Category Archives: Gospel According to the Klan

An interview and an Atlantic piece

Kristian Petersen, New Books in Religion, interviewed me about Gospel According to the Klan about a month ago. Happily, that interview is now available in podcast form for anyone who might be interested. This was a wonderful interview, and I highly recommend that other scholars jump at the opportunity to chat with Kristian. Here’s a teaser for the podcast:

In our conversation we discuss the importance of print culture, the communal act of reading, Jesus as the ideal Klansman, the symbolic meaning of the robes, cross, and flag, and the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK). We end our discussion by looking at the Klan’s legacy of exclusionism and conservatism as a widespread characteristic of American society and how this is manifested in contemporary culture through figures like Terry Jones, who gained notoriety with his call to burn the Qur’an. Kelly does an excellent job of encouraging scholars of religion to reexamine our subjects and tackle issues that make us uneasy and uncomfortable. These topics and individuals are as much a part of religious history as the figures we would want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with.

The interview happened to coincide with my piece for the Atlantic (!) about a Georgia Klan’s attempt to adopt a highway, the rhetoric of love and inescapability of the order’s legacy of hate. Here’s an excerpt:

Last week, a local chapter of the International Keystone Knights of Ku Klux Klan proposed adopting one-mile stretch of highway in north Georgia. The possibility of Klan members picking up roadside litter and getting credit on a highway sign provoked as much confusion as outrage. One reporter asked, “Is the latest effort to adopt a highway an introduction of a new era of a kinder, gentler Klan or merely an effort to gain attention?”

In public statements, the group’s leaders signaled that volunteer work was part of their message of love. “We love the white race,” April Chambers, secretary of the Georgia Klan, told a local television correspondent. “Why is that so hard for people to understand? But we don’t hate anybody!” In a quote at CNN’s In America blog, Frank Ancona, the imperial wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan echoed that sentiment, portraying the Klan as “a fraternal organization” that commits “good works.”

Benevolence, love, and volunteering seem out of place with hoods, robes, and burning crosses. But what may surprise many is that these statements are consistent with the larger history of the Klan, wherein declarations of love are intimately bound to the Klan’s better-known gospel of hate. That paradox holds the key to understanding both the order’s past popularity and its continuing inability to halt its decline.

All-in-all, it was a pretty good end to last week. Now, if I can only meet my deadlines on other projects…

 

Klansmen, Zombies, End Times, Oh My!

Over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, there is a “thorough” interview with me on Gospel According to the Klan, methods and pedagogy. There is also a good dose of apocalypticism and zombies minus any discussion of recent spate of news stories about face-eating. Here’s an excerpt:

How did you get started on researching Gospel According to the Klan?

This project grew out of my personal experiences growing up in the South, as well as a natural outgrowth of my academic work. I grew up in a small town in the Florida panhandle. Back in the 1990s, when I was in high school, there was a Klan rally in a nearby town. What I found most interesting about this was the nervousness that everyone seemed to feel, and display, about it. Not just that there might be violence (as it was also said that the Black Panthers planned a rally simultaneously in this same town), but also the attempt to tamp down the tawdriness of the reputation of the Klan, as it might get attached, or re-attached, to these people and places. “It’s in the past… it’s behind us,” was the basic attitude. While many people wanted to nostalgically hold onto some parts of the Southern past, the Klan represented a part of that past from which they wanted as much distance as possible. 

As a scholar of religion, I’ve been intrigued by the ways in which groups like this tend to be understood in my field of study. It is often assumed that religious people we do not like are relatively easy to figure out and are thus not worth a lot of study, whereas people we do like are worth knowing more about. More, we tend to assume that ‘bad people’ equate to ‘bad evidence’ that necessarily invokes skepticism, while ‘good people’ equate to ‘good evidence’ that we can take at face value. I’m interested in studying and understanding not only the “unloved groups” themselves, but also how we tend to think about them, how we reify such groups and how so doing obscures much more than it tells us analytically. So, in writing Gospel According to the Klan, I wanted to produce a study that unsettles academic norms as to what counts as acceptable research subjects. What objects are worth study? What are not? Where do we draw those lines? What’s at stake when we do so, when we categorize things as ‘good data’ or ‘bad data’? Quite often these judgments tell us more about the researchers who made them than about their actual subjects.

Read more at the Bulletin blog. Cross-posted from Religion in American History.


Review Redux: Gospel According to the Klan

Available at booksellers everywhere, pretty much :)

Well, folks, believe it or not, Gospel According to the Klan has now been out for three months, and slowly, the book is getting some reviews mostly online and at some news outlets. They are mostly good, (and sometimes they are tough). Additionally, I am still getting used the prospect of people reading (and buying) my book. So, here’s what folks are saying:

Michael J. Altman, Remembering When the Klan Tried to March Through Town:

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.

(I feel like that line should be attached to all promotional materials. I included an image of the cover as a quick reminder of why that might be the case.)

Ina Hughs, Two New Books Offer Peak Behind the Klan’s Sheets, Knoxville News Sentinel

From Baker’s perspective, the Klan has a convoluted and somewhat misunderstood past. She puts a lot of focus on the religious implications of its history and the role religion plays in nationalism.

