The God Fearing Klan

Kelly Baker

John Grisham's
A Time to Kill (1989) explores the fraught racial relations in the small fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi, where two white men, James Louis Willard and Billy Ray Cobb, rape, torture, and leave for dead a young African American girl. I read the book at least ten years ago, but I caught the cinematic version (1996), with Matthew McConaughey (a real Southern accent), Samuel L. Jackson (a bad Southern accent), and Kevin Spacey (I am not sure what he was trying to do with his accent), a couple nights ago on my newly upgraded cable. McConaughey plays the idealistic attorney who defends Carl Lee Hailey (Jackson) after he murders his daughter's rapists in the local courthouse, and Spacey is the grand-standing district attorney who thinks the case will be easily won. As anyone who has read Grisham's works before knows, the case is never a slam dunk.

What caught my attention was the introduction of the Ku Klux Klan as a vital piece of the story. The plot of the film revolves around the racial tension that the trial produces, including the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan. The male relatives and friends of the rapists contact the Grand Dragon of Mississippi to avenge their loved ones and set up their own Klan. Granted, anything that mentions the Klan merits my attention, but
this fictionalized account briefly focused on religion. Freddy Lee Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland) wanted revenge for his brother's death, and he lamented the supposed lack of the Klan. One of his friends assured Cobb that the Klan still existed. To which, Cobb responds with something like, "I don't mean Neo-Nazis, I mean the God fearing Klan." Cobb meets up with the still existant Klan of Mississippi and its Grand Dragon, and he launches a campaign of terror on anyone that helps in Hailey's defense. God fearing disappears, and the stereotypical violence of the Klan is showcased with burning crosses, semi-accurate costumes, and homemade bombs. Grisham and the filmmakers were obviously influenced by the drama and violence of the 1960s Klan.

What was most striking to me was the mention of the Klan as religious institution and the assumption that other white supremacist movements were not. First, whoo-hoo! The film recognized that the Klan was tied up with religion. Second, other white supremacist movments are religious. To present them as somehow irreligious is a common misconception in the public sphere. Recent scholarship provides a remedy to this popular notion and documents the presence of religion in many of these groups. Mattias Gardell's
Gods of the Blood explores the world of white supremacist pagans who have reclaimed ancient religious practices that are not tainted by Christianity or racialism. This includes Aryan Nations, which might be thought of as a secular movement, but it embraces paganism and degrades the racial character of Christianity. Various works showcase that the Klan, through out its long history in the U.S., embraced (Protestant) Christianity. Though contemporary Klan movements have become more varied in religious practice. Some Klans and other hate movements have adopted Christian Identity as their religious system, which is a racist form of Christianity that suggests that whites, not the Jews, were the original chosen people of God. Michael Barkun's Religion and the Racist Right illuminates the historical trajectory of Christian Identity from its origins in British Israelism to the current pastors and churches that promote these beliefs. Religion has been alive and well in the white supremacist circles, and in some instances, it has been the motivating factor for membership as well as a justification for racist beliefs. My own work on the 1920s Klan demonstrates that Protestantism proved essential for both the order's nationalism and its racial theories. -->

In his article “Religiosity and the Radical Right,” (which appears in
-->Kaplan and Tore Bjørgo, eds., Nation and Race: The Developing Euro-American Racist Subculture), Jeffrey Kaplan suggests that religion might offer the most “promising path” for white supremacists to accomplish their dreams of soley white nations. Religion that uplifts whiteness and a new world order, for Kaplan, replaces the need for a nation state and allows for the creation of an imagined community of like-minded supremacists. These religious beliefs have begun to bind disparate groups together in their quest for a world filled with whiteness, and technology, especially the internet, allows for these groups to contact one another and build virtual communities dedicated to their cause. The Klan, after all, is not the only God fearing one, and we need more of the above-mentioned scholarship to see clearly the role of religion in white supremacist movements. To understand the unsavory ties between religion and racism, scholars must delve into the belief systems of these movements. The divine appears, it seems, in many unexpected and not-necessarily-pleasant places, and scholars get to follow.


Phil said…
Great post, Kelly, and interesting reading of the film.

This helps to clarify Klan/religion connections for the 20th century (as I read your post), a piece of the larger puzzle connecting race/religion that, as you know, Ed traces out for the 19th century in _Reforging the White Republic_.

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