A Brave New Book: Kelly J. Baker’s Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930
By Kenny Smith
Dr. Kelly J. Baker is a lecturer in Religious Studies and Americanist Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Seemingly indefatigable, she has written for numerous academic and popular publications, has two additional books and several scholarly articles currently in the works, serves an editor for the award-winning American Religious History blog, oversees panels and groups within the American Academy of Religion and American Studies Association, all the while teaching a full-load of university-level courses each semester, raising a young daughter, and encouraging aspiring graduate students at other institutions.
A glance at her resume suggests a broad range of teaching and research interests: world religions in America, apocalyptic and Rapture-oriented movements, the figure of the zombie in contemporary culture, religious intolerance in the South Park series, and of course, the early 20th century rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and its relationship to “mainstream” American religion and culture, precisely the focus of her new book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011, 326 pages).
Like all good historical work, this book complicates our understanding of the past, and thus also the present, by bringing to light previously overlooked and under-appreciated narratives. Specifically, Baker explores the print and material culture of the early 20th century Klan: for instance, Klan newspapers such as the Imperial Night-Hawk and the Kourier Magazine, Klan robes and hoods, photographs of Klan initiations and gatherings, etc.. Most historical accounts, she explains, present the early 20th century Klan as an extremist movement driven solely by concerns for racial and nationalistic purity, to the obvious and often brutal exclusion of African Americans, Catholics, and Jews. Thus the Klan appears as a paramilitary organization on the margins of mainstream American society, one that had little to do with the dominant religion of the time other than the coincidental affiliation of virtually all Klan participants with one Protestant denomination or another. When we take seriously what Klan leaders and spokespersons actually said, wrote, and did, however, a very different portrait emerges.
The Klan’s political philosophies and practices, Baker argues, were inseparable from their Protestant Christianity. It is not simply the case that Klan leaders made use of Christian symbols and language, but rather that Klan philosophies and activities were predicated upon their understandings of the biblical text and the Protestant tradition. This is evident in what Klan leaders wrote (e.g., that “As the Star of Bethlehem guided the wise men to Christ, so it is that the Klan is expected more and more to guide men to the right life under Christi’s banner” 35), in what they wore (robes featuring crosses), and the rituals they enacted (e.g., erecting crosses, lining up in the form of a cross, reading the biblical text as a mandate for racial purity and superiority).
More, Baker argues that the Klan is best understood not as vigilantes on the fringes of the social order, but as articulating (and implementing) what the majority of white Americans accepted as obviously the case. As Baker demonstrates, the Klan was a broad, demographically and geographically diverse social, political, religious movement that competed, to some degree successfully, for a central position in the national consciousness and mainstream culture.
In helping to tease out this relationship, Baker points to the modern-day case of the Rev. Terry Jones, who in recent years garnered considerable media attention for threatening to burn (and then actually burning) a Qur’an in public. While a relatively small percentage of Americans will themselves publicly burn Qur’ans or join groups that do, studies consistently suggest that Jones’ attitudes toward Muslims reflect the opinions of large portions of the American public. Like Jones’ hatred of Islam, the Klan’s attitudes were mainstream, not marginal.
Perhaps most controversially, the book’s final chapters explore the cultural legacy of the Klan as a “brand or style of religious nationalism,” and inquire as to its relationship to 21st century forms of American conservativism, especially as it appears in the rhetoric of Glenn Beck and the Tea Party. Baker acknowledges that “[b]inding people and movements to the Klan is an effective tool to showcase nefarious intentions and legacies,” and thus should be done with considerable caution. (263) Still, there are important historical continuities. Beck and many in the Tea Party, she points out, express a distinctly Christian nationalism that seems bent upon the exclusion or marginalization of religious/cultural others, and the desire of much media coverage to paint Beck and the Tea Party as located on the fringes of American society recapitulates our long-standing assumptions about Klan history.
I have called Gospel According to the Klan a brave new book. This is so for two important reasons. Firstly, Baker has exposed something about American cultural history that many of us may not wish to see: namely, that both religion and mainstream society participate in the ugly, even violent, side of American nationalism. To reveal this in a clear, detailed, and sustained argument can provoke precisely this ugliness. As Baker explains in the book’s afterword,
I received my first death threat for [while writing for the American History Blog] simply suggesting that Americans need to recognize the place of Christianity and religion more generally in domestic terrorism and the larger hate movement. (252)
Secondly, Baker has also exposed something unpleasant about the rest of us, those who do not concur or sympathize with Terry Jones and feel repulsed by exclusionary religious nationalism (Christian or otherwise): namely, that we have a tendency towards forgetfulness, and towards imagining American history and the American mainstream in ways that reflect our own preferences.