An Old Resentment

‘Nazis of Copley Square’
Fr. Charles Coughlin, 1933 (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Francis P. Moran hardly seemed the sort to become a Nazi agent. He was a devout Irish Catholic from Boston and a former student at a Franciscan seminary, well known for his patriotism. But in 1935, he lost his job at the John Hancock Life Insurance Company after friction and possibly a scuffle with a boss who was a Jewish war veteran. Twenty-six years old, handsome and articulate, he was adrift in the midst of the Depression.

Moran latched onto Fr. Charles Coughlin’s radio preaching, which spread a politics of resentment that was hugely popular among Boston’s Irish Catholics and spellbound a large audience across the country on Sunday afternoons. Moran soon became a Coughlin political operative, then found his niche as head of the Boston chapter of the Christian Front, a national organization of “platoons” that Coughlin created and then backed away from after the FBI arrested seventeen members of its Brooklyn chapter in 1940, alleging a nascent terrorist plot.

The German consul in Boston, Herbert Scholz, noted Moran’s activism and the large audiences he was drawing as an effective public speaker. Scholz was no ordinary diplomat: he was an SS man, with close ties to SS chief Heinrich Himmler. Moran was an ideal asset for Scholz, who hoped to build on the anger that Irish Catholics, an important voting bloc, held against the British for their mistreatment of Ireland.

Moran’s story is the heart of this well told, expertly researched, and much-needed history of the Christian Front, an organization that presages today’s far-right activity. Charles R. Gallagher, a historian at Boston College, skillfully documented his account with records from Freedom of Information Act requests and from dozens of historical archives. As the narrative builds pressure in the book’s second half, it becomes riveting. I found the result startling.

That was so even though I had already done quite a bit of reading on Coughlin and the Christian Front, for both personal and professional reasons. My personal interest is in trying to understand the journey my German Jewish grandparents and father took in September 1938, when they escaped from the Nazis and moved to a heavily Catholic neighborhood of Brooklyn. Journalistically, I’ve been interested in Coughlin as predecessor to today’s far-right Catholic media.

The first three of the book’s ten chapters focus on the better-known story of John F. Cassidy and the fiery Christian Front chapter he led in Brooklyn. It leads to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s January 1940 arrests of Cassidy and sixteen other members of the organization’s Brooklyn unit on charges of seditious conspiracy. The defendants were ultimately acquitted, although evidence at the trial showed they were in the early stage of forming a “Christian” militia, gathering weapons from a National Guard depot and conducting training sessions in the woods.

Gallagher argues that the case, which charged a conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government, should be taken seriously.

At the time and later in historical accounts, the defendants’ alleged plot came to be viewed as a curiosity, unlikely to be carried out. United Press reported that “public opinion was inclined to dismiss as fantastic the alleged plot.” It was called a “playful plot.” Gallagher argues that the case, which charged a conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government, should be taken seriously.

He cites a Fronter’s statement quoted in FBI records: that the defendants planned to “incite the Jewish and Communist elements to revolution and then step in and take over” with the help of a National Guard “permeated with the ideals of the Christian Front.” It may still be far-fetched, but not to those imbued with the “political surrealism of the paranoid fringe,” a phrase Gallagher borrowed from historian Rick Perlstein. This dynamic is much clearer now in the aftermath of a plot to commandeer a presidential election through a raid on the Capitol.

The case fell apart. Gallagher writes one reason it failed is that the jury forewoman, Helen Titus, was the first cousin of one of the Christian Front’s most important supporters, Fr. Edward F. Brophy. Another reason, Gallagher argues, is that the prosecutor decided not to refer to religion during the trial. U.S. Attorney Harold Kennedy had met pre-trial with Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Molloy and a Brooklyn priest, Fr. Edward Lodge Curran, who was the East Coast man for the Midwestern Coughlin. Gallagher implies that an agreement was struck at that meeting such that prosecutors would insulate the Catholic Church from any connection to the Christian Front during the trial.

To Gallagher, this was a serious fault; the role of religion in catalyzing the defendants’ movement went unaddressed in the prosecution’s case, leaving a hole where the motive belonged. Gallagher, a Jesuit priest, contends that Catholicism—through its theology of the Mystical Body of Christ, doctrine of Catholic Action, and the “anti-Semitism latent in the story of deicide”—provided Coughlin and the Christian Front with an intellectual foundation and a source for popular appeal. Coughlin weaponized the Mystical Body teaching to marginalize Jews and to marshal mainstream Catholicism against what Gallagher calls the “Jewish-Bolshevist myth.”

Gallagher may have overstated the role of legitimate Catholic theology in the Christian Front’s rise and underplayed the impact of the bitter economic rivalry between the Irish and Jews in Depression-era New York. The two groups battled for political influence and patronage—which the Irish controlled until Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s election in 1933—and for middle-class jobs. In that atmosphere, Coughlinism was as an incendiary device. With their “Buy Christian” boycott of Jewish businesses, hostile street rallies, and thuggish confrontations with opponents, Cassidy’s Christian Fronters were ready to light the fuse.

