By Eleanor Linafelt
While much of the story of the Christian Front, a far-right, antisemitic and anticommunist movement occurred elsewhere along the East Coast, it had its beginnings in Philadelphia.
Charles Gallagher, an associate professor of history at Boston College, detailed that history in his recent book “Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front, 1939-1945” and during a Feb. 7 webinar hosted by the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University.
Gallagher said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler received a call to his Main Line home in 1935 from Charles Coughlin, the “foremost media priest of the 1930s.”
Coughlin, who hosted a wildly popular antisemitic and anticommunist radio show from Detroit that aired across the country, encouraged Butler to lead Christian soldiers to invade Mexico. He saw the Mexican government as communist and was concerned about Catholics being persecuted.
While the Christian Front itself hadn’t yet been founded, Gallagher said that this “exchange is fascinating and coalesces a number of themes that play out in the book: militarism, paramilitarism, Catholic theology and Catholic grievance claims.”
But Gallagher said he did not want to write a book about Coughlin, who has been the subject of many studies.
“I wanted to write about the foot soldiers who do dirty work for Father Coughlin,” he said. “No one has written about them.”
One such figure was John F. Cassidy, the leader of the Christian Front in New York. After the movement formed in 1939, he hosted a rally in Philadelphia where, as Gallagher recounted, he told his audience of 10,000 that “it’s morally permissible for Catholics to take up arms against communists.”
Cassidy planned to lead a bombing campaign in New York that the Christian Front would blame on communists.
“They thought they would save the nation by creating this plot,” Gallagher said.
While Cassidy’s plot was ultimately stopped by the FBI and he was arrested, the Christian Front persisted.
It moved its operations to Boston, where Francis P. Moran, a leader in the movement, found mentorship in Herbert Scholz, a Nazi based there.
Membership grew, which attracted the attention of British intelligence. One of their agents recruited Frances Sweeney, a devout Catholic dedicated to promoting human rights in Boston, to lead the Irish American Defense Association, which she never knew was a front for British intelligence.
Eventually, under pressure from Sweeney’s organization, the local police detained Moran. He disbanded the Christian Front but moved his operations underground.
According to Gallagher, the fallout of the Christian Front resulted in “gang warfare” against Jews in Boston in 1943.
“Gangs of Irish Catholic youth were attacking Jews, beating them up, not being prosecuted by police and creating havoc and literal riots in the streets,” Gallagher said. “It was immensely damaging.”
Gallagher repeatedly drew parallels to today’s political climate.
“For many years, historians have seen far-right as either ephemeral or having peaks and troughs and not having a sustained impact on American political life,” Gallagher said. “I see it different.”
He made connections between the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump supporters and the actions of the Christian Front. For one, Cassidy wanted his bombing scheme to bring out the National Guard because the Christian Front had infiltrated it.
“After Jan. 6, there were investigations into the National Guard about radical infiltration of the National Guard,” Gallagher said.
In a question-and-answer segment, Gallagher discussed the 1949 Supreme Court case Terminiello v. City of Chicago, which protects antisemitic and other forms of hate speech under the first amendment. Arthur W. Terminiello, who won the case, was a former Christian Front priest.
“That court case solidified protesters in Charlottesville to chant antisemitic chants and for people supporting Trump in Louisiana in 2016 to use antisemitic language,” Gallagher said. “The case is the living legacy of Christian Front antisemitism.”