Thousands of Bostonians, including many cops, were active members of an antisemitic Catholic fascist organization in the opening years of WWII
No doubt many Greater Bostonians have heard of Father Charles Coughlin, the antisemitic and fascistic priest from Detroit whose weekly radio broadcasts enjoyed a national audience of millions during the 1930s. What’s far less known is an organization that the “Radio Priest” helped to establish in the United States: the Christian Front. The organization, a variant of which originated in Europe, had a sizable presence in Boston. Indeed, the city was the national epicenter of its activities, with the office of the New England chapter housed in a second-floor suite of the Copley Square Hotel on Huntington Avenue.
Charles Gallagher, a Catholic priest and a professor of history at Boston College, valuably excavates this buried past in his new book, “Nazis of Copley Square.” The story he tells is one involving international espionage. It is also one of complicity by elements of the Catholic Church: priests soft-peddled the far-right politics of the Christian Front while providing theological leadership. Meanwhile, the Church hierarchy did nothing to challenge, while often effectively sanctioning, the organization’s hate-filled propaganda.
Key to the front’s Boston-area presence was the politically astute leadership of Francis Moran. The oldest of 11 children in an Irish-immigrant, working-class family, Moran was born in South Boston in 1909, and raised in Dorchester. After dropping out of the seminary as a teenager, he eventually became an insurance salesman, but was jobless by the mid-1930s. Around this time, he became a foot soldier in Fr. Coughlin’s army, first meeting the Detroit-based priest in 1936, during a visit to Massachusetts. Moran worked with Coughlin’s Union Party, which, in railing against Roosevelt and the New Deal, deployed a combination of hardline anti-Communism and dog-whistle-type anti-Semitism.
The Union Party’s relative success in the 1936 election—its candidate received eight percent of the vote in Boston and the second-highest state-level tally in the country—opened new doors to Moran, particularly at a time when many Republicans and Democrats embraced anti-Communism. These opportunities helped Moran accumulate the political capital to lead the Christian Front’s local wing when it emerged in Boston sometime in 1939.
A compelling speaker and skilled organizer, Moran typically attracted hundreds to his public lectures and often many thousands. According to Gallagher, he operated “like a neighborhood political boss crossed with a local parish priest.” Boston provided fertile ground for Moran’s efforts as anti-Semitism was in the air. Many fronters strongly believed in the deicide—the notion that Jews, not the Roman empire, were primarily responsible for the crucifixion of Christ—and blamed Jews for their economic difficulties during the Depression, sentiments that Moran capably exploited. Under his leadership, the Christian Front was soon “booming in New England,” with chapters in Greater Boston cities such as Lynn and Lowell as well as in Hartford, Connecticut and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Much of the rank-and-file membership were people on the socio-economic margins and included “a great many women”—as did many far-right Catholic movements in the 1930s and 1940s, asserts Gallagher. It also enjoyed significant support within Boston’s largely Irish Catholic police force, within organized labor, and among key elements of the area’s political establishment.
Recruited by Germany’s consul general on Beacon Hill with the goal of helping to build support for U.S. neutrality during World War II, Moran would soon become a Nazi agent. We should not make the mistake of perceiving members of the Christian Front as dupes of a foreign government, however. “Fronters” were true believers in the righteousness of their cause. As Gallagher explains, they “saw themselves as the advance guard in a holy war against Communists and Jews”—overlapping categories in their eyes. This helps explain why Gallagher emphasizes that Moran did not embrace Nazism. Instead, he compromised with it “because he thought it was the right thing for a Christian to do” in light of a perceived “Judeo-Bolshevist threat.” Still, the Front’s “theological anti-Communism” was anti-Semitic (as fronters “understood Communism to be a Jewish-led plot against Christianity”). It was also populist, championing a redistributive welfare politics (that provided for Christians in need and the transfer of wealth from Jews to Christians) and that was critical of corporate power.
That Gallagher characterizes the Front’s efforts as a holy war is significant. It manifests his insistence that its theological claims, its Christianity, and its Catholicism in particular, are imperative for understanding the organization. It also speaks to his desire that “we step outside of the grand narrative of American Catholic history,” a narrative of assimilation that emphasizes the gradual transformation of Catholics from a small, persecuted minority in earlier centuries to a large politically significant entity on the national stage by the mid-1900s.
Initially, Moran’s ant-Semitism was, according to Gallagher, of “a more genteel” variety. His doctrinaire Catholicism prevented him from embracing key elements of Nazism—its eugenicist polices, for example, that allowed for abortion for reasons of racial purity. That said, Moran’s anti-Semitism gradually became more blatant, suggesting, for instance, at one of the Front’s many meetings at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury that Jewish businesspeople in the United States were trying to poison U.S. soldiers by selling tainted food to the military. Meanwhile, his work on behalf of Germany became more flagrant, one example being his holding of a public viewing of a German propaganda film celebrating Hitler’s army in action.
If Gallagher’s story is about the dangers of religiously inspired bigotry—and the need to take seriously those who occupy the political fringe—it is also one of the potential for religiosity to counter hate, with Frances Sweeney, the head of the Irish American Defense Association (IADA), the tale’s heroine. It was Sweeney who exposed Moran as a Nazi propagandist; this led the Boston Police Department to shut down the Christian Front’s operation in early 1942, after the United States had entered the war. Sweeney saw it as her duty as a Catholic to fight anti-Semitism. (She, too, was working for a European government. While Moran did it consciously, Sweeney did so unknowingly. Concerned that the Christian Front would prevent the United States from entering the war, British intelligence established and financed the organization to counter Moran’s efforts. A friend of Sweeney’s who was acting on behalf of the British recruited her to lead the IADA.)
One reason it is important to study the history of the Christian Front is that it elucidates the origins of the Christian right in the United States—roots that run deeper than the rise of Evangelical Protestants in the 1970s and 1980s or McCarthyism in the 1950s. Gallagher locates the roots in the Christian nationalism of Moran and his ilk as they helped to inculcate U.S. Americans with “the idea that Christians abhor Communism and that liberals are merely Communists without the guts to say so.”
Another lesson concerns the dangers of censorship. Despite its official disbandment, the Christian Front continued to exist for a few more years, but its activities were necessarily much more clandestine. In this context, Moran’s anti-Semitism became more radical, even sometimes exterminationist, in tone. This contributed to—Gallagher suggests that it caused—a spate of anti-Semitic violence in and around Boston in 1943 perpetrated by young men from Irish Catholic neighborhoods who attacked Jewish youth, and vandalized Jewish-owned businesses and even a synagogue. For Gallagher, this history is a cautionary tale for the United States of today, when many “are grappling with difficult questions about how to police public discourse in an effort to protect vulnerable groups.” But barring individuals and groups from the proverbial public square, he argues, produces a sense of victimhood while giving rise to “icons of grievance, rally points for violent individuals.”
“It is not in the nature of ideas simply to die,” Gallagher writes. These words haunt the reader of his illuminating and compelling book long after one puts it down.
“Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten History of the Christian Front” by Charles R. Gallagher, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021.
Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College. Along with Suren Moodliar and Eleni Macrakis, he is the co-author of “A People’s Guide to Greater Boston” (University of California Press).