As a Brooklyn Catholic, I’m struck anew that the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn carries a heavy and still unacknowledged responsibility for enabling the Christian Front, both within New York City and nationally. As Gallagher notes, two of its priests, Fr. Curran and Fr. Brophy, played leading roles in spreading Coughlinism. Its newspaper, the Tablet, was a Coughlin favorite. Its longtime editor, Patrick Scanlan, was Coughlin’s biggest cheerleader in the Catholic press. Unchallenged, this gave the impression of ecclesiastical approval for Coughlin’s rants.

Clerical support gave cover for Catholic teaching to be used to justify not only anti-Judaism but outright anti-Semitism

Clerical support gave cover for Catholic teaching to be used to justify not only anti-Judaism but outright anti-Semitism, Gallagher maintains. He discovered an unpublished 1940 essay in which Protestant theologian Paul Tillich wrote about his fear that “the Fascist type of clerical anti-Semitism” would do just that—and this was “the type of Father Coughlin and the ‘Christian Front.’” Gallagher writes that through then-popular Catholic Action, the support of priests like Curran and Brophy gave the anti-Semitic activity of the Christian Front the sheen of a lay apostolate.

The book’s narrative sags a bit as Gallagher explains all this, but the story becomes a page-turner when it comes to a groundbreaking investigation of Moran and the Christian Front in Boston. The anti-Semite priests of Brooklyn continued to be players; they visited New England to provide Moran with the clerical cover he needed. On October 24, 1941, Fr. Brophy addressed Christian Front leaders at the Westminster Hotel in Copley Square, declaring that Coughlin “has striven at all times to link up the scattered forces of the Mystical Body of Christ into a single battle line so that with united force, we might remain unwavering against the common enemy.” Gallagher continues: “Brophy did not have to specify who that enemy was, but, going off-script, he explained the obvious. ‘How can any of us today trust the Jews,’ he shouted, ‘when Jesus couldn’t?’”

In 1941, Moran completed his transition into what Gallagher terms an unregistered foreign agent for the Nazi government, a federal crime that the Boston office of the FBI failed to pursue. Moran became a willing tool for Scholz’s campaign to undermine the U.S. military. He screened a Nazi propaganda film glorifying Germany’s army in action, delighting Joseph Goebbels when he learned of the Christian Front audience. He spread unfounded stories of dismal conditions on Army bases to discourage recruitment. He stoked resentment by claiming meat was served to Catholic soldiers on Fridays but that Jewish troops were given time off for Passover. In later talks, he went further, claiming that Jews were given the soft assignments and that they had profited from selling tainted food to the military—strikingly similar to Adolf Hitler’s lies about Germany’s Jews. Moran became so enmeshed in the Nazis’ cause that he spoke out about which of two competing rifles should be standard for the U.S. Army and Marines, advocating for the rifle preferred by German intelligence.

Moran met his comeuppance through a thirty-something Irish-Catholic Bostonian, Frances Sweeney. She adhered to a “forward-looking Catholicism” in which “anti-Semitism was antithetical to the Gospel’s promotion of the law of love,” Gallagher writes. She was an effective communicator and well connected with liberal intellectuals in Boston; she was a secretary to Marxist literary critic Granville Hicks at Harvard. Sweeney founded the Irish American Defense Association to counter Moran’s Christian Front, scheduling its first public meeting at Faneuil Hall on what turned out to be the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Moran arranged for Fronters to arrive early, fill the auditorium, heckle Sweeney, and storm out—a plan they carried out despite the death and carnage in Pearl Harbor.

Much like Moran, Sweeney was backed by a foreign government—British intelligence funded her work. Unlike Moran, Sweeney had no idea of this. Gallagher writes that Sweeney’s funding came through a contact who had to be “a true friend,” that is, someone she trusted. Gallagher was able to discover much about this covert British campaign in the United States, but he could not come up with proof of the contact’s identity.

Sweeney undermined the Christian Front by supplying leads about its activities to newspapers, especially the Boston Herald. She launched a Rumor Clinic to fact-check false, anti-Semitic rumors, sharing her findings with the press. She prompted a Boston Herald story reporting that the Christian Front sold Nazi propaganda books both before and after the United States entered the war. Much condemnation and a showy police raid followed; Sweeney’s modern publicity campaign had clearly won the upper hand over Moran and the Christian Front. She was ahead of her time. As Commonweal wrote in a story published after her death in 1944—she had a congenitally weak heart—she became “Boston’s one-woman crusade against anti-Semitism.”

Gallagher writes that when the Second Vatican Council spoke out in 1965 against anti-Semitism and the notion of Jewish deicide, “The church of Francis Moran was being displaced by the church of Frances Sweeney.” Coughlin, Cassidy, Moran and the Christian Front left a legacy as well. “In so many ways,” Gallagher writes, “right-wing politics has come around to the Christian Front style.”

Nazis of Copley Square
The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front

Charles R. Gallagher
Harvard University Press
$29.95 | 336 pp.

 

Interested in learning more? Assistant editor Regina Munch also interviewed Charles Gallagher about Nazis of Copley Square for the Commonweal Podcast. You can listen to that episode here:

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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