Randall J. Stephens responds to Kelly J. Baker’s essay, “The Artifacts of White Supremacy,” which is featured in the June issue of the Forum. Baker’s essay considers how discussions about racism—and white supremacy in particular—tend to treat it as a matter of belief, while there’s considerably less talk of how racialized hate becomes tangible and real. And yet, we know the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest hate group in the U.S., by their hoods and robes. Artifacts signal (and often embody) the racist ideology of the Klan, along with their particular brand of Protestantism and nationalism. Robes, fiery crosses, and even the American flag were all material objects employed by the 1920s Klan to convey their “gospel” of white supremacy. The Klan’s religious nationalism, its vision of a white Protestant America, became tangible in each of these artifacts, and each artifact reflected the order’s religious and racial intolerance. Nationalism (or “100% Americanism”), Protestant Christianity, and white supremacy became inextricably linked in these material objects. Examining the historical artifacts of white supremacy helps us to better understand how white supremacy manifests today and might also help us better identify and analyze the presence and effect of racism in American life and politics.
Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Baker’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.
- Jason C. Bivins (North Carolina State University), “What am I afraid of?“
- Randall J. Stephens (Northumbria University), “The Klan, White Christianity, and the Past and Present“
The Klan, White Christianity, and the Past and Present
by Randall J. Stephens
Kelly Baker rightly reminds us that the second Klan drew deep from the well of white Protestantism and nationalism. The organization’s fierce religious bigotry and xenophobia appealed to millions of Americans in the 1920s. The era marked by social experimentation, prohibition, a new morality, nativism, and drastic social change witnessed the rise of America’s most notorious homegrown brand of fascism. Klansmen and women, Baker notes, celebrated hearth and home, white America and patriotic nationalism, or “one hundred percent Americanism,” as they put it. “The maintenance of white supremacy,” says Baker, “becomes particularly obvious in the artifacts that white supremacists, like the Klan, create and use.” The American flag, the hood and robe, and the burning cross were their symbols of choice.1
Particularly interesting is Baker’s observation about the Klan’s nationalistic fervor and its use of Old Glory. “Under the Star-Spangled Banner, Americans might claim unity,” Baker remarks, “but the Klan’s unity was narrowly limited to those people they thought qualified as truly American—only white Protestants.” It seems to show how quickly American jingoism can, and still does, shade into ethnic hatred and violence. It is too easy to dismiss the Klan as part of a bygone era, un-American, a bump on the road to greater tolerance and acceptance. Efforts to contain the Klan or explain it away fail to take stock of its American-ness and its enormous appeal, though its numeric strength did drastically diminish by the late 1920s. Over 40 years after the movement’s heyday, the historian Kenneth T. Jackson argued that the neat dichotomies used to make sense of the KKK and the 1920s—rural vs. urban, religious vs. secular, wet vs. dry—obscured as much as they revealed. “The prevailing notion that tolerance and acceptance are more easily spawned in the heterogeneous environment of a large city than in a smaller community,” he wrote, “is at best too simple, and perhaps mistaken.”2
Christians in America may not like to acknowledge how influential the Klan was or how the group made strong connections between faith and racial/ethnic purity and God and country. “Religion remains a prominent part of the Klan,” contends Baker, “though many would like to pretend that it’s not.” The popular film Birth of a Nation (1915), which so inspired the second Klan, featured a concluding scene with a white, radiating Christ in Anglo-Saxon heaven. Such obvious links between white supremacy and Christianity, and others made by millions of Americans in the 1920s, cannot be wished away. Still, violence, so goes the logic, is something associated with non-Christian faiths. Or as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and other shouting heads from the echo chamber of the Right might put it, such people are not “true Christians.” A 2017 report from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that “50 percent of Americans in general say that violence in the name of Islam does not represent Islam—75 percent say the same of Christianity.” There is a clear double standard at work. “White mainline Protestants (77 percent) and Catholics (79 percent),” claimed the PRRI, “reject the idea that true Christians act violently, with 41 percent and 58 percent respectively being willing to say the same of Muslims.”3 Such popular perceptions keep Americans from coming to terms with the real presence of homegrown, vicious religious extremism.
