Kelly J. Baker, “Gospel According to the Klan” (2011)

Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. (U Kansas P, 2011).

Like most significant historical works, this one makes important contributions in two ways: historical and theoretical. Baker not only sheds new light on the history of religion in 20th-century America, she also offers a compelling new model for scholarship in the field. Not bad for a dissertation book.

First, the history. Baker’s bold thesis declares that we can’t understand the KKK “revival” of the 1920s without understanding the movement’s Protestantism. That is, the KKK of the 20s was a thoroughly Protestant movement. Mainstream, “normal” Protestantism motivated and fuelled the Klan’s nativism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, gendered ideology, and white supremacy. The KKK didn’t “twist” or “distort” Protestantism for its own ends, but created an Invisible Empire of white knights as the last “manly” defenders of an imperiled Christian nation. And in the 20s, millions welcomed these protectors and their “twin messages of nation and faith” (6). Drawing on the Klan’s print culture and, to some extent, their material culture, Baker employs an ethnographic method to unpack the movement’s presentation of Protestantism, nationalism, white masculinity, white femininity, racial purity, and anti-Catholicism. As just one fascinating example, she discusses how the Klan’s iconic white robes and conical “hoods” functioned as part of its racial ideology. Klan photographs tended to show large groups in which everyone appears in white robes. The robes thus magnified whiteness and showed the racial homogeneity of the group. But the hoods also gave anonymity, protecting members from those who would persecute them for supporting the cause of the white race (189). In the eyes of members, the robes did not inspire fear (with their ghostlike appearance) or to make it easier to conduct violence anonymously. The white robe bolstered particular ideas about the persecution of white America, and encouraged concerned men to step behind it in order to protect their race.

Now, the theory. The Gospel According to the Klan also presents a new model of “engaged scholarship” (see 30). Like the best topics in our field, the 1920s Klan sits at the intersection of several important theoretical debates and enlarges our understanding of each. Baker attempts to “see with” the Klansmen and Klanswomen of the 1920s, to “take seriously” their perspective on the world. In this respect, Baker’s project resembles many other ethnographic works that use thick description to generate sympathy with their subjects. But, for Christ’s sake, this is a book about the KKK—and Baker never lets readers forget that. In some respects, this group doesn’t warrant sympathy, and certainly Baker does not want to create uncritical sympathy for their positions on race, gender, or nationalism. Rather, she insists that it is possible to be a careful ethnographic historian without resorting to mere description: “Seeing with the Klan does not mean that we have to like its rhetoric, agendas, or politics, nor does it mean that we need to avoid criticism and analysis” (240). In short, it’s possible to take our subjects “seriously” without pandering to their white supremacy, for example. More still, Baker demonstrates that we don’t need to check our politics at the door to write our histories effectively. Avoiding facile comparisons with the contemporary political right, Baker nonetheless shows how conservatism’s self-image as defenders of an embattled (white) Christian America resonates deeply with the perspective of the Klan. More than that, she argues that the 1920s Klan forms the historical bridge between nineteenth-century nativism and twentieth-century political conservatism. The point here is not to create straw villains out of her political enemies, but to show that ordinary people, even Christian people, can “commit heinous acts without evil intentions and …can promote a worldview founded on intolerance even as they describe its tolerance” (238).

Review by A.T. Coates