Early in his radio career, Coughlin was a vocal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. By 1934 he had become a harsh critic of Roosevelt, accusing him of being too friendly to bankers. In 1934 he established a new political organization called the National Union for Social Justice. He issued a platform calling for monetary reforms, the nationalization of major industries and railroads, and protection of the rights of labor. The membership ran into the millions, but it was not well-organized at the local level.
After hinting at attacks on Jewish bankers, Coughlin began to use his radio program to issue antisemitic commentary, and in the late 1930s to support some of the policies of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito. The broadcasts have been called "a variation of the Fascist agenda applied to American culture". His chief topics were political and economic rather than religious, with his slogan being "Social Justice", initially in support of, and later opposing, the New Deal. Many American bishops as well as the Vatican wanted him silenced, but after the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939 it was the Roosevelt administration that finally forced the cancellation of his radio program and forbade the dissemination through the mail of his newspaper, Social Justice.
Coughlin was born in Hamilton, Ontario, to Irish Catholic parents, Thomas J. Coughlin and Amelia Mahoney. After his basic education, he attended St. Michael's College run by Congregation of St. Basil, a society of priests dedicated to education, in Toronto in 1911. After graduation, he felt called to be a Catholic priest and entered the Basilian Fathers, and prepared for holy orders at St. Basil's Seminary, being ordained to the priesthood in Toronto in 1916. He then was sent to teach at Assumption College, also operated by the Basilians, in Windsor, Ontario.
In 1923 a change in the internal life of his religious congregation led to a major shift in his future. The Basilians were required by the Holy See to change the structure of the congregation from a society of common life, on the pattern of the Society of Priests of Saint Sulpice, to one which required them to follow a more monastic way of life, taking the traditional three religious vows. Coughlin could not accept this, and left the congregation, moving to the United States, where he settled in Detroit, Michigan, and was incardinated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit in 1923. After being transferred several times to different parishes, in 1926 he was assigned to the newly founded Shrine of the Little Flower, at that time composed of some 25 families in the largely-Protestant suburban community of Royal Oak, Michigan. His powerful preaching soon caused the parish congregation to flourish.
Coughlin began his radio broadcasts in 1926 on station WJR, in response to cross burnings by the Ku Klux Klan on the grounds of his church, giving a weekly hour-long radio program. His program was picked up by CBS four years later for national broadcast. Until the beginning of the Depression, Coughlin mainly covered religious topics in his weekly radio addresses, in contrast to the political topics which dominated his radio speeches throughout the 1930s. Using the new technology of radio, he reached a very large national audience that extended well beyond his own Irish Catholic base.
Coughlin's strong, even vehement rhetoric in attacking his opponents has often been noted. He set an angry tone that was later picked up by talk radio.
His radio addresses began to communicate a more political message in January 1930, when he began a series of attacks against socialism and Soviet Communism. He also criticized the capitalists in America whose greed had made Communist ideology attractive to many Americans. He warned, "Let not the workingman be able to say that he is driven into the ranks of socialism by the inordinate and grasping greed of the manufacturer." Having gained a reputation as an outspoken anti-Communist, in July 1930 he was given star billing as a witness before the House Committee to Investigate Communist Activities.
In 1931 the CBS radio network dropped free sponsorship after Coughlin refused to accept network demands that his scripts be reviewed prior to broadcast, so he raised money to create his own national linkup, which soon reached millions of listeners on a 36-station hookup.
He strongly endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1932 Presidential election. He was an early supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal reforms and coined the phrase "Roosevelt or Ruin", which became famous during the early days of the first FDR administration. Another phrase he became known for was "The New Deal is Christ's Deal." In January 1934, Coughlin testified before Congress in support of FDR's policies, saying, "If Congress fails to back up the President in his monetary program, I predict a revolution in this country which will make the French Revolution look silly!" He further stated to the Congressional hearing, "God is directing President Roosevelt."
Coughlin's support for Roosevelt and his New Deal faded later in 1934, when he founded the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ), a nationalistic worker's rights organization which grew impatient with what it viewed as the President's unconstitutional and pseudo-capitalistic monetary policies. His radio programs preached more and more about the negative influence of "money changers" and "permitting a group of private citizens to create money" at the expense of the general welfare of the public. He also spoke about the need for monetary reform based on "free silver". Coughlin claimed that the Great Depression in the United States was a "cash famine". Coughlin proposed monetary reforms, including the nationalization of the Federal Reserve System, as the solution.
Among the NUSJ's articles of faith were work and income guarantees, nationalizing necessary industry, wealth redistribution through taxation of the wealthy, federal protection of workers' unions, and decreasing property rights in favor of the government controlling the country's assets for public good. Illustrative of his disdain for free market capitalism is his statement
We maintain the principle that there can be no lasting prosperity if free competition exists in industry. Therefore, it is the business of government not only to legislate for a minimum annual wage and maximum working schedule to be observed by industry, but also so to curtail individualism that, if necessary, factories shall be licensed and their output shall be limited.
