When the United States opened its doors to new immigrants, both Jews and Catholics responded in large numbers – and soon discovered that old prejudices had immigrated too.
Immigrants have come to the United States for many reasons, including the promise of being able to practice their chosen religion without interference from the state. Yet, as many new immigrants would discover, while the US Constitution might protect religious practice, it can’t prevent prejudice from taking root in American soil.
Jews weren’t the only religious group to experience subtle and not so subtle discrimination. When Catholics from Ireland and Germany began to arrive in great numbers during the mid-1800s, some religious and political leaders of the Protestant majority openly fretted that the “Papists” would be loyal to the pope and not their new country. The anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement rose to prominence in the 1850s, and even though it was soon overshadowed by the slavery issue that led to the American Civil War, the movement’s “anti-foreigner” stance would reappear in the 1920s with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which also targeted Jews and blacks.
Immigration reached its peak during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Joining the “huddled masses” of Jews from Eastern Europe were Catholics from Italy and Poland. Ironically, the newcomers were often looked down upon by the Jews and Catholics who had arrived before them and were now respectable members of the American middle class.
The various immigrant groups responded differently to the challenges of starting life in a new land. While most Jewish parents enrolled their children in American public schools, hoping the youngsters would become Americanized as quickly as possible, many Catholics chose a different path. Unhappy with the Protestant influences found in American public schools, they built a system of private Catholic schools for their offspring. In these schools, they taught the tenets of their faith, which included the canard that all Jews were responsible for the death of their deity. Thus, even though American Catholics had to learn to tolerate a more ethnically diverse Church than they were accustomed to in their respective “Old Countries” – as well as make peace with an American political system that promoted religious freedom and individual expression – anti-Judaism remained an integral part of the education they passed on to their children.
But historian David Gerber, author of Anti-Semitism in American History, calls this “ordinary” anti-Semitism – private prejudices that played themselves out in the workplace, schools and universities, and neighborhood streets – as opposed to state-sponsored. It was only in the 1930s that a Catholic-led “extraordinary” anti-Semitic movement threatened to become a significant force in the American political scene.
While American bishops enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy when it came to local affairs, they viewed the international political developments of the early 1930s through the same lens as the Vatican: communists were a bigger threat to Catholics and the Church than the Nazis. However, this didn’t mean that all American Catholics were indifferent to what was happening in Nazi Germany, especially as time went on. Kristallnacht, for instance, elicited two very different responses.
For example, Father Maurice Sheehy, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Education at Catholic University and assistant to the Catholic University rector, organized a radio broadcast just a few days after Kristallnacht that featured several prominent American Catholic clergyman and lay leaders. Their message was that the German violence against the Jews was immoral; not only was it against Church teachings, it was also against American principles.
At the other extreme was the radio broadcast of Father Charles Coughlin, a popular “radio priest” from Michigan, who, on his Hour of Power program, defended the Nazis claiming they had acted to protect their country from the communists, who were allegedly controlled by Jews.
Coughlin, who was born and ordained in Canada, was part of a conservative movement called the Basilian Order, whose goal was to return the Church to its theological roots. In particular, the Basilian Order advocated against usury, which the Basilians thought was the cause of all modern social ills. Although Coughlin left the Basilian Order in 1918, he continued to speak out against the “Shylocks” who had grown “fat and wealthy” under capitalism and who supposedly controlled world financial markets. When communism became a threat during the 1920s and 1930s, he railed against atheistic Jewish communists as well.
Anti-Semitism On the Air
Coughlin might have been considered a small-town crank, except for one thing: his radio broadcasts were listened to religiously by tens of millions of people. At the height of his popularity and influence, he reportedly received around 80,000 letters a week, more than the president of the United States. His audience was comprised mainly of working- and lower-middle-class Americans, people who had lost their jobs or their farms during the Great Depression or who were trapped in low-paying jobs.
During the 1932 campaign for president of the United States, Coughlin endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he believed was the only candidate able to stop communism from gaining a foothold on American soil. After Roosevelt was elected, Coughlin avidly supported FDR’s New Deal program to jumpstart the depression-stalled American economy. But the relationship soured after Coughlin didn’t get a seat in the new president’s cabinet. Not only did he become one of Roosevelt’s fiercest critics, he also helped form the National Union for Social Justice, which ran its own candidate during the 1936 presidential election. In theory, the Union was open to all Americans, regardless of race or religion – at its peak it could claim more than seven million members – but its rhetoric clearly implied that Jews weren’t welcome, not in the movement and not in America. When his party won just 900,000 votes nationwide during the election, Coughlin became despondent.
But after Roosevelt’s economic policies showed signs of faltering, while fascism seemed to be succeeding in Europe, Coughlin decided to try again to capture the hearts and minds of the American public – although by the end of the decade, Coughlin had firmly aligned himself with the extreme right. He exhorted his loyal followers that the only cures for the twin evils of democracy and capitalism was fascism and an authoritarian government. He also lent his support to the Christian Front, which was established in 1938 to purportedly fight against the communist threat. In reality, the group’s members, who were mainly Irish Catholics living in the New York City area, engaged in violent assaults on Jews, choosing women, children, and the elderly as their targets.
