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?

The Politics of Evangelical Magazines

The kerfuffle over Christianity Today got us thinking: How often have evangelical magazines gone out on a political limb? And what happened when they did?

First, the basics: Outgoing editor Mark Galli got people’s attention yesterday when he called for the impeachment and removal of Trump. As Galli wrote,

the facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.

Some observers wondered if this statement by a leading evangelical publication signaled a “crack in the wall of Trump evangelical support.”

Trump’s evangelical supporters didn’t seem to think so. Conservative stalwarts such as Franklin Graham blasted CT‘s statement, saying his father, CT-founder Billy Graham, “would be embarrassed.”

trump et

Taking a bold stand against aliens…or Entertainment Tonight.

True to form, Trump himself blasted the decision in confusing and seemingly uninformed ways. He called CT a “far left magazine” and concluded that he “won’t be reading ET [sic] again.”

SAGLRROILYBYGTH already know all that. What they might not know is the history of political statements by leading evangelical magazines. From my Fundamentalist U research, I pulled up an example from the twentieth century.

Back in 1957, Billy Graham started a similar political firestorm among the white evangelical community by integrating his revival meetings. Based at Biola University in Los Angeles, the popular evangelical magazine King’s Business came out in favor of integration.

Editor Lloyd Hamill made clear in a scathing editorial in November, 1957, that King’s Business supported racial integration. As Hamill put it,

Graham was only proclaiming what the Bible plainly teaches. . . . No Spirit-controlled Christian can escape the solid fact that all men are equal in God’s sight.  Integration is not only the law of our nation, it is also the plain teaching of the Bible.

Another writer wrote in the same issue,

Now and then you hear some Christian say, ‘I don’t want any Negroes or Mexicans in my church.’  In whose church?  Christ paid for the Church with His precious blood and some saints seem to think because they put an offering in the plate on Sunday they have bought the Church back.

Bold words for the world of white evangelicalism in 1957. And predictably, the president’s office of Biola University was immediately flooded with mail. A few white evangelicals agreed with Hamill. But by a factor of about ten to one, the readers expressed their outrage.

earnestine ritterHamill did not back down. He pointed out that the offices of King’s Business did not only advocate racial integration, they practiced it. As Hamill noted in the following issue,

As a matter of record The King’s Business has had a Negro on the editorial staff for nearly a year.  She is Earnestine Ritter who has studied journalism at New York University and Los Angeles State College.

What happened? Hamill was fired. Biola President Samuel Sutherland apologized to Billy Graham for the “very foolish letters [Hamill] wrote and statements which he made.”

Mark Galli won’t be intimidated. He already planned to retire soon. But the controversy unleashed by his anti-Trump editorial is far from the first time an evangelical editor has tried to push the needle among evangelical Americans.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

From Missouri Satanists to Alabama racists to Kentucky fundamentalists, this week saw it all. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed stories that came across our desk:

If Christians can refuse to bake cakes, can Satanists refuse to wait for an abortion? Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta talks with Lucien Greaves about the case at Missouri’s Supreme Court.

Can a university expel a student for a racist rant? The ACLU says no in a case from Alabama, at IHE.

Indian evangelicals and the changing face of the American megachurch, by Prema Kurien at R&P.Bart reading bible

“Truth Decay:” Chester Finn spreads the blame for fake news beyond civic ed, at Flypaper.

Fundamentalists were right! College really does endanger children’s faith, at IHE.

Texas judge says God told him to interfere with a jury, at Americans United.

What do Americans “know” about evolution? Glenn Branch reviews the latest numbers, at NCSE.

Online School of Tomorrow closes today, leaving Ohio students scrambling, at CPD.

Want to earn millions? Resign in scandal from presidency of Michigan State, at IHE.

Curmudgucrat Peter Greene on the difficulties of healing the country’s racist past.

Should evangelicals defend Trump? Mark Galli critiques court evangelicals, at CT.

The quandary: Conservative intellectuals in the Age of Trump, at WaPo.

  • Best line: “Trumpism has torn down the conservative house and broken it up for parts.”

What makes Ben Shapiro tick? At Slate.

Gay Marriage and Christian Resistance

What is a conservative Christian to do? The US Supreme Court’s decision in favor of gay marriage has sent shock waves across America. Will conservative Christians accept this decision? Or, as some have warned, does this move our culture war over sexuality one step closer to real war?

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms...

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms…

Of particular interest at ILYBYGTH these days, the new ruling will likely meet its first test at conservative religious colleges. As we’ve noted (and as the New York Times eventually noticed) the SCOTUS ruling has brought up questions about the limits of acceptable dissent in higher ed. Can schools discriminate against homosexual “practice?” As I’m writing about in my current book, the same tension played out in the 1970s, when Bob Jones University insisted on its religious right to racial discrimination. It seems colleges will be the first institutions to feel pressure to accommodate demands to end institutional discrimination against homosexuals.

The reaction to the SCOTUS decision has been fast and furious among conservative evangelicals and other Christians. Rick Scarborough of Vision America told the New York Times that the decision must be resisted. “If they change the playing field and make what we do out of bounds,” Scarborough said,

we will disobey; we will disrespect this decision. . . . We’ll treat it like Dred Scott and other decisions courts have handed down over the years that counter natural law. God made a male and a female, and no amount of surgery is going to change that.

Similarly, Robert Jeffress told the Christian Post that the decision proves America’s persecution of Christians. As the Rev. Jeffress put it,

I think today’s decision is just one more step in the marginalization of conservative Christians. I made this argument and have been ridiculed for doing so, but I think it is very legitimate. The Nazis did not take the Jews to the crematoriums immediately. . . . The German people would not have put up with that. Instead, the Nazis begin to marginalize the Jewish people, make them objects of contempt and ridicule. Once they changed the public opinion about the Jewish people, then they engaged the [Holocaust]. . . . Once secularists have made Christians objects of contempt, I think it will be very easy to revoke other rights that they have as American citizens.

And in the pages of World Magazine, Ryan Shinkel advocated Christian resistance to an overweening state and society. “The movement for marital restoration is beginning,” Shinkel wrote just before the SCOTUS decision,

and the chance for moral courage and a life daring to be countercultural is at hand. By continuing to speak up for religious freedom, the restoration of a marriage culture, and dignity of the family in the face of potential setbacks at the Supreme Court, we can become the Nietzscheans who hammer the libertine and atomistