I was in fourth grade when the Klan tried to march through town. At that time I was living in my Dad’s small hometown in southeastern Georgia. I don’t remember how I heard but I remember hearing that a group called the KKK wanted to parade through town. Everyone seemed very worked up about it. As a white boy growing up in the South I knew something about race at that time. Mostly I knew that it signaled some sort of difference but what the difference meant and how it played out, that I was still figuring out. When the Klan wanted to march through that small town I got the feeling that it just embarrassed everyone. There was definitely a racialized social structure to the town–not that I knew what to call it or had a full sense of it. My Mom, Dad, brother and I were staying with my Dad’s parents helping out taking care of my aging and sick grandfather. I remember him getting all worked up over me playing with a black kid from the gravel road at the back of the neighborhood. I remember that while the white kids would go inside each other’s houses and play, my black friend and I stuck to playing on the gravel road. So, like I said, when the Klan wanted to march it embarrassed everyone. It was like that family member at Thanksgiving who has a little too much red wine and begins saying out loud all of the judgments everyone else had kept to themselves. The Klan was just being mean.
This memory cropped up as I read through Kelly J. Baker’s great new analysis of the Klu Klux Klan of the 1920s, Gospel According to the Klan. The Klan I remember trying to march through a small town in Georgia (I don’t remember if they actually did it or whether the town stopped them) is far removed from the Klan of the 1920s. During the second revival of the Klan that Baker outlines the “Invisible Empire” was not an embarrassment, except maybe to the writers of the Christian Century. Rather, they were a group of white Protestants defending America against the perceived threats of Catholicism, immigration, and inferior races.
The strength of Baker’s book is her analysis of Klan periodicals. She is at her best when she delves into the ways the Klan represented itself to itself. That is, when these periodicals outline the ideal Klansman or Klanswoman to their readers. From their use of the cross and other Christian symbols to their goal of reuniting the disparate strands of Protestantism, the 1920s Klan was a deeply Protestant cultural phenomenon. While most people see the Klan as a group of racists and then work backwards from there to their religion, Baker starts with their Protestant nationalism and works forward. Thus, rather than seeing racism draped in religion, Baker reveals religion whose logical ends are racist, exclusionary, and hateful. The Klan emerged as a force of Protestant nationalism that united Protestant Christianity with Americanism. The “100% Americanism” that emerged stood as call for men and women to defend their country from invasive forces.
I wonder, though, how the 1920s Klan and its defense of Protestant America connects to the other movement among conservative Protestants in the 1920s, Fundamentalism. Baker notes that the KKK drew on members from the Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Methodists, and Presbyterians. These are the same folks that were fighting over evolution and biblical criticism. The Scottish common sense philosophy underlying Fundamentalism seems to be at the bottom of Klan theology as well. The defense of American morality read as pure Protestantism ties these two movements together. Baker stresses that the Klan must not be marginalized in our narratives of American religious history and I totally agree. What better way to put them into a central part of the narrative than place them alongside Fundamentalism during the period? The book would make an interesting read alongside George Marsden’s classic Fundamentalism and American Culture, for any of you planning seminar syllabi.
That said, Baker’s book is an extremely important work. Her analyses of gender, nationalism, and material culture are strong and useful for anyone looking for a model. Furthermore, her use of the periodical literature and analysis of representation and rhetoric offers me a model for my own work with representations of Hindus and Protestants in my sources. The chapters hold their own as individual readings and can be put to use in a number of undergraduate courses while the book as a whole ought to be a part of any seminar on race or nationalism and religion.
Just take the dust jacket off if you read it on an airplane–I discovered that the hard way.
[Image via Wikimedia. In this photo shot October 1987 in Jackson County, Ohio. Farmer William Donta holds an M1 Carbine, he had a KKK ralley, and a cross burning on his private property in Jackson County, Ohio.(Photo/Paul M. Walsh)]