Is Fox News host Glenn Beck our own Father Charles Coughlin, the "radio priest" who railed against Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s?
That's become a common refrain among liberals, who hear echoes of Coughlin in Beck's attacks on President Obama. Conservatives recoil at the charge, of course, noting that Coughlin vilified Jews. No matter what you think of Beck - who joined Fox in January and already draws more than two million viewers every evening - he's no anti-Semite.
But he's also no Coughlin, whose attacks on poverty amid plenty would surely earn him the label "leftist" - or even "socialist" - on Fox News today. Indeed, before he descended into Jew-baiting, Coughlin's chief target was economic inequality. And that's what's missing from the rants of Glenn Beck and his fellow commentators on Fox, who have managed to make me nostalgic for the days of . . . Father Coughlin.
Let's be clear: Coughlin was a kook, not just an anti-Semite. He claimed the Great Depression was caused by a conspiracy of international bankers who undermined America's sovereignty and economy. After briefly supporting Roosevelt, Coughlin condemned him as a tool of these corporate moguls and - most bizarrely - as a communist.
But Coughlin also indicted free-market capitalism, which had left millions without work or homes. Then, as now, Coughlin's native Detroit had the highest unemployment of any major American city. In the cold Michigan winters, jobless men shivered on bread lines or huddled in soup kitchens. To Father Coughlin, it was sinful - not just unfair, but a crime against God - for the poor to suffer while others prospered.
Consider the stated principles of Coughlin's ill-fated National Union for Social Justice, which he founded in 1934. "I believe in upholding the right to private property, yet in controlling it for the public good," Coughlin declared. He went on to demand the nationalization of "public necessities," including the banking, oil, and natural-gas industries.
Coughlin also included a shout-out for progressive taxation, particularly in the event that America went to war. "For the defense of our nation and its liberties, there shall be a conscription of wealth as well as a conscription of men," he wrote.
Most of all, Coughlin insisted, federal policy should aid the least fortunate. "I believe that the chief concern of government shall be for the poor," he said, "because the rich have ample means of their own to care for themselves."
Now, close your eyes and try to picture Glenn Beck uttering any of these lines. You can't. Like Coughlin before him, Beck hints at conspiracies of unnamed forces - both inside and outside government - that are somehow to blame for our economic morass. But we never hear him talk about the most desperate victims of the crisis, or what the rest of us might owe them.
In March, for example, Beck took to the airwaves to suggest that the Obama administration was plotting a fascist coup. "We are a country that is headed toward socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest dreams," he thundered.
Beck went on to rehash a rumor about the Federal Emergency Management Agency setting up concentration camps, noting darkly that he had been unable to debunk it. "If you have any kind of fear that we might be heading toward a totalitarian state, look out," Beck concluded. "There's something going on in our country that ain't good."
He's right. But it's got nothing to do with fascism or FEMA. It's hard times, plain and simple. And times are hardest for the poor, whom Father Coughlin - despite his conspiratorial fantasies - never forgot.
That's the key difference between Coughlin and his modern-day descendants on Fox News. Of course, Beck & Co. pose as defenders of the "common man" and the "average American." But the average American still has a roof over his head and food to eat. The poorest Americans don't.
"What happened to the country that loved the underdog and stood up for the little guy?" Beck asked his growing TV audience in March. It's easy to imagine Father Coughlin asking the same thing. In response, though, he raged against an America that let some citizens flourish while others starved.
Too bad Glenn Beck doesn't. In this narrow sense, I wish Beck were more like Father Coughlin. With Beck and Fox News, you get all of Coughlin's paranoia, but none of his concern for social justice. And that's bad news for all of us.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth.
Republished with permission from the History News Network.