So on these grounds, I’ve chosen a set of texts that sit between the Scopes Trial and the Moral Majority. This is the era in which historians insist that conservative Evangelicals were distinctly apolitical, even anti-political. But they are not. Their political drama simply places them at the center of power so that they needn’t do more than stay-put to maintain it.
All of these texts are public. They are conservative Evangelical, and they are all expressly political. I have just excerpted fragments for the sake of time, but they span every decade. Reading them as a whole, three themes become obvious:
- The texts relish a nostalgia for a power that was secure in the not-too-distant past — a power the rhetors frame as peaceful and free for all the world and a power which is assumed to be white and Protestant.
- This peace is currently broken by an imminent threat from an outsider. Religious, racial, ethnic, or ideological threats — these distinctions are conflated. There is no difference among an “uppity black” or a “unwashed” immigrant or a “liberal” Protestant. They all threaten “native” power.
- Salvation comes from restoring or preserving that nostalgic ideal through a god-like unity. Not from God, but from something god-like. The terms are not simply practical, asking “how can we solve this current problem?” Instead the narratives are always ultimate and always spiritualized and the “Savior” is always human.
- Text A — Poem from the Arizona KKK as published in the American Mercury, May 1927.
- Text B — Klan Creed (revised), 1920.
- Text C — “Menace of Modern Immigration,” by Hiram Evans, 1924.
- Text D — Address to the First National Association of Evangelicals meeting, William Ward Ayer, 1942.
- Text E-G — Southern Presbyterian Journal editorials and articles on the “Race Problem” from 1940-1960. An analysis available.
- Text H — “Is Segregation Scriptural?” Easter Morning Sermon, 17 April 1960, Bob Jones Sr. An analysis available.
- Text I — “America’s Lawlessness,” Sword of the Lord, 11 Dec 1970, Jerry Falwell.
These themes — a nostalgia for power, an imminent threat by better-organized outsiders, and finding salvation from that threat in a god-like unity — didn’t die with the 1920s Klan. These themes persist. And they perpetuate a problematic narrative about the good ol’ days where sin is outside of us and our salvation comes from within us, where our outside is threatening and our insides are pure. The 1920s Klan built a political ziggurat to heaven with violence and white supremacy — a tower that’s still pretty tempting to us today. H. L. Mencken called the Klan as “absolutely American as chewing gum, crooked District Attorneys, and chautauquas,” and its history is ours, but its story is not the Good News.
An excerpt from the Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Renew Conference, Suffolk, Virginia.