As good evangelicals, we’ve all attended our fair share of revivals. Our grandparents’ revivals weren’t that different from ours. A large crowd would gather in a not-so-comfortable, not-so-permanent building. A celebrated evangelist. An easily remembered, non-offensive (read: non-denominational) gospel tune. A great male soloist. A moving, easily-consumed Gospel message. And a push for a decision cemented while moving toward some destination.
For our grandparents, this revival would have been the only thing in town for those weeks. Factories would shut down for an afternoon so the workers could go hear about being honest and coming to work on time. They’d have a special day for the Masons and another for the shop girls. There was also one other big difference for our grandparents. Near the end of the revival week(s), while the evangelist was making his opening remarks and the crowd’s shuffling was quieting down, a parade would start. Men, dressed in white robes and hoods and masks, would march down the aisle. All together. In silence. They’d walk right up to the evangelist and hand him their donation and march out. All over the country — in the North and the South — at conservative Protestant revivals the Klan would make its influence known. After receiving the money, the evangelist was obligated to say something nice about the Ku Klux Klan and its respectable contributions to Christianity and to America.
That fact is disturbing. That American patriotism at its most violent would invade Evangelicalism at its most popular is jarring. . . . Or not. We like to think of the Klan as deviant, as a freak show, as something so far outside of us. But for our grandparents in the Faith, Klannishness was synonymous with conservative Protestantism. If we want to know how we got here, if we want to know the political ideology we inherited, we have to go back to the 1920s Klan.
A little background first. Broadly speaking, there are three klans: Reconstruction, 1920s, and Post-WW2. The Reconstruction Klan started shortly after the Civil War. A group of Confederate Soldiers were bored. They were house-sitting, and they took their hostess’s bed sheets and played pranks on the neighborhood. What started as a bunch of frat boys creating small-town trouble quickly mushroomed into a reign of terror in the South. Lynching African-Americans had already flourished as a cottage industry below the Mason-Dixon line, but the first KKK systematized it and romanticized it.
The second Klan started as nostalgia for the first Klan with the blockbuster hit Birth of a Nation. My generation’s nostalgic movie is Back to the Future, and that’s what Birth was for many Americans in 1915. And a little Methodist minister in Atlanta, who couldn’t keep a job but loved to join things, capitalized on that nostalgia. On Thanksgiving Night, 1915, dreaming of a simpler time, William Joseph Simmons resurrected the KKK on Stone Mountain, Georgia. He hired a PR whiz-kid, Edward Clarke, who masterminded the recruiting strategy. Clarke targeted ministers as influence-able and influential. He charged $10 membership fee. And by 1927, the second KKK had six million members — all men, all “native” Americans (white, from “Nordic” stock), all conservative Protestants. This Klan was in the North and the South and even Canada and targeted its violence on not just African-Americans, but also immigrants and Catholics and moral “nonconformists.”
After WW2, a third Klan popped up and even, some say, a fourth Klan later. These groups were nowhere near as organized as the second Klan. They were still violent but much more dispersed.
Now if you want to find a recent, inter-denominational para-church organization that has national political influence and can mobilize the base, you don’t start in 1980. You start in 1915. You start with the second Klan.
What was life in the Klan like? The Klan served as a powerful voice for middling whites, for the rising middle class. It was intensely violent and morally intolerant. It sanctioned hangings, floggings, brandings, mutilations, and kidnappings. It was urban and national. It pushed Prohibition, free public education, nativism, creationism, and eugenics. Its members feared federal intrusion most of all and framed that intrusion as coming from “outsiders” — whether black or immigrant or communist or Catholic. To them, only Protestants belonged in the United States; everyone else was an invited guest.
The Klan was ensconced in American civic life. But not everyone joined the Klan, of course. The working class couldn’t afford it and the upper class didn’t need it. The Lutherans didn’t join because they seemed too Catholic and they couldn’t conscience the tee-totaling and the polito-religious moralizing. But for those middling Protestants, the Klan was sociable and friendly as well as vigilante and violent. They believed that the victims of Klan violence deserved it. The Klan staged elaborate galas and community picnics. They passed laws for mandatory school attendance. They donated what today would be $6 million to start Bryan University. They bought Lanier University to teach young people about “100% Americanism.” They built orphanages and hospitals. They recited a creed. They baptized babies. They performed weddings and funerals. They had Klan evangelists and lecturers. They made movies. They would take common hymns — like “Old Rugged Cross” — and change it to “Old Fiery Cross.”
In sum, we can’t simplify the Klan. It wasn’t just religious, and it wasn’t simply civic. It was one-and-the-same. It can’t be labeled discretely evil and then dismissed. It wasn’t simply social and civic. It was part of American life in the 1920s and it was evil. It’s both. And in its political success and organization and in its conflation of politics and religion, the 1920s Klan set us on a particular path. If we want to know how we got here as conservative Evangelicals — how our political conversation has been shaped, how we have inherited a particular way of engaging our world — we have to look at the 1920s Klan.
An excerpt from the Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Renew Conference, Suffolk, Virginia.