New book exposes ugly episode of American Catholic intolerance
"Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front" by Charles R. Gallagher. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2021). 336 pp., $29.95.
There was a dark side to American Catholicism in the 1930s and 1940s. Even though many in the church showed compassion for their fellow citizens, others lashed out against Jews, communists and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hate, hostility and conspiracy infiltrated the clergy as well as the laity.
Virulent evidence of this hate came from a priest named Charles Coughlin. Each week, Father Coughlin railed against those that he castigated as un-American on a national radio program that reached millions. Although Father Coughlin didn't speak for most Catholics, there was no denying his influence.
In this new book, Charles R. Gallagher of Boston College tells the story of the "Christian Front," the most violent manifestation of Father Coughlin's rhetoric. The front began in Brooklyn in the late 1930s and caught fire in the Irish community of Boston in the 1940s.
The book is a compelling read. "Gallagher's 'Nazis of Copley Square,'" writes one early reviewer, "is a potent brew of spy story, detective story and frank, fearless account of how a significant wing of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States spawned a movement aimed at defending Hitler and sabotaging America's war effort."
Admittedly, the title is provocative. There were no brown shirts in the streets of Boston. There's no question, however, that leaders of the front were guided by Father Coughlin and by representatives of the German government. Yes, members of the Nazi Party.
Gallagher starts his story with Father Coughlin's influence over a group of young Catholic conservatives in New York City. They responded to his call for a "crusade" against the "Reds" and the "Jews" -- targets of the radio priest's wrath.
By November 1938, these young men had organized themselves as "the Christian Front." They held rallies to denounce Jews and socialists and support fascist causes.
The militance of the front increased exponentially in 1939. The organization was active in the German American Bund rally held at Madison Square Garden that February.
And in the months that followed, front members harassed and attacked Jews and other minorities in the streets of New York. Appeals to Cardinal Francis J. Spellman and other bishops were largely ignored.
It was, in fact, the U.S. Justice Department that took the lead in curbing the front's anti-American activities. A grand jury convened in December 1939 and that led to the arrest of 17 men for conspiring to overthrow the federal government. Although the 1941 trial did not lead to convictions, the front was discredited in New York as a bunch of "unbalanced cranks."
But the trial did not end the front. By 1943, it had remerged in Boston in a more violent form. Young Catholic thugs who identified with the front were targeting Jews. Their hate crimes increased precipitously throughout the year.
At first, Boston civic leaders were in denial and church officials did nothing. Even Jewish leaders did not speak out for fear of further aggravating the hostility. Thanks to a small cadre of Catholic activists and journalists, however, the violence was exposed in the press and order was restored by the end of the year.
Using a broad cross section of primary sources, Gallagher traces the contours of this tragic chapter in American Catholic history. More important, he shows how evil can flourish even among individuals who claim to embrace Christian values.
"Nazis of Copley Square" is a cautionary tale. History does not repeat itself, but it does inform our policies going forward. We can learn from this forgotten story of how a group of self-proclaimed Christians lost their way.
Gallagher's book reminds us to renew our commitment to the ecumenical and interfaith principles of religious tolerance. Embrace the strangers among us -- that's the true Christian front.
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Walch is a historian of American Catholicism and the author of "Parish School" (2016).