The Roman Catholic priest, Father Charles E. Coughlin, was a prominent voice on American radio during the Great Depression.  As many as forty million people tuned in to his weekly broadcasts.  He was at first a supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, but later harshly criticized the President's policies, accusing him of "leaning toward international socialism. . . ."  Coughlin's verbal bombast ran headlong into trouble with not only the Roosevelt administration, but also with America's Jewish community, which resented his anti-semitic remarks. The priest claimed that the Depression had been caused by "an international conspiracy of Jewish bankers," and he thought he deciphered a "Jewish influence" behind Russia's Bolshevik Revolution.  At a 1938 rally in New York City, Coughlin flashed a Nazi salute and asserted, "When we get through with the Jews in America, they'll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing."  The recalcitrant priest was eventually forced off radio and was censored in print as well.  Roosevelt viewed him as a divisive figure who would, if given half a chance, jeopardize the war effort.

Joe Klein, pictured below right, who writes for Time magazine, recently accused Glenn Beck,  left, the vastly popular Fox commentator, of "peddling a lot of hateful crap." When Bill O'Reilly came to the defense of Beck, Klein was more emphatic than ever: "No, no, no. He's Father Coughlin trying to delude and entertain the American [people]."  

Beck, another Father Coughlin?  Really?  How so?  Klein did not elaborate upon his statements, but if one is looking for a rational explanation of them, then forget it.  Whether you are a Beck fan is unimportant. The man is not a fascist.  Influenced by Jonah Goldberg's book, Liberal Fascism, Beck loathes fascists, perhaps most especially those masquerading as liberals, who we see and hear in universities and throughout the media these days.  He believes that America is journeying down the road to oblivion. The nation, he is convinced, is losing its culture, its freedom, and its wealth.  What else is new?  It is not as if this is some infernal secret. There is compelling evidence to support it.  How about a national debt that has increased $3.9 billion a day since September 28, 2007, or over $100 billion every month?  But does articulating this point of view make Glenn Beck another Father Coughlin? Not unless one happens to believe that anyone with a big radio or television audience, who is critical of the course America is taking, is a fascist.  Yet that would be a knee-jerk reaction and not critical thinking, right?  And, oh, yes, who is the one spewing the "hateful crap" --Glenn Beck or Joe Klein?  Uhmmm, an interesting question.

I never cease to be shocked by the hypocrisy of those on the left.  They advocate toleration and civility, but caustically slam and discount those with views contrary to their own. They rise up resolutely to protect the world against greenhouse gases while their own leaders, people like President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and former Vice President Gore, think nothing of polluting the environment many times in excess of the average American citizen.  I am reminded of the fact that Gov. Howard Dean not long ago encouraged members of his political party to re-introduce the subject of religion into politics as if this were a significant item on the new Democratic agenda. Yet he subsequently lost much of his momentum when he shared that the Book of Job is his favorite writing of the New Testament (oops, he really meant Old Testament).

My own engagements with the left have, I admit, not been especially productive. An old friend of mine recently read some of my blogs and then allowed that religion and men are the primary problems in the world. What was it the lady said, "religion and men"?  That cut close to the heart, since I am a clergyman.  I politely pointed out to her that perhaps she might like to qualify this broadside. The problems caused by religious folks, I added, have not been nearly so ghastly as those caused by the nonreligious. I mentioned the murderous acts of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.  I likewise pointed out that, although Albert Schweitzer and Thomas Merton were "only" men, they didn't seem too bad by historical standards. My implied suggestion that she be more circumspect before lobbing verbal grenades drew fire as well.  She replied that I had apparently been watching too much "Fox News."  There were too many conversation-stoppers for genuine dialog ever to occur.

Civility begins with a willingness to listen to the other person.  Unwarranted name-calling and wild exaggeration are best avoided.  I fear we in America have reached such a chasm of polarization that civil discourse has become a virtually impossible challenge.  From the perspective of the left, those on the right are a bellicose lot, who trash the environment, disrespect the poor, and thump the Bible in public space.  According to those on the right, left-wingers are pseudo-intellectuals, who are as arrogant and condescending in their public policy formulations as in their one-on-one conversations.  It's as if "Big Brother" always knows best.

I do not claim to know how to close the growing distance between right and left.  A single, unified culture, with a President leading us in respect for it, might help.  This country has been sufficiently fortunate to have had both of these in its past.  But today?  Well, don't ask.

February 5, 2010