From the Archives: “The Ku Klux Klan: Is It of God?”

Will they or won’t they? Ever since editor Mark Galli broke the internet by denouncing Trump in Christianity Today, pundits have been struggling to decide if white evangelicals will turn anti-Trump in 2020. Historians like me can’t help but notice the pattern: When it comes to political controversy, interdenominational evangelicalism has always been hopelessly divided. From the archives today, a look at a similar division back in the 1920s.Gospel-According-to-the-Klan-Cover-320x483

First, in case you’ve been living under a holiday rock, a little context: White evangelicals voted for Trump in droves in 2016, and they remain as a group one of his most solid voting blocs. So when “flagship” evangelical magazine Christianity Today called for Trump’s removal, it caught people’s attention. Outgoing editor Mark Galli looked his fellow evangelicals in the eye—so to speak—and offered this blandishment:

Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?

Would evangelicals listen? Some evangelical Trumpists immediately fired back, doubling down in their support for Trump. As Wayne Grudem wrote,

On issue after issue, President Trump is changing the direction of the country for the better. When I weigh these results against his sometimes imprecise and coarse speech, there is no comparison. . . . I’ll vote again for Trump.

I know people won’t like the comparison, but this 2019 debate sounds a lot like a 1920s debate among white evangelicals. Back then, white evangelicals engaged in a similarly vituperative political debate. Back then, white evangelicals wondered if they should support the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. I’m not saying Trump is a 21st-century Hiram Evans. Or even a 21st-century Warren Harding. But I AM saying that evangelicals have always been divided on similar sorts of political issues.

To get the gist of the 1920s debate, we have to understand the nature of the 1920s Klan. Most people these days, if they think about the Klan at all, think mostly of the Civil-Rights-Era Klan, when it was a violent fringe group dedicated to upholding Southern racism and white supremacy.

To be sure, the 1920s Klan was plenty racist, but it was a very different organization in a lot of ways from the later 1960s Klan. First of all, it was much, much bigger, with millions of members all over the nation. It was also depressingly mainstream, with members openly joining and touting their membership. And though the Klan has always been devoted to racism and white supremacy, the 1920s Klan was also ferociously centered on fighting CATHOLIC influence.

Back then, as historians such as Kelly Baker have described, the Klan was all about white supremacy, for sure, but specifically more about white Protestant supremacy.

And, as historian Felix Harcourt argued brilliantly in his book Ku Klux Kulture, the 1920s Klan was controversial in ways that sound creepily familiar today. Back then, civil-rights groups felt a need to prove to America that the Klan was a “poison flame,” attracting “bigots,” “busy-bodies,” and “lame-duck preachers.”

Among evangelical leaders—both intellectual and populist ones—the question of the Klan was difficult. Indeed, in ways that later generations of white evangelicals would find eternally embarrassing, white evangelicals back then conducted a high-profile debate that sounds depressingly similar to today’s.

Back then, some evangelical pundits were unwaveringly pro-Klan. Down in Texas, Baptist fundamentalist pundit J. Frank Norris ardently supported the Klan. In 1924, for example, the Texas Baptist Convention planned to debate a resolution denouncing the Klan. As Norris put it in his trademark style,

suffice to say that every Roman Catholic priest and Knights of Columbus would be glad to sign the [anti-Klan] resolution, and the Pope at Rome will have [anti-Klan Baptists] cannonized [sic] as a Saint for all the ‘faithful’ to worship.

Up in Chicago, a similar Klan debate unfurled in the pages of the Moody Bible Institute Monthly. One contributor from Texas argued in 1923 that evangelicals must not fall for the siren song of Ku-Kluxism. As he wrote, the Klan failed the Biblical sniff test in a number of ways. First, the Bible clearly denounces any sort of anti-Semitism. Second, the Klan’s viciousness was not Christian. When it came to Catholics, this preacher wrote,

The Bible says, ‘Do good to them and pray for them.’ The Klan says, ‘Drive them out.’

In the end, this preacher opined, the Klan should not be supported for merely political ends. Yes, they do fight against alcohol, he admitted. And divorce. And gambling. And other sorts of public sin. But those shared goals did not make the Klan Christian. As he concluded,

The great principle of Christianity is love.  The outstanding principle of Ku Kluxism is hatred.

In response, a preacher from Lancaster, Pennsylvania defended the Klan as a good Christian organization. In the tumultuous ‘twenties, he wrote, subversive communism, drug-peddling immigrants, and corrupt politicians called for drastic action. As he concluded,

Investigate the Klan. So far I have found that the churches never had a more active ally, the state a more determined champion; our homes a more resolute defender, and lawlessness and vice a more powerful foe than the Ku Klux Klan.

The debate in MBIM went on throughout the early years of the 1920s. As celebrity pastor Bob Shuler wrote from California, the Klan had its problems, but overall it deserved evangelical support. Shuler offered a careful six-point list: The Klan defended Protestantism, public schools, “women’s virtue,” law enforcement, and American idealism. Plus, all the enemies of the Klan were dangerous types—bootleggers, pimps, and Catholics. As Shuler concluded,

I have for over twelve months conducted a most comprehensive investigation of the ideals, principles, teachings and activities of the Klan and have come to the slow and deliberate conclusion that there is not now organized in America a more hopeful secret society.

What was the upshot? MBIM editor-in-chief James M. Gray was no Mark Galli. He came out against the Klan in 1924, but in a very wishy-washy way. However, by the middle of the decade it was no longer quite so difficult for white evangelicals to know what to think. A series of scandals plagued the Klan organization and it became clear that they were not spotless warriors for Christian virtue.

None of that has any direct bearing on today’s Trumpist debate, of course. There are a million factors still at play for 2020. In the 1920s, it took blockbuster events such as Indiana’s DC Stephenson’s shocking conviction for a particularly brutal rape to push the debate about the Klan’s virtue off the evangelical front page. Will there be a similar deciding event in the evangelical debate about Trumpism? Has there already been one?

Leave a comment

3 Comments

  1. mlshatto

     /  January 2, 2020

    I’m curious about who the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, preacher was. Most of the Klan outbreaks in recent years have been over in York County, but periodically there is leafleting traceable to the Klan here in Lancaster. Thanks!

    Reply
    • The author was Rev. John Bradbury. Here’s the full article citation, in case you have access to a friendly librarian who can inter-library-loan it for you: The Rev. John Bradbury, “Defending the Ku Klux Klan—A Reply to Mr Funderburk,” Moody Bible Institute Monthly 23:9 (May 1923): 420-421.

      Reply
  2. Agellius

     /  January 3, 2020

    So people weigh the good and bad points of their political candidates. Doesn’t everyone do this, from either party? Weren’t some Democrats upset with Obama over his record levels of deportations, or for being more warlike than they would have preferred? Didn’t some Hillary voters — especially those who preferred Sanders — have misgivings about her, but vote for her anyway because all things considered, she was better than the alternative? (See e.g. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/06/hillary-clintons-voters-say-they-were-holding-their-noses-just-as-much-as-donald-trumps/) I’m not sure I understand the fascination with people doing the same in regard to Trump.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s