Religion, Religions, Religious ... and Race

More on (and from) Baker and Wenger:
- Edward J. Blum

I’ve been occupying my time with two central pursuits these days: 1) avoiding Adele (although I did figure why her album is titled “21.” It’s the number of times the phrase “rumor has it” is sung during the final minute of her song, aptly titled “Rumor Has It”); and 2) thinking about the contested and changing meanings of religion, religions, Christianity, and Christianities. And since I don’t anticipate Linsanity to have as much cultural influence as Tebow-mania (purely because the NFL seems more popular than the NBA), I decided to ask Tisa Wenger and Kelly Baker to answer some questions thinking about their works We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (2009) and Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011) in juxtaposition. Since both authors approach “religion” as a mutable, flexible category that shifts and changes over time and given particular circumstances, I thought I would bring the two authors together for an interview. What I’ve done is taken a concept developed by one author and posed it to the other to see what they think and to see what we can gain from thinking of the two works together.
1.Visibility and Invisibility
Q (ejb): Professor Baker, as you studied the twentieth-century Klan, you examined how an “Invisible Empire” made itself and its religious positions very visible. Professor Wenger purposefully avoids descriptions of Pueblo ceremonies out of respect for traditions of “secrecy in religious and ceremonial matters.” How does a scholar of religion deal with the knotty problem of disclosing ideas and concepts that a group may want to keep private or to themselves? Did this come up in your examination of the Klan and their creation of an “Invisible Empire”?

A (kjb): Let me first say that I am flattered to have my own work paired with Professor Wenger’s fantastic We Have A Religion. Second, this is an excellent question about our ethical commitments to those we study, living and dead. How we manage our own academic desires to provide as much information as possible must be weighed against the consequences for the people we study as well as their descendents. In We Have A Religion, Wenger engages the question of secrecy and Pueblo ceremonies by noting the long history of exposure of ceremonial secrets. This exposure sometimes helped the Pueblo’s struggle for religious freedom, but more often showcased the exotic nature of these customs when compared to a normative vision of Protestant Christianity. Unveiling secrets, then, lead to struggles over whether these rituals were “religion” or not. Eventually, Pueblos acceded to a definition of religion that vaunted individual conscience over communal responsibilities. What is most clear in Wenger’s work is that the content of these dances was not necessarily exposed, rather dances were interpreted again and again by those sympathetic and antagonistic for their own purposes. These very-interested observers sought to claim something authoritative about the dances to either legitimate that they were “religion” or that they were not. By avoiding the details of the dances, Professor Wenger artfully illuminates how Pueblos move from understanding customs, a public community initiative, to “religion,” a system of privatized beliefs.  This commitment to secrecy allows for a complicated portrait of Pueblo “religion” and deftly avoids questions about the actual character of dances.

In the case of Gospel According to the Klan, the claims to “secrecy” by the Klan’s Invisible Empire did not match up with highly visible and public presentation of the order. One of my early readers remarked that the Klan was anything but invisible in the early twentieth century. Imperial Wizard Simmons testified dramatically in front of Congress. The following Imperial Wizard Evans published many opinion pieces and articles under his own name, and local and national newspapers covered Klan events like picnics and parades. The leaders of the order, then,  were fairly public about their participation. On the other hand, secrecy was crucially important to the rank-and-file Klansmen and Klanswomen as a method to protect their identities, and many successful anti-Klan campaigns relied on unmasking as a strategy to cull Klan membership. For my book, there was nothing to gain by exposing or unmasking members, so I refused. A long list of names of Klansmen and Klanswomen would not have added anything significant to my study. My explicit goal for this project was not to reveal who was or wasn’t in the Klan, rather I sought to present the order’s public persona in print from mostly newspapers, official correspondence, fraternal manuals and guides. Since other studies of the Klan provide detailed biographies of the founder Simmons, leaders and other members, my goal was to represent the “official” positions of the order and use names when the documents did. This means my book is suspiciously absent of people at times because newspapers and their anonymous editors become my interlocutors.