But the similarities and direct connections between religion and the Klan were anything but imagined. In the 1920s, America’s most famous crusading fundamentalist, Billy Sunday, made some efforts to keep his distance from the Klan. But Klansmen tended to see the revivalist as a kindred spirit. Without cozying up too much to the organization, Sunday found ways to praise the robbed terrorists. Other traveling preachers like Bob Jones, Alma White, B. B. Crimm, Charlie Taylor, and Raymond T. Richey lauded the white supremacist groups in their sermons and publications. Billy Sunday’s ardent prohibitionism, biblical literalism, and nativism made him particularly attractive in the eyes of Klan members. In 1922 a South Bend, Indiana, newspaper cracked a bleak joke about their mutual affection. “Down in West Virginia the other day,” an editor noted, the Klan “slipped Billy Sunday the sum of $200. With Sunday’s O.K., that ought to put the K.K.K. in good standing with old St. Peter.”4 Sunday returned the favor with kind words about Klansmen who lent a hand in police vice raids. The revivalist would accept other larger-than-average donations from the Klan at revivals in Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana between 1922 and 1925. In Richmond, Indiana, Klansmen showed up to give him their donation decked out in all their full regalia. Fittingly, in 1923 a Klan-supporting editor in Texas rhapsodized: “I find the preachers of the Protestant faith almost solid for the Klan and its ideals, with here and there an isolated minister . . . who will line up with the Catholics in their fight on Protestantism, but that kind of preacher is persona non grata in most every congregation in Texas.”5
The creeds, dogmas, and hymns of the KKK often made the religious, even evangelical, links quite explicit, though some historians have dismissed direct connections between the two camps.6 One Klan song was meant to be sung to the tune of the standard church hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.” The adapted anthem was copyrighted by George Bennard and Homer A. Rodeheaver. The latter, Billy Sunday’s partner and touring music evangelist, would have received royalties from the revised version. The second verse and chorus of the “The Bright Fiery Cross” drew on sentimental, evangelical imagery and allegiance to the cause:
To the Bright Fi-ery Cross, I will ev-er be true;
All blame and reproach gla-dly bear,
And fiend-ship will show, to each Klans-man I know;
It’s glo-ry for ev-er we’ll share
So I’ll cherish the Bright Fiery Cross
Till from duties at last I lay down;
Then burn o’er me a Bright Fiery Cross,
The day I am laid in the ground.7
The Ku Klux Klan was founded over 100 years ago, mixing white Protestant nationalism, moral purity, and virulent xenophobia. The organization might be numerically weak today, with loose patchwork factions, but its legacies of religious prejudice and ethnic hatred live on into the present. The extreme rhetoric and careless actions of candidate and now president Donald Trump make that crystal clear. (The ubiquitous MAGA red hats are a new artifact of white nationalism, Baker suggests.)
White evangelicals voted at a rate of 81% for a president who fueled his political career on birtherism, demagoguery, and violent rhetoric. Not surprisingly, in 2010 the Pew Research Center revealed that “a higher proportion of white evangelical Protestants say Obama is a Muslim than any other religious group surveyed; 29% hold this view today, up from 20% in 2009.”8 By these harsh lights, Donald Trump was a courageous truth teller. Key leaders of the evangelical fold justify the president’s severe and immoral policies with surprising ease. The evangelical pastor Franklin Graham assured the press that the president’s proposed immigration ban was in the interest of national protection. Graham, the high priest of court evangelicals, prayed at the president’s inauguration. For Graham, and millions of other white evangelicals and fundamentalists, Trump checks all the right boxes on abortion and national sovereignty—and, most importantly, he is not Hillary Clinton. Accordingly, a trainload of villainies pass believers’ inspection. Still, the rise in racist violence, the intimidation of immigrants, and the abuse of religious minorities, have shocked many Americans into recognition of the desperate problems of our age. The continuities with the country’s checkered past are all too apparent.9 ♦
Randall Stephens is an Associate Professor and Reader in History and American Studies at Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. He is the author The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Harvard University Press, 2008); The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, co-authored with physicist Karl Giberson (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011); and editor of Recent Themes in American Religious History (University of South Carolina Press, 2009). His current book project is The Devil’s Music: Rock and Christianity Since the 1950s (under contract with Harvard University Press). Stephens has written for the Atlantic, Salon, Raw Story, the Wilson Quarterly, Christian Century, the Independent, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and the New York Times. In 2012 he was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway.
