In 1936, two Catholics were locked in an indirect battle for the soul of the American Church. One was Fr. Charles Coughlin, a priest in the diocese of Detroit whose weekly radio broadcasts drew an average 40 million listeners and whose monthly magazine, Social Justice, had a million readers.
You could say he was the Glenn Beck of his day.
The other was an obscure convert named Dorothy Day, a freelance journalist whose voluntary association, The Catholic Worker, was three years old and perpetually broke though hanging on, with otherworldly stubbornness, to its mission of living with the poor while serving them.
Who is the Dorothy Day of today?
We don't know yet. But I'd bet there's a woman right now -- or gay teen or new immigrant mastering English -- who is Day's contemporary equivalent. I'd further predict that over time, she will emerge to eclipse Glenn Beck and his legions of rage, shunting them to the destination they're headed for already: a typo-ridden cul-de-sac in the Wiki of History.
Because if the past is any guide, that's what will happen.
Deliciously, Beck tempted that very fate last week when he raised the name of Dorothy Day in the opening installment of a pre-announced attack on Jim Wallis, a progressive Evangelical based in Washington, DC, who has advised President Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Beck placed Wallis at the center of his latest smear-by-wordplay. Too lazy to construct a genuine guilt-by-association, Beck settles for taking his favorite slurs and arranging them in a branching tree, like those diagrams you puzzled over as a child in school while learning about Gregor Mendel, the monk who cross-bred beans to parse genetics.
At the root of many Beck word-trees, like an evil form of Miracle Gro, is "Communism." Or Marxism. He uses the words more or less interchangeably. Needless to say, Beck is less interested in the historical reality of such words, or the set of ideas behind them, than in fusing them like cankers to his opponents.
The method is classic Coughlin: don't settle for mere political disagreement with the president -- in 1936, when Coughlin was ascendant, that was Franklin D. Roosevelt -- when you can call him "anti-God." And don't stop at a veiled anti-Semitism, the tasteful choice in 1939, when you can expose your readers to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
Those tactics worked to gain Coughlin what a newsreel of the day called a "colossal following, which he has welded into the most potent political lobby this country has ever known." And at a time when radio was the sole form of electronic mass media, Coughlin's weekly CBS broadcast was tuned in by nearly a third of the U.S. population.
Meanwhile, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Dorothy Day and a small band of volunteers chopped donated vegetables. They put these into a soup that fed the long line of the hungry that showed up at their door every day. Then they didn't so much as open a shelter as allow as many homeless as they could to share their tenement quarters.
And led by Day and her lucid essays, they published a newspaper called The Catholic Worker. Whereas Coughlin denounced, Day and The Worker announced a philosophy of personalism. It is first and foremost the individual's responsibility, said Day, to take care of a neighbor in need -- not the state's. And in case such personalist logic was too abstract, she lived in a slum for fifty years and made of her life an example.
As people with an unusual level of integrity will do, Day annoyed almost everyone: conservatives, liberals and Fr. Coughlin, whose followers practiced an early form of cross-training on the streets of Manhattan by alternately beating lone Jewish citizens and then solitary sellers of The Catholic Worker.
Of course American Communists, some of them former allies from her pre-conversion days as a writer for magazines like The Masses and The Call, got into the act. They called her deluded for embracing religion and naïve for believing in "half-measures" like labor rights laws.
But Communists formed only one side of an ideological vice pinching Day as the pious practitioner of a radically non-Coughlinite version of social justice.
J. Edgar Hoover had Day investigated in 1941 for suspected Communist sympathies. After FBI agents conducted interviews in Francis Cardinal Spellman's office, they reported that "Church officials believe her to be an honest and sincere Catholic, having entirely given up on Communism." Of course, that didn't stop McCarthyites during the Cold War from calling her "Moscow Mary" -- yet another lame tradition to which Beck is heir. Still, someone should tell him that labeling Day a Communist is a gambit at least 79 years obsolete.
The point is this: no one today lives by the precepts of Fr. Coughlin.
His magazine and movement are long defunct. And the $1 million shrine he built in the depths of The Great Depression in Royal Oak, Michigan, stands, if you know the history, as an Ozymandian embarrassment. Even the authoritarian precincts of the American Catholic Church, which sheltered Coughlin before silencing him in 1942, have been tempered by the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II, which Coughlin predictably railed against in his old age.
Dorothy Day, who died in 1980, is a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Worker newspaper is still published and sold for its original price: a penny a copy. As important, well over 100 Catholic Worker communities exist today around the U.S. and in nine other countries. Volunteers still show up to take personal responsibility for serving the poor and to agitate for a world in which, as Day said, "it is easier to be good."
People are happier, Day believed, when they are good.
The idea is a key part of her enduring appeal, especially to the young, many of whom, she knew, yearn to do something significant, even heroic, with their lives. Living and working at a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality is like taking a grad-level course in what Day called the mystery of poverty: "that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love."
Demagogues like Coughlin and Beck use ever more shrill appeals to cause serious short-term turmoil but, in the process, turn their followers' hearts to stone. Day knew that it is hearts of flesh -- "Oh God, take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh" was one of her favorite prayers -- that give us at least a fighting chance to bring about long-term change.
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