Moreover, unmasking 1920s Klan members could have serious impact on their descendents personally, professionally, emotionally and even financially. The specter of the Klan still haunts contemporary discussions of race relations, and it would not be trivial to uncover that a family member participated in the notorious white supremacist order. Sometimes historians like to imagine that our work just involves dead historical actors who don’t speak back to us, which is mostly true. We have only their remnants, fragments of who they were and what they did. These partial remnants guide us to some stories and not others. We can imagine their complexity, but not get anywhere near it. The dead don’t speak back, and they only speak in fragments too. Keeping a Klansman’s identity secret might seem suspect to some based on a logic of choice and consequences. The choice to put on a robe is the actor’s; the choice to unveil and cause harm to living persons is not one I am comfortable making. Ethically, I refuse to be not only the bearer of bad news but also cause of traumatic consequences for living relatives of my subjects. So maybe, my decision to uphold secrecy might seem different from Professor Wenger on first blush because of our particular subjects, but I think our commitment to maintaining secrets is not.

2. “True” religion and “Real” Christianity”
Q (ejb): Professor Wenger, as you so brilliantly show, debates in the 1920s over the Pueblo ceremonies revolved around contested notions of what is “religious” or a “religion.” In Professor Baker’s Gospel According to the Klan, there is a sustained struggle between Klansmen and their opponents over whether they were “Christian” or not. What was at stake in defining a movement or event as “religious” in the 1920s? And do you think there were any similarities or differences to the Klan struggle over the definition of “Christian”?

A (tw): Professor Blum, you’ve offered a fascinating comparison between the two books. The similarity you’ve helped me see is precisely this parallel contestation over what counted as “religion,” for the subjects of my study, and as Christianity, for Professor Baker’s. And as Baker also notes, to battle over what counted as Christianity was very much about religious legitimacy, or in other words, what should be considered “religion” or “good religion.” Baker argues that it was (and is) more comfortable for the Klan’s critics to believe that they were not really a religious movement, because most have wanted religion to be beneficent, peaceful, and non-political. Much of the recent literature on the category of religion has explored this very insistence that religion is or at least should be distinct from the political realm. Scholars as disparate as William Cavanaugh (The Myth of Religious Violence) and Leora Batnitzky (How Judaism Became a Religion) have identified the development of modern concepts of “religion” with the birth of the nation-state, finding close relationships between these apparently disparate phenomena. In the early modern period, they argue, the emerging idea of religion as fundamentally separate from politics actually enabled the creation of the modern nation-state and helped legitimate its claim to monopolize the use of force. Cavanaugh points to a “myth” of religion (when it is not kept within its prescribed apolitical bounds) as irrational and potentially violent, arguing that this myth has served in part to obscure the violence of the nation-state. Thus, as Baker also suggests, part of what has been at stake in the general unwillingness to explore or even acknowledge the Christian commitments of the KKK is an image of Christianity as the good religion—one that is peaceful and safely outside of the messy realm of politics. These claims continue to operate despite the fact that American Christianity—although certainly more than “politics”—has, from a historian’s perspective, never been outside of politics.

The situation was quite different for the Pueblo Indians discussed in my book, because they were actively demanding recognition for their own traditions as “religion” in order to gain specific legal rights. Some of their opponents countered that these practices were “immoral” or “savage” and so not legitimately religious—a categorical exclusion that relied less on the requirement for religion to be outside politics, and more on early twentieth-century ideologies of Christianity and civilization. But critics also accused the Pueblo Indians of violating the separation of church and state through “theocratic” tribal governments, and government officials exerted very intense pressures to separate those spheres in Pueblo life. I argue in the book that while that process remains very much contested and incomplete, the Pueblo Indians (along with other Native Americans) were forced (at least formally) to forge distinct spheres of “religion” and “politics” in order to gain recognition for at least some dimensions of their ceremonial traditions as “religion” at all.

3. Secular and Christian
Q (ejb): Professor Baker, you describe the Klan’s goals as a Protestant revitalization movement that was upset with society’s supposed “secularization.” Professor Wenger finds that one of the results of the more “secular” approach to Indian affairs was a redefinition of religion and religious freedom in the United States. Building upon scholarship by Talal Asad and Tracy Fessenden, Professor Wenger remarks that “secular” principles “were by no means value-neutral” and that it carried with it “strikingly Protestant assumptions and norms.” Did the Klan see secularization that way at all? Did they consider the “secular” as antithetical to religion or as another form of it? Did the Klan see secularization as a perversion of Christianity as many Klan opponents saw them as a perversion of Christianity?

A (kjb): Yes, Professor Wenger clearly shows how the “secular” is never free of religious inscription, but I am not sure that the 1920s Klan understood “secularization” as a method to bolster its understanding of America as a Christian nation. For the order, the nation was awash in religious threats from Roman Catholicism and Judaism, and Klan leaders urged for a united Protestantism to defeat their religious foes. Moreover, encroaching diversity, both religious and racial, signaled that the Klan’s beloved white Protestant nation was already fracturing in the 1920s. What proves most intriguing to me about the Klan’s fear about the end of the Christian nation is that Klansmen and Klanswomen also claimed that they were part of a longer genealogy of Christian patriots from Pilgrims to “Founding Fathers” to Abraham Lincoln. The Klan lamented the decline of Christian nation while simultaneously assuring members that white Protestants were still dominant in American culture. All of this is to say that 1920s Klan imagined the secular as non-religious rather than as a form of stealth religion to deploy. Secularization did not appear as inauthentic Christianity but rather as not religion at all.

This question is very interesting to me because it makes me wonder about the religious character of secularity in Wenger and Fessenden’s respective works as a “liberal” vision of Protestantism that uplifts individual conscience and private choice. For the Klan, Protestantism was about liberty and choice on the one hand, and the ability to dominate and enforce cultural normativity on the other. Klansmen and Klanswomen wanted to ensure that they remained dominant religious and political voices in American public culture to be able to maintain their particular vision of nation as white and Protestant. While Klan newspapers might have parsed the origins of democracy in Protestantism, editors sought a vision in which other religious movements capitulated to the Klan’s cultural hegemony. Religion might be private, but it was certainly public too. And religion’s public place was of key importance to the order. Thus, the construction of “religion” was about defining communities from the local to the national to fit with their ideal citizens. The removal of Bibles from schools, the acceptance of evolution, the restructuring of gender roles and the inclusion of African Americans, Catholics and Jews into public culture all signaled the danger of secularization, in which religion no longer held sway over nation. This means that the Klan, perhaps, did not realize how effective embracing secularization could be to further its religious aims. Instead, the order and its leaders sought to create a generalized Protestantism that many white Americans could agree to because of their antagonism toward secularization and the diversity they thought it would bring. The secular was not quite Protestant enough for the Klan.

In Gospel According to the Klan, I document one way the Klan signaled this decline was by employing a vision of Native Americans as lingering lesson on the dangers of assimilation. A Grand Dragon from Georgia wrote about the tenuous space of cultural dominance and racial purity by invoking a prophetic “full blooded Indian.” This Indian supposedly warns the “Anglo-Saxon” that he “shall follow my father’s footsteps” into “doom.” Indians, according to the Grand Dragon, were a “dying race” and Klansmen would be too if they did not save America from racial equality and inclusive citizenship (196). Nation, faith and whiteness could not be protected by acquiescence to secular visions, but only through full commitment to Protestantism.