By 1934, Coughlin was perhaps the most prominent Roman Catholic speaker on political and financial issues, with a radio audience that reached tens of millions of people every week. Alan Brinkley states that "by 1934, he was receiving more than 10,000 letters every day" and that "his clerical staff at times numbered more than a hundred". Moreover, he foreshadowed modern talk radio and televangelism. In 1934, when Coughlin began criticizing the New Deal, Roosevelt sent Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. and Frank Murphy, both prominent Irish Catholics, to try to tone him down. Ignoring them, Coughlin began denouncing Roosevelt as a tool of Wall Street. Coughlin supported Huey Long until Long was assassinated in 1935, and then supported William Lemke's Union Party in 1936. Coughlin opposed the New Deal with increasing vehemence. His radio talks attacked Roosevelt, capitalists, and Jewish conspirators. Another nationally known priest, Monsignor John A. Ryan, initially supported Coughlin, but opposed his efforts after Coughlin turned on Roosevelt. Kennedy, who strongly supported the New Deal, warned as early as 1933 that Coughlin was "becoming a very dangerous proposition" as an opponent of Roosevelt and "an out and out demagogue". Kennedy worked with Roosevelt, Bishop Francis Spellman and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) in a successful effort to get the Vatican to silence Coughlin in 1936. In 1940–41, reversing his own views, Kennedy attacked the isolationism of Coughlin.
In 1935, Coughlin proclaimed, "I have dedicated my life to fight against the heinous rottenness of modern capitalism because it robs the laborer of this world's goods. But blow for blow I shall strike against Communism, because it robs us of the next world's happiness." He accused Roosevelt of "leaning toward international socialism on the Spanish question". Coughlin's NUSJ gained a strong following among nativists and opponents of the Federal Reserve, especially in the Midwest. As Michael Kazin notes, Coughlinites saw Wall Street and Communism as twin faces of a secular Satan. They believed that they were defending those people who cohered more through piety, economic frustration, and a common dread of powerful, modernizing enemies than through any class identity.
One of Coughlin's campaign slogans was: "Less care for internationalism and more concern for national prosperity" which went well with the 1930s isolationist movement in the United States. Coughlin's organization especially appealed to Irish Catholics.
In 1936, Coughlin helped found a short-lived political party, the Union Party, which nominated William Lemke for President. Coughlin promised to retire if Lemke did not get nine million votes, and when he received only 900,000 Coughlin stopped broadcasting briefly, returning to the air in 1937.
After the 1936 election, Coughlin increasingly expressed sympathy for the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini as an antidote to Communism. He claimed that Jewish bankers were behind the Russian Revolution and that Russian Bolshevism was a disproportionately Jewish phenomenon.
Coughlin promoted his controversial beliefs by means of his radio broadcasts and his weekly rotogravure magazine, Social Justice, which began publication in March 1936. During the last half of 1938, Social Justice reprinted in weekly installments the fraudulent, antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols was a Russian forgery that purports to expose a Jewish conspiracy to seize control of the world.
On various occasions, Coughlin denied that he was antisemitic. In February 1939, when the American Nazi organization the German American Bund held a large rally in New York City, Coughlin, in his weekly radio address, immediately distanced himself from the organization and clearly stated: "Nothing can be gained by linking ourselves with any organization which is engaged in agitating racial animosities or propagating racial hatreds. Organizations which stand upon such platforms are immoral and their policies are only negative." In August of that same year, in an interview with Edward Doherty of the weekly magazine Liberty, Coughlin stated:
My purpose is to help eradicate from the world its mania for persecution, to help align all good men, Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile, Christian and non-Christian, in a battle to stamp out the ferocity, the barbarism and the hate of this bloody era. I want the good Jews with me, and I'm called a Jew baiter, an anti-Semite.
On November 20, 1938, two weeks after Kristallnacht (the Nazi attack on German Jews, Jewish Synagogues, and Jewish-owned businesses), Coughlin, referring to the millions of Christians killed by the Communists in Russia, said "Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted." After this speech, some radio stations, including those in New York and Chicago, began refusing to air his speeches without pre-approved scripts; in New York, his programs were cancelled by WINS and WMCA, leaving Coughlin to broadcasting on the Newark part-time station WHBI. On December 18, 1938 thousands of Coughlin's followers picketed the studios of station WMCA in New York City to protest the station's refusal to carry Coughlin's broadcasts. A number of protesters made antisemitic statements such as "Send Jews back where they came from in leaky boats!" and "Wait until Hitler comes over here!" The protests continued for several months. Donald Warren, using information from the FBI and German government archives, has also argued that Coughlin received indirect funding from Nazi Germany during this period.
After 1936, Coughlin began supporting an organization called the Christian Front, which claimed him as an inspiration. In January 1940, a New York City unit of the Christian Front was raided by the FBI for plotting to overthrow the government. Coughlin had never been a member.
In March 1940, The Radio League of the Little Flower, creators of Social Justice magazine, self-published a book titled An Answer to Father Coughlin's Critics. This publication, authored by "Father Coughlin's Friends," was chiefly written as a source to "deal with those matters which relate directly to the main charges registered against Father Coughlin ... to his being a pro-Nazi, anti-Semite, a falsifier of documents, etc." (preface)
At its peak in the early-to-mid 1930s, Coughlin's radio show was phenomenally popular. His office received up to 80,000 letters per week from listeners. Author Sheldon Marcus said that the size of Coughlin's radio audience "is impossible to determine, but estimates range up to 30 million each week". He expressed an isolationist, and conspiratorial, viewpoint that resonated with many listeners.
The Catholic hierarchy did not approve of Coughlin. The Vatican, the Apostolic Nunciature to the United States and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati all wanted him silenced. They recognized that only Coughlin's superior, Bishop Michael Gallagher of Detroit, had the canonical authority to curb him, but Gallagher supported the "Radio Priest". Owing to Gallagher's autonomy, and the prospect of the Coughlin problem leading to a schism, the Roman Catholic leadership let the issue rest.
After giving early support to Roosevelt, the populist message of "the radio priest" became increasingly sharp attacks on the president's policies. The administration decided that although the First Amendment protected free speech, it did not necessarily apply to broadcasting, because the radio spectrum was a "limited national resource," and regulated as a publicly owned commons. New regulations and restrictions were created specifically to force Coughlin off the air. For the first time, authorities required regular radio broadcasters to seek operating permits. When Coughlin's permit was denied, he was temporarily silenced. Coughlin worked around the restriction by purchasing air-time, and having his speeches played via transcription. However, having to buy the weekly air-time on individual stations seriously reduced his reach, and strained his resources. Meanwhile, Bishop Gallagher died, and was replaced by a less sympathetic prelate.
In 1939 the Institute for Propaganda Analysis used Coughlin's radio talks to illustrate propaganda methods in their effort to support democracy in the book The Fine Art of Propaganda.
After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Coughlin's opposition to the repeal of a neutrality-oriented arms embargo law triggered more successful efforts to force him off the air. According to Marcus, in October 1939, one month after the invasion of Poland, "the Code Committee of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) adopted new rules which placed rigid limitations on the sale of radio time to 'spokesmen of controversial public issues'". Manuscripts were required to be submitted in advance. Radio stations were threatened with the loss of their licenses if they failed to comply. This ruling was clearly aimed at Coughlin, owing to his opposition to prospective American involvement in World War II. As a result, in the September 23, 1940, issue of Social Justice Coughlin announced that he had been forced from the air "by those who control circumstances beyond my reach".
Coughlin reasoned that although the government had assumed the right to regulate any on-air broadcasts, the First Amendment still guaranteed and protected freedom of the written press. He could still print his editorials without censorship in his own newspaper, Social Justice. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the US declaration of war in December 1941, the anti-interventionist movements (such as the America First Committee) rapidly lost support, and isolationists like Coughlin acquired the reputation of sympathy with the enemy. The Roosevelt Administration stepped in again. On April 14, 1942, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle wrote a letter to the Postmaster General, Frank Walker, and suggested the possibility of revoking the second-class mailing privilege of Social Justice, which would make it impossible for Coughlin to deliver the papers to his readers. Walker scheduled a hearing for April 29, which was later postponed until May 4.
Meanwhile, Biddle was also exploring the possibility of bringing an indictment against Coughlin for sedition as a possible "last resort". Hoping to avoid such a potentially sensational and divisive sedition trial, Biddle was first able to arrange a means of ending the publication of Social Justice itself. First Biddle had a meeting with another official in the administration, banker Leo Crowley, who was a friend of Bishop Edward Aloysius Mooney of Detroit, Bishop Gallagher's successor. Crowley then relayed Biddle's message to Mooney that the government was willing to "deal with Coughlin in a restrained manner if he [Mooney] would order Coughlin to cease his public activities". Consequently, on May 1, Bishop Mooney ordered Coughlin to stop his political activities and to confine himself to his duties as a parish priest, warning of potentially removing his priestly faculties if he refused. Coughlin complied and remained the pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower. The pending hearing before the Postmaster, which had been scheduled to take place four days later, was cancelled now that it was no longer necessary.
Despite the end of his public career, Coughlin remained in his position as parish pastor until retiring in 1966. He died in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1979 at the age of 88. He was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan.