Who Has a Religion? Baker and Wenger on Definitions of Religion in the 1920s

by Edward J. Blum

“Get anything good for Christmas?” a friend nonchalantly asked several days after J.C.’s birthday. My enthusiastic response, “Oh yeah, a book on the Klan; was actually reading it Sunday morning listening to acoustic sunrise,” was met with irritation in the form of disinterest. The friend didn’t really care what I had received, and he didn’t really want to entertain a conversation about the Klan. He shot back, “weird.” I, of course, was blind to his hopes for distance and pressed in. “It’s really neat, the author takes seriously the religious ideas of the Klan – from their white robes to their sense of American history and exceptionalism.” Sadly, the conversation went the way most of mine go with non-academics. The harder I tried for him to see how fascinating this was, he just didn’t care, and once again retorted, “yeah, just sounds weird.” At this point, I got it and turned the conversation to a religious interest everyone seemed to share: Tim Tebow and the magical run of the Denver Broncos.
Book cover image 
I’ve had enough conversations with non-academics who seem to go into snooze mode when I invade their worlds with the past, but I still felt sad that my pal would rather talk about a mediocre quarterback for a mediocre team than about heritages of hate and what they mean for our nation. But even more, I was bummed that my friend did not want to understand that what we think about “religion” influences even stories like that of young man Tebow.

Of course, the book I was trying to tell my friend about was Kelly Baker’s Gospel According to theKlan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. I don’t want to rehearse its main arguments here – how Gospel According to the Klan looks not just at what the Klan was against, but also at what they were for, how it showcases the ways in which their white Protestant nationalism pervaded their sense of manliness, femininity, and history, or how the Klan’s print culture was so crucial to their sense of identity and imagination. Those are all excellently fleshed out in the book and shown so nicely through the Klan’s public writings.

CoverWhat I would like to draw our attention to is how Professor Baker’s study and a slightly older book, Tisa Wenger’s fantastic We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (2009), provide another layer of religious division and redefinition during the 1920s. Wenger shows that the 1920s conflicts over Pueblo dances became moments when notions of “religion” collided. For the United States government, religion was something distinct and somewhat separable from other spheres of life, but many Pueblo had no sense of that division. As white modernists who were sympathetic to the Pueblo rallied to their side, they helped create the idea that the Indian dances were “religious” and hence should be protected against federal legislation by the First Amendment. Yet by forcing American governmental approaches to religion upon the issue and by defining one aspect of Pueblo behavior as religious, they helped sever the totality of Pueblo life into supposedly discreet parts (religion, land, politics, society, etc.) Thereafter, Native claims to land, remains, or treaty recognitions have been battled on the legal and religious terrain established by the American government.

We all know the 1920s as a time of religious dissension and debate. Modernists and Fundamentalists raged against one another; Bryan and Darrow battled at the “trial of the century” in a small Tennessee town; Sister Aimee Semple McPherson polarized the West with flappers and Pentecostals on one side and liberals and the mainline on the other. Together, Baker and Wenger add another layer – the layer of religion itself. In both cases, the very definition of “religion” was up for grabs. In Baker’s case, contemporaries of the Klan tried to demolish them as non-Christian or as makers of a false faith. The Klan tried hard to create a viable religious worldview, and for an “Invisible Empire,” they sure made it visible in their print culture and public performances. For Wenger’s folks, Native American life had to be atomized so that certain elements could be construed as religious. By obtaining a “religion,” the Pueblo had to give up some of their definitional control.

So to my friend who would rather talk Tebow than Klan robes, I understand. It is less mentally strenuous to debate the case of Tim Tebow – whether accuracy is as important as admiration, whether completion percentages matter more than charismatic personhood, or whether we should privilege comebacks over Christian being. But if we want to get to the core of Tebow or any other fascination rendered “religious” in America, we can get a little help from our friends Kelly Baker and Tisa Wenger. See you all in Chicago.


Curtis J Evans said…
Hi Ed,
thanks for this interesting comparison Wenger's and Baker's book. As to your non-academic friend not having an interest in your discussion of religion and the Klan, it reminded me of a phone conversation when a non-academic friend asked me to give a very brief description of my first book project (his way of hinting he only wanted minimal details). Somehow, I went on longer than anticipated and felt for a while that he was simply rather quite. Finally, I said to him, what do you think? No answer. I had to hang up the phone because I got no response. His wife called me back, laughing hysterically. She said her husband (my friend) was lying on the couch with his son on his chest, and phone resting next to him (which apparently had slipped out of his hand). My conversation was so stimulating that it bored him to sleep. Well, at least he tried to feign some interest early on.
Edward J. Blum said…
That's a really cute story, Curtis. "The Burden of Black Religion" was a lullaby for him.
Edward J. Blum said…
You know what I would LOVE to see is both Tisa and Kelly discuss how they wrote about their subjects sympathetically (Tisa, for instance, did not describe the dance rituals out of respect for the secrecy of them, while Kelly went to great pains to discuss how to write about the Klan). If either Tisa or Kelly read this (or if someone wants to put it together), I'd love that kind of discussion
Tom Van Dyke said…
Respectfully, Dr. Blum,

So to my friend who would rather talk Tebow than Klan robes, I understand. It is less mentally strenuous to debate the case of Tim Tebow – whether accuracy is as important as admiration, whether completion percentages matter more than charismatic personhood, or whether we should privilege comebacks over Christian being.

the KKK you speak of was nearly 100 years ago, and had fewer fans, even accounting for population growth.

Tebow is now.

Although they both suck.
~Justin said…
Very interesting, I was wondering what your thoughts would be on utilizing a more scientific definition for the study of religion? Particularly using cognitive psychology or sociobiology as a starting point?