4. Primitivist and Patriarchal
Q (ejb): Professor Wenger, you discuss the “primitivist” images some “friends of the Indians” promoted of Native Americans. By presenting Indians as seemingly timeless and unchanging, some of these representations appeared to deny Native Americans’ their full humanity and agency. Yet some of these advocates also supported Native American rights to the land. Baker makes the point that while Klansmen claimed to “protect” white womanhood, a new organization of women of the Klan used the movement to advocate their own political authority. Could you discuss how “primitivism” related to considerations of religion, authority, and action? Did any Pueblo put primitivism to work for political or other gains?

A (tw): Yes, absolutely, and in fact I show this in the book by arguing that Pueblo leaders cultivated their relationships with cultural modernists precisely because they saw political advantages to this alliance, even when they rejected primitivist depictions of themselves as outside of history. Some were more vehement in that rejection than others. For example, Pablo Abeita was a leading “progressive” Indian from Isleta Pueblo who expressed a great deal of frustration at the tendency of the white people to always choose uneducated “blanket” Indians as delegates to Washington. Along with other Pueblo leaders, he generally preferred to send delegates who were formally educated, spoke fluent English, and understood the American legal system. Abeita also ridiculed the modernists’ romanticized depictions of Indian “religion,” and attempted to educate them about what he considered the Pueblos’ more fundamental needs for land rights and economic development. On the other hand, more self-consciously “traditionalist” Pueblo leaders welcomed at least some dimensions of the primitivist image of Indians, and used such romanticized images as the basis for their own political appeals. Yet they too resisted efforts by white reformers to proclaim what was best for Indians, insisting on their own right to manage the political life of their own communities whether or not their decisions fit modernist ideas of what Indians should be and do.

I would never have thought to compare the Pueblo Indians in this context to the women of the Klan—and I’m not sure we’d be able to find any other similarities—but you are right to point to structural parallels in their relationship to the white modernists and KKK men who saw themselves as their respective patrons. Feminist theorists have been pointing for a long time to the parallel logics of sexism, racism, primitivism, etc. So I guess we’ve just identified one more instance of this comparison in action!

(for any folks in reading a bit more from Baker on the religious materiality of the Klan, see her article in Material Religion).


Curtis J. Evans at: March 3, 2012 at 7:19 PM said...

Really fascinating discussion. I definitely noticed parallels in Wenger's discussion of primitivism in my own research on white interpreters' reflections on African American religion in the 1920s, which was often a way of criticizing aspects of modern culture that interpreters found troubling. Baker's point about not revealing the names of Klan members, though often more complicated by the violence of the Klan and its relative power, is similar in ways to scholarship that delves into the State Sovereignty Commission of MS, which was essentially a secret state police agency spying on black activists in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Should historians reveal the details of this material which, while obviously gathered to discredit and disrupt civil rights activities in the state, sometimes provides harmful or troubling matter about the private lives of black activists (such as extramarital affairs). If names are revealed or made public, this would clearly have an effect on contemporary descendants of these activists and for that matter, those activists who remain alive--Charles Marsh has some reflections on this material in his book, "God's Long Summer." I suppose the Klan membership secrecy is also complicated by the desire for justice on the part of scholars and observers. Baker handles deftly a very difficult and troubling topic.

Patrick Mason at: March 5, 2012 at 2:24 PM said...

Thanks to all involved for this terrific interview. I taught Wenger's book this semester, and now regret that I didn't also include Baker's -- I will next time!

The conversation here is really rich, and I appreciate how some of our best work in American religious history is increasingly informed by important work done in the past few years complicating the arbitrary divide between the "religious" and the "secular," or even a simplistic notion that we just kind of sort of know what religion is, even if we can't define it exactly. (And when we do define it, that's funny, it looks a lot like Protestantism!) In this regard this semester I also used, to good effect, Stephen Prothero's "The White Buddhist" and Leigh Schmidt's new "Heaven's Bride" to get at the deeply Protestant structures and (to use Prothero's term) grammars of the diversity of American religion, including spiritualism and Buddhism.

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