So…this was an alarming book. At first it was just weird with names for Klan leadership like Imperial Wizard, Grand Dragon, and Exalted Cyclops popping up like a bad sci-fi/fantasy novel. But this is no fantasy, and the Klan is not a fringe movement of the past. Like, I knew the KKK was still a thing, but I had no idea how deeply rooted and widespread the Klan’s beliefs were/are. If you are a white American of Christian faith, especially if you consider yourself patriotic (God and Country and all that jazz)…you need to read this book. Just know that what you’re going to hear will (or should) make you feel *very* uncomfortable.
Title – Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930
Author – Kelly J. Baker
Page count – 264 (And it’s a heavy topic. I had to read pretty quickly because of library due dates, but I would recommend alternating with something light and definitely fictional.)
Goodreads rating – 4/5 stars (really liked it)
The author was incredibly non-judgmental throughout the book. Her approach was to present the beliefs, narratives, and documents of the Klan in a straightforward manner and allow the reader to absorb the information and see patterns for themself. It wasn’t until the Conclusion/Afterword that she drew, well, conclusions and made connections between beliefs of the Klan and our modern-day culture. The book covers the Klan’s Protestantism (and exclusion of Catholics and Jews), nationalism (“Take Christ out of America, and America fails!”), notions of proper masculinity and femininity, and biblically-based racial purity/white superiority.
Most people think of the Klan as a fringe movement of the past whose main motivation was plain old race-based hatred of African Americans. I know I did. Baker has done extensive research on the Klan of the 1920s. What she found is that their motivating principles were actually quite mainstream and generally based on widely-held Protestant religious beliefs (which is not to say that race didn’t play a significant role – it did, but that deserves its own book). The alarm really set in as I began to realize how the Klan’s beliefs never actually left when the “official” Klan diminished. Like a disease, their motivating principles have seeped out and thoroughly infected modern white political discourse. (If you’re at all familiar with Evangelical Christianity, you will probably recognize many of these patterns from that tradition as well.)
Consider: A “true American” must be deeply committed to the Protestant faith, and a “true Christian” must hold a deep patriotic loyalty to the United States of America. Men and women have strictly separate and distinct roles in society. Immigration of non-white Europeans is what’s leading the nation to ruin (and stopping that immigration will bring the nation back to its former glory). “Mixing of the races” is something to be avoided and a threat to the purity of the white race.
These ideas are not new and, as the recent election fallout has made quite clear, in many places they have not faded. And the centrality of these principles to the Klan’s belief system should make you seriously and thoughtfully question what your motivations are if you hold these (or similar) beliefs.
Here’s why it is important to not only study movements like the KKK but to avoid dismissing their use of religion as a motivator:
“The religion of the Klan should be seen as religion. The religious systems of the hate movement, believable or not, influenced their members and often supplied divine mandate…To recognize how these religious systems placed race, nationalism, and gender in the realm of the ultimate is not only necessary to comprehending how these groups function but also to know how best to counteract similar movements.” (p. 30)
Some additional writing from Kelly J. Baker: