Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK's Appeal to Protestant America, 1915–1930. Kelly J. Baker. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011.
Article first published online: 17 MAR 2013
© 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
The Journal of American Culture
Special Issue: Love and Romance in American Culture Guest Edited by Maryan Wherry
Volume 36, Issue 1, pages 58–59, March 2013
How to Cite
Dees, S. (2013), Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK's Appeal to Protestant America, 1915–1930. Kelly J. Baker. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011. . The Journal of American Culture, 36: 58–59. doi: 10.1111/jacc.12013_6
- Issue published online: 17 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 17 MAR 2013
Kelly J. Baker's Gospel According to the Klan examines the religiosity of the second Ku Klux Klan, which was active from 1915 to 1930. Baker's book contributes to discussions of religion and intolerance in American history by underscoring the role of Protestant Christianity in the second Klan's ideologies and rituals. In addition, Baker emphasizes the importance of print culture in the development and maintenance of the second Klan's collective identity. By examining written sources produced by Klan leaders, Baker reconstructs the organization's worldview, which reflected prevailing concerns about industrialism and immigration. Ultimately, this text draws attention to the role of religious ideals in discriminatory social movements in the United States, suggesting a nuanced understanding of American religious history should seriously consider the Klan and similar movements.
Historical studies of the Ku Klux Klan have portrayed its members as social outliers, rural or backward people whose white supremacist ideals and violent public displays distinguished them from members of mainstream society. Baker's book advances a line of scholarship countering this notion. Baker's discussion of the role of Protestantism within the Klan emphasizes points of similarity between the beliefs of Klan members and those of non-members from similar geographic, religious, racial and socio-economic communities. For Klan members and many non-members, the national identity of the United States was moored to Protestant tradition. Klan members and others saw threats to their religious and social ideals in the large influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, as well as in the movement of African Americans to Northern cities after reconstruction. In response to perceived threats to their national and religious identity, Klan members were instructed to lead virtuous lives. Baker argues that, above all, Klan leadership encouraged members to be strong Protestants who stood up for their beliefs—and many of their beliefs, Baker suggests, reflected widespread concerns.
Gospel According to the Klan is organized historically and thematically. The book opens with the death of Mary Phagan, a young Georgia factory worker, and the lynching of her accused murderer, the Jewish businessman Leo Frank. To emphasize the significance of religion in her narrative, Baker highlights founder William Simmons's emphasis on ritual and religion in developing the structure and rituals of the organization. The following chapters move from discussions of Klan members' understandings of Protestantism and patriotism to their ideas about race and the roles of men and women within the Klan. Baker demonstrates that, for the KKK, white supremacy was religiously ordained, and members believed the welfare of the nation depended on both the maintenance of Protestant values and racial hierarchy. Near the end of the book, Baker devotes a chapter to a 1924 riot that occurred on the campus of Notre Dame University in which students at the Catholic university protested a KKK march near the campus. Klan members' responses to this event reveal their tangible fear of a Catholic threat to the nation.
This book's strength lies in its use of many fascinating sources. Baker primarily draws on archival materials from repositories in Indiana and Georgia, two significant sites in the history of the second Klan. Using an ethnohistorical method, Baker examines historical sources with the eye of an ethnographer in order to re-construct the Klan's official worldview. These texts, including the official newsletter Imperial Night Hawk, promoted the organization's values, entreated members of the Klan to sacrifice for their beliefs, and glorified martyrs who defended the Klan. Baker insightfully discusses tensions between the Klan's ideals and the practical application of these ideals. For example, adult male members of the Klan were to shelter their daughters and wives, but women of the Klan moved beyond limits of acceptable female behaviors in order to participate actively in the organization's pursuits.
At times, Baker's points of analysis about the significance of print culture seem repetitive; this is frustrating precisely because she accesses such a rich set of archival resources. Overall, though, Baker successfully argues that members of the second Klan distinguished themselves from non-members by participating in a textual community whose written works distilled many widespread prejudices. This supports her contention that many of the Klan's ideas reflected popular beliefs, and that their racialized views continued to influence non-members after the collapse of the second Klan's organizational structure. Overall, Baker's study should be useful for students and researchers examining the intersection of race in religion in the United States.