The Vatican Steps In
While Coughlin’s supporters during his heyday numbered in the tens of millions, not all Catholics supported him. But not everyone who spoke out against him did so because of his anti-Semitism. More common were the protestations of Catholics like the wealthy businessman and politician Joseph Kennedy, who was a strong supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Kennedy was an anti-Semite himself. After Kristallnacht, he wrote in a letter to aviator and fellow anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh that his main concern was that the violence against the Jews would result in bad publicity for the Nazis. But while Kennedy may have agreed with Coughlin about the Jews, he was willing to sacrifice Coughlin to help get Roosevelt re-elected in 1936, because he needed Roosevelt’s support to further his own political ambitions. Although he realized America wasn’t yet ready to accept a Catholic president, Kennedy hoped to run as Roosevelt’s vice president. When that didn’t work out, he transferred his dreams to his sons – a dream that was finally realized in 1963 when John F. Kennedy become America’s first Catholic president.
Coughlin’s anti-Semitism wasn’t an issue for Roosevelt or the Vatican. But by the 1930s the Catholic vote was important enough for Roosevelt to want to silence Coughlin’s diatribes against him and his administration, and to do this he was willing to make a deal with the Vatican. As for the pope, Pius XI, he wanted to reestablish diplomatic relations with the United States, which had been broken off with the demise of the Papal States in 1870. When the Italian government agreed in 1929 that the Papacy could have its own sovereign city-state in Rome, Vatican City, many countries established diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The United States wasn’t one of them, due to the strength of anti-Catholic sentiment at home.
Kennedy and Bishop Francis Spellman arranged for Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) to visit the United States in the fall of 1936. During that visit, Pacelli met with Roosevelt, who agreed to send a US representative to the Holy See. While it was assumed that the Vatican would silence Father Coughlin in return, it didn’t happen. Pope Pius XI still believed that Coughlin was an effective tool against the communist threat and he refused to intervene. It was only when Cardinal Pacelli became pope in 1939 that the Vatican withdrew its support of Coughlin. Perhaps it was no coincidence that it was only then that Roosevelt made good on his 1936 promise and sent a “personal envoy” to the Vatican.
America Goes to War
One Catholic group that did protest Coughlin’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and had wide support from the American Catholic hierarchy was the Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism, which was founded in May 1939. A few months later it changed its name to the Committee of Catholics for Human Rights, because its mandate was to resist all forms of racism. However, it continued to issue statements opposing anti-Semitism until it was disbanded when the United States entered the war.
Coughlin, though, refused to be silenced. In addition to blaming the Jews for America’s economic woes during the Great Depression, Coughlin blamed the Jews for the war in Europe. In his radio broadcasts and publications, he advocated for an isolationist policy. Even after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, he denounced the entry of the United States into the war.
This last stance proved to be too much for the U.S. government, which began to investigate Coughlin’s activities. The Christian Front was shut down in January 1940 after the FBI discovered it intended to murder Jews, communists and congressmen, as well as establish in the United States a dictatorship similar to the one in Nazi Germany. While Coughlin wasn’t among those who were arrested, in 1942 he was forbidden to use the US Postal Service to distribute his publications. That same year the new head of the Catholic Church in Detroit, Archbishop Edward Mooney, ordered Coughlin to desist from non-pastoral activities or risk being defrocked. Coughlin, whose popularity was on the decline, desisted.
It Didn’t Happen Here
Catholics like Father Coughlin weren’t the only threat during this period. For instance, Fritz Julius Kuhn, head of the Nazi-affiliated German American Bund, managed to attract a crowd of 20,000 Nazi sympathizers to a rally held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1939.
But once the United States entered the war, most Americans – whether they were Irish Catholics, German Protestants, or Eastern European Jews – joined in the war effort. But that didn’t mean the end of anti-Semitism, which continued to be a problem during the 1940s and 1950s. However, it was “ordinary” anti-Semitism, to borrow historian David Gerber’s phrase. The days when an admirer of fascism and a Nazi apologist such as Father Coughlin could dream of winning the White House were over.
Next: How did the post-war establishment of the State of Israel affect the relationship between Jews and the Church? We’ll find out in Part IX of this series.
“Catholic and Jewish Immigrants,” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University.
“Charles E. Coughlin,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“History of Antisemitism in the United States,” Wikipedia.
“Roman Catholics and the American Mainstream in the Twentieth Century,” Julie Byrne, Dept. of Religion, Duke University, National Humanities Center.
“The 1930s: When Irish Catholics Changed America,” Irish America, June 2007.
“The American Catholic Church and Kristallnacht,” the Catholic University of America, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
“The Catholic Church,” Jewish Virtual Library.