Author: Pegram, Thomas R
Date published: March 1, 2013
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Book Reviews and Notes
Recent historical studies of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan have emphasized the extent to which the Klan movement shared many aspects of mainstream white Protestant culture, including an exclusionary sense of American identity and nationalism. Kelly J. Baker, a religious studies scholar at the University of Tennessee, endorses that overall assessment. But, in Gospel According to the Klan , she insists that historians have insufficiently recognized that an authentic, if uncharitable, devotion to Protestant Christianity infused the beliefs, ritual, and policies of the Invisible Empire after World War I. Rather than employing religion as a screen to hide the hooded order's intolerance, Baker argues, Klansmen embraced Protestantism as an essential component of a white supremacist, anti-Catholic, and paternalistic formulation of American democracy and national culture. The experience of the 1920s Klan, she adds, suggests that intolerance and restrictive definitions of American identity have coexisted with themes of understanding and benevolence in American religious life. Controversial even in the 1920s for their outspoken prejudice, to say nothing of the Invisible Empire's regalia, secrecy, and outbursts of violence, the men and women of the Klan nevertheless sounded a persistent theme in mainstream Protestantism as they claimed that alien religions and cultural forms undermined traditional American institutions, endangered morals and family life, and threatened democracy itself. Despite the fragmentation and decline of the hooded mass movement of the 1920s, Baker contends that the cultural, social, and political concerns evident in the Klan movement (what she calls the Klan "brand" ) have shaped the peculiar defensiveness and themes of outrage so noticeable in the contemporary American right.
Baker's main source for reconstructing the core principles of Protestant nationalism upon which Klan leaders sought to build a mass movement is the extensive collection of newspapers, journals, pamphlets, and addresses published by the Klan hierarchy for its secret membership and potential recruits. The Imperial Night-Hawk and the Kourier , official publications of the national Klan, reflected the priorities of Imperial Wizard Hiram W. Evans. Along with the proceedings of occasional national Klan meetings and selected pamphlets, Evans and the Atlanta-based leadership of the national Klan used these official journals to defend the Klan against criticism and sporadic physical attacks, extol Protestantism as the source of national greatness, define an exclusive variety of Americanism, explain the alien qualities of Jews, Catholics, and African Americans, and whip up sentiment in defense of public schools, against Catholic political influence, and in support of law enforcement, family stability, and moral orthodoxy.
Although local Klan newspapers documented hooded participation in prohibition enforcement and klavern (chapter) records catalogue incidents of moral vigilantism in parts of the nation, Baker does not analyze those actions. Instead, she focuses on how the Klan represented itself, even in hackneyed and sentimental formulas. "To examine Klansmen and Klanswomen in their banality," she contends, "reflects more accurately their understandings of themselves and their membership in the order" (237). Thus Baker guides the reader through Klan tributes to Jesus as a model for Klansmen, lessons in Protestant anti-authoritarianism as examples of individualism and liberty, pleas for manly Christianity, and treacly salutes to self-sacrificing motherhood. Baker also tackles more complex subjects, such as the Klan's definition of whiteness and its obsession with Catholic ritual, hierarchy, and power. Race, culture, and religious heritage all figured in the definition of white identity. After all, Catholic Europeans did not reflect the Protestant virtues marking fitness for citizenship that the Klan viewed as essential for white racial identity. Baker communicates some of the subtle qualities of early twentieth-century perceptions of race. On the other hand, she does not pursue the Klan's evaluation of the overwhelming Protestant identity of African Americans, probably because the printed Klan sources refrain from close attention to that matter. Baker also illustrates the Klan's (and that of the longer tradition of Protestant anti-Catholicism) fascination with the purported power of the Catholic hierarchy over the laity. Borrowing from literary and cultural studies, she makes the interesting but unproven claim that Klansmen were attracted as well as repelled by Catholic power, secrecy, and ritual. A chapter on the fracas between Klansmen and University of Notre Dame students in 1924, one of many assaults on Klan parades in the north, illustrates the Klan's complaint of persecution at the hands of violent Catholics.
Historians will note that Baker's tight focus on Klan publications sometimes results in an absence of historical context. Baker mentions the Men and Religion Forward movement that predated hooded appeals for a masculine Christianity and, in the notes, makes reference to Bruce Barton's portrayal of Christ as a masculine go-getter, but it would be better to set Klan ideas more completely within their cultural context. Similarly, her examination of whiteness drew on the terminology of popular racialists Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard (both of whom influenced Evans) without identifying the full context of racial ideas in the 1920s. More significant for an argument concerning popular Klan ideas is Baker's reliance on elite Klan sources. Although the bibliography lists the minutes of individual klaverns, the voices of ordinary Klansmen and Klanswomen, voices that were often raised in disagreement with the Klan leadership, are largely absent from her analysis. More extensive research into these available sources would allow for a more persuasive argument concerning the popular beliefs and legacy of the Klan movement. The relationship between the Invisible Empire and Protestant ministers also merits closer attention. At times, Baker reveals unfamiliarity with historical sources, mistitling John Higham's classic study of nativism, Strangers in the Land (rev. ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004). Finally, although the book contains several eloquent passages, unorthodox or incorrect diction ("does not abdicate Klansmen," ) and inattentive or repetitious writing at times detracts from Baker's argument. Still, Baker is right to emphasize the centrality of Protestantism to the 1920s Klan and her observations about the persistence of intolerance in American religious and political belief are interesting and important. Readers from many disciplinary backgrounds will find Gospel According to the Klan useful.
Loyola University Maryland