Kevin Boyle, The Not-So-Invisible Empire, New York Times

At the end of the book, though, Baker steps back from her texts. Suddenly her analysis becomes more pointed. Yes, the Klan had a very short life. But it has to be understood, she contends, as of a piece with other moments of fevered religious nationalism, from the anti-Catholic riots of the antebellum era to modern anti-­Islam bigots. Indeed, earlier this year, Herman Cain declared that he wouldn’t be comfortable with a Muslim in his cabinet. It’s tempting to see those moments as Pegram does the Klan: desperate, even pitiful attempts to stop the inevitable broadening of American society. But Baker seems closer to the mark when she says that there’s a dark strain of bigotry and exclusion running through the national experience. Sometimes it seems to weaken. And sometimes it spreads, as anyone who reads today’s papers knows, fed by our fears and our hatreds.

Kenny Paul Smith, A Brave New Book, Religion Nerd:

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….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.

Not too bad so far, I think. I’ll post other reviews and commentary as they become available. Please feel free to post or send any feedback on Gospel directly to me. I would love to hear what other readers think, feel, like, hate, etc. about the book.

 

The Birth of Glenn Beck’s Nation (Or the Long Goodbye)

Over at Religion Dispatches, I guest blog about Glenn Beck’s last show on Fox, his nationalism, and his telling of American history. Here’s an excerpt:

Beck’s mantle of telling history like it really “was” is packaged, glossy, and consumed. Yet this mantle, or even legacy, does not solely belong to him. The struggle to reclaim the nation, or “restore honor,” began long before he, the John Birch Society, Joseph McCarthy and the like joined it in the mid-twentieth century. Americans, from the Reconstruction Klan in the 1860s, the Know Nothings of the 1890s to the second Klan of the 1910s and 1920s, to home-grown Christian fascists of the 1930s, sought to protect a nation in peril from any perceived threat, be it Catholic, Jew, African American, or Communist.

In my particular area of the study, the 1920s Klan, the Knights, recruited members with both warnings of a nation in decline as well as a vision of a fabled white Protestant America, which could be recaptured, recreated, or even relived through their efforts. This nation needed defenders to protect citizens and to uplift the historical legacy of the nation. Klan leaders and newspapers provided a history of the fabled nation-state, which emphasized the Puritans, early white colonists, the Founding Fathers, and former Presidents (there are some notable absences in this reconstruction). Their jeremiads proclaimed a fragmentation of white Protestant social order while narrating a pristine, coherent history. In this way, the Klan mobilized millions of white Protestant men and women to join the order, wear robes, and burn crosses.

This desire, to narrate a certain kind of America, a certain kind of history, and defense of the nation from its despisers, binds Beck to a much longer history of intolerant nationalism than current media coverage regularly admits. (Though, Gary Laderman asks this question in a different way, when discussing the “the death rattle of the white Protestant male.”) Beck’s approach to history is a continuation of these previous attempts. He, like others, wants to protect the nation from its people and protect its people from the encroaching diversity, language of tolerance, and social fragmentation.

 

Westboro Baptist Church vs. the Klan: HNN Op-ed

So, it begins. Gospel According to the Klan officially arrives on the shelf a short two three months (math isn’t my strong suit) from today. In honor of its forthcoming publication, I have an op-ed up at the History News Network today on the protest and counterprotest at Arlington Cemetery on this past Memorial Day between the (in)famous Westboro Baptist Church and none other than a Virginia branch of Ku Klux Klan. Before anyone asks, no, I cannot make either of these movements bend to my will, so I didn’t set this up. Sometimes, I just get lucky when the news cycle moves into my scholarly territory. The question driving the op-ed is: Why does the news coverage of this event need a moral authority/arbiter/winner in the jockeying between WBC and the KKK?

Here’s a preview:

What does make the recent Arlington protest newsworthy is the presence of surprising counter protestors, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).  While WBC protestors held up signs proclaiming “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Mourn for Your Sins,” and identifying President Obama as the Beast of Revelation, the Knights of the Southern Cross (Virginia) passed out small American flags to mourners.  The Knights, led by self-proclaimed Imperial Wizard Dennis LaBonte, protested the WBC’s anti-troop message.  In a sense, some media outlets were stumped by the face-off of two derided, defamed, and unloved groups.  While WBC traces the history of the independent Baptist church back to 1955, the presence of the Klan in the American historical landscape can be traced back much further.  The KKK first appeared in the 1860s with the Reconstruction Klan and emerged time and again in twentieth (the 1910s-1920s, 1950s-1960s, and 1980s) and now the twenty-first century with the rising presence of white supremacists after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency (2008).  Unlikeability is perhaps the kindest way to discuss the WBC and the KKK, but that term obscures the violence, physical and rhetorical, that both enact.  Both are grouped under the label “hate movement,” which account for the surprise at the KKK’s stance against the WBC.

Yet, it is only on the surface that KKK and the WBC appear similar.  While the WBC gleefully notes the anger/hatred of God for the American nation in relationship to sexuality, the Klan, in each of its incarnations, embraces and promotes a white Christian nationalism.  The nation for the Klan is sacred, and it requires constant vigilance to guarantee America’s status as the nation among nations, divinely ordained and guided.  The 1920s Klan, in particular, further believed that God played an active role in American history, siding with white Protestants as the “true” chosen American people.  While WBC’s protests equate dead soldiers with divine punishment, my historical work on the 1920s Klan showcases the order’s long attachment to the nation as well as the fear, not glee, that Americans could face divine retribution for declining social values.  Of course, the Klan’s vision of nation still remains strictly limited to citizens with white faces, “correct” religious faith, Protestant Christianity, and heterosexuality.  Unlike the WBC, the order’s patriotism demonstrates its deep attachment to the nation and mythologized American freedoms and values.  Soldiers emerge as dually important for the Klan because of their role in the protection of the U.S. and the ability to honor individual Klansmen’s military service.

Continue reading here.