* Header image: A group of Klansmen posed in worship in front of a burning cross | Library of Congress
- Joshua Rothman, “When Bigotry Paraded Through the Streets,” www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/second-klan/509468/, December 4, 2016 (Accessed on 6/20/2017). ↩
- Kenneth T. Jackson, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930 (1967, reprint; Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), 234. ↩
- Betsy Cooper and Daniel Cox, “Americans’ Double Standard on Religious Violence,” www.prri.org/spotlight/americans-double-standard-religious-violence/, February 16, 2017 (Accessed on 6/20/17). ↩
- Lyle W. Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 149. Rory McVeigh, The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-wing Movements and National Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 148. Michael Newton, White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2014), 55-57. Bill Armstrong, “The Tower of Babel,” South Bend News-Times, April 20, 1922, 6. ↩
- Colonel Mayfield’s Weekly, December 8, 1923, quoted in Charles C. Alexander, The Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press), 90. ↩
- See Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 41; and George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 54-55. ↩
- Alvia O. DeRee, “The Bright Fiery Cross: Our Song” (Indianapolis: George Bennard and Homer A. Rodeheaver, 1923). Thanks to Paul Matzko for pointing me to the hymn. See also, Danny O. Crew, Ku Klux Klan Sheet Music: An Illustrated Catalogue of Published Music, 1867-2002 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2003), 36. ↩
- “Growing Number of Americans Say Obama is a Muslim,” www.pewforum.org/2010/08/18/growing-number-of-americans-say-obama-is-a-muslim/, August 18, 2010 (Accessed on 6/20/2017). ↩
- “Hate in America,” www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/12/hate_in_america_a_list_of_racism_bigotry_and_abuse_since_the_election.html (Accessed on 6/20/2017). ↩
These articles have been descriptive but not diagnostic. What they say is true, but not very useful in moving toward change. Why do supposedly Christian people not only fail to love these neighbors but practice and feel justified to hate them? Is it only compartmentalization, their economic and political interests not consulting what is supposedly the basis of their lives, their faith? Do they not read or accept those portions of the Scripture which teach otherwise? Please move beyond describing the symptoms to diagnosis of the illness and prescribing for a return to true Christian health.
I think the author was a little too quick to conclude a link between the Klan and Christianity. Individuals and groups have always been trying to exploit religion for their own ends. European kings, with the help of corrupted state clergy, would falsely claim that the Bible gave them a “divine right” to make war on their Christian neighbors. Hitler appealed to German Christians by pointing to the atheism of his main rival, the Communists, while claiming he was a Christian even though he never intended on worshipping a Jew. Like the Klan, the Nazis tried to create an alternate form of Christianity to fit their beliefs by making the absurd claim that Jesus was actually a northern European. Ironically, this was similar to the racist appeals of Obama’s “pastor,” who asserted Jesus was, in fact, black. And like the Klan, the Nazis would use the cross to promote its ideas. Hitler even continued to put the old imperial slogan “God is with us” on his soldiers’ belt buckles. However, he had no more intention of following Jesus’s “Golden Rule” than the Klan.
It might be helpful to understand what message the Klan was trying to convey with its use of the cross. Where they honoring this holy symbol? No, they were burning it. Why? Well, they knew that Southern blacks were mostly devout Christians, who sincerely believed its core ideas that we are all descendent from the same original couple and, that unlike animals, we were all made in God’s image. So they burned the cross to say not even Jesus will protect you from us. They tried to wage a similar psychological war against blacks by wearing white robes and hoods at night believing blacks were particularly superstitious and therefore more afraid of ghosts.
Yes, there were huckster preachers back then similar to the tele-evangelists today staging fake healings, but remember the commandment against blasphemy, taking the Lord’s name in vain, was not so much in what you said when you accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer, but using His name for your own self-interests, like the Klan.
Great article, thanks for it. I truly can’t see how these racist “Christians” (then or now) relate to Jesus – you now that guy that hung out with the marginalized, the questionable, the outsiders, empathized with Samaritans (foreigners), etc.