John Dewey. Writing in the 1920s at the dawn of electronic mass communication, Dewey foresaw that the new technology carried with it the power to divide and “atomize” society, with individual constituencies increasingly replacing the shared sense of community. As Coughlin’s biographer Donald Warren observed, the broadcaster thrived by “projecting qualities of populist sincerity and trustworthiness while providing a forum for violence-provoking political expressions.”
Reading or listening to Coughlin’s speeches, it is clear that entire chunks of text could be transposed to the present day almost without alteration; his extended laments about “the uncrowned princes of Wall Street,” for instance, and the influence of “banksters,” whose interests the government protects while the great masses look for work; or his calls to abolish the Federal Reserve and his claims that radicals had infiltrated the government. Even his strident attacks on Roosevelt as a “liar,” a “radical,” a “Communist,” and an “upstart dictator” are strikingly similar to the rhetorical assaults on Barack Obama.
In the end, though, the greatest lesson of Coughlin’s career may actually be its limitations. His fiery broadcasts could generate huge ratings, fill cavernous stadiums, and flood Washington with protestors and irate telegrams. At times, he was able to stop major pieces of New Deal legislation in their tracks. But when it came to swaying elections, his influence was practically nil. Perhaps that fact is the Fighting Priest’s most enduring legacy.