GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE KLAN: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. By Kelly J. Baker. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 2011.
This book examines “the prominent place of religion” in the second order of the Ku Klux Klan. Relying primarily on the Klan’s print culture, but also material culture and ritual, it uses an ethnographic approach to construct the Klan “worldview.” Baker argues that the Klan “was not just an order to defend America but also a campaign to protect and celebrate Protestantism. It was a religious order” (6). Scholars typically place the KKK on the “fringe,” but Baker argues that in matters of faith at least, they “were part of the religious mainstream” (11). This is not to legitimate the KKK; rather she challenges religious historians to recognize hidden intolerance and question the nature of American Protestantism, religious nationalism, “narratives of Protestant progress,” and “relationships between religion and race” (10).
The first chapter outlines the broad contours of Klan Protestantism. It “rested on freedom” (41), encouraged tolerance (!), and encouraged members to imitate Jesus—selfless, sacrificing, and brave—and was virulently anti-Catholic. Next she examines the Klan’s construction of a Christian nationalism where “the flag and the cross were artifacts of both religious faith and devotion to the nation” (73). Chapters three and four discuss gender: the “muscular” dimension of Klan Protestantism and the ambiguities associated with femininity (domestic ideologies and the defense of vulnerable women mixed with calls for social and political equality by the women’s auxiliary, the WKKK). Chapter five addresses the Klan’s “theology of whiteness” (164), which claimed “God created race” (178) and thus “racism was divinely mandated” (179). The sixth chapter examines the Klan-Notre Dame riots in 1924.
The book clearly demonstrates the compatibility of the KKK with mainstream Protestantism in the 1920s. But this begs its main conceit: that there was a distinct “Klan Gospel.” Baker rightly observes numerous precedents of central ideas and at one point claims “their methods, not their beliefs make…[the Klan] different from their neighbors” (13). But these “methods” are never clearly differentiated from the broader Protestant milieu, leaving its uniqueness in question—apart from the overt hatred and violence that most Protestants condemned. Perhaps the Klan simply borrowed a vacuous “Protestantism” to justify its existence to themselves and others.
Most important is the book’s observation that even progressive themes like ecumenism and “imitating Jesus” could be twisted to the Klan’s ends; this rightly raises doubts about the causal power historians attribute to theology. But the book’s claims about the Klan Gospel’s lasting legacy—that it contributed decisively to modern conservatism—are less convincing. It is more likely that both drew from the longstanding discourse of Christian nationalism (outlined in David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom) that preceded and outlasted the Klan’s prominence in the 1920s. The book’s tight focus on constructing a Klan worldview presumes a fair amount of background knowledge, making it most helpful to scholars of the Klan and of American Protestantism.
Tim Gloege, Independent Scholar