Monday, November 28, 2011

KKK Books and the Direction of History

Randall Stephens

[The following is a cross-post from the Religion in American History blog.]

Over at the New York Times, Kevin Boyle reviews two books on the Klan. Fellow blogmeister Kelly Baker's Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 is one of them along with Thomas R. Pegram's One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

The authors take different tacks. "While Pegram builds his book up from the experiences of ordinary Klansmen," writes Boyle, Baker "builds out from the Klan’s official declarations of religious devotion drawn from K.K.K. newspapers and magazines." What did the Klan's rise and fall mean? Was it an anomaly of the era or did it represent something darker, more continuous with America's past?

"Yes, the Klan had a very short life," says Boyle. He goes on:

But it has to be understood, [Baker] contends, as of a piece with other moments of fevered religious nationalism, from the anti-Catholic riots of the antebellum era to modern anti-­Islam bigots. Indeed, earlier this year, Herman Cain declared that he wouldn’t be comfortable with a Muslim in his cabinet. It’s tempting to see those moments as Pegram does the Klan: desperate, even pitiful attempts to stop the inevitable broadening of American society. But Baker seems closer to the mark when she says that there’s a dark strain of bigotry and exclusion running through the national experience. Sometimes it seems to weaken.

These books and Boyle's review bring up some weighty issues within American historiography.

How do historians and religious studies scholars generally see these episodes within the context of the arc of American history? Whig historians, of one variety or another, view them as bumps or potholes on the road to freedom and greater equality. Prigs look at them as something more, throwing the whole idea of progress up into the air. (Of course there are all sorts of opinions on the spectrum, shading from one end to the other. Historians need not even be aware of their own views on the subject. See Christopher Shannon's critique of the profession, which we published in Historically Speaking some months ago.)

Take Slavery. How does it fit into the narrative of US history? In 1980 historian John David Smith wrote in the Journal of Negro History that "The importance of slavery in the racial thought of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been vastly understated by scholars. Yet slavery held an unusual attraction for historians, popular writers, editors, and polemicists in these years." His piece marked a trend in the field. Slavery, historians now wrote, should be taken seriously as integral to the economy and to life in the 19th century. The PBS series Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery spelled out this theme for a wider audience and included talking head historians like Eric Foner, James Horton, and Nell Irvan Painter. Says Foner, "Slavery was an immense political power in the country, as well as an economic power. The three-fifths clause of the Constitution gave the slave South far greater representation in Congress, and a far larger number of electoral votes, than their white population really would have been entitled to. So the South really had an iron grip on the federal government, down to the middle of the 19th century."*

Other historians have been grappling with the issue of religious freedom/intolerance in ways that parallel Baker's approach. How does one chart the story of religious pluralism and religious bigotry? On this matter David Sehat sees a bleak side to America's past. "What if U.S. religious history was not a history of progressive and unfolding freedom?" he asks in his The Myth of American Religious Freedom. "What if, instead, it was a history of religious conflict? And what if that conflict involved extended periods of religious coercion and the continual attempt to maintain religious power and control?"

On the 19th century Protestant establishment an essay by Ronald P. Formisano and Stephen Pickering sheds some light (or, I guess I should say darkness?): “The Christian Nation Debate and Witness Competency,” in the Journal of the Early Republic. Most importantly, they note:

Historians have examined closely the Founders’ intentions regarding the First Amendment’s religious establishment clause as well as the influence of Protestant Christianity in the public life of the early republic. The new national government, and particularly several states, often breached Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state. . . . In courtrooms across the country, well into the nineteenth century, judges allowed witnesses to be questioned regarding their religious beliefs, with some requiring belief in the “future state” doctrine of divine rewards and punishments before permitting them to testify.

Of course, one generation's dark moments are another's beacons of truth. From where we stand in 2011, we judge and think about the past in ways that are profoundly different from the perspective of historians and religious studies scholars half a century ago. (Think Mircea Eliade.)

If we pull back and gauge the whole, what is American history in general or American religious history in particular about? Do either have a direction or a larger point? What if--as Paul Harvey asked in his review of the PBS documentary God in America--"American religious history [is] about coercion and authority? . . . [W]hat if we make coercion, establishment, and repression as central to our narrative as freedom, disestablishment, and expression? What if this is a show in which Americans’ self-understanding as derived from Exodus is more critically examined than celebrated?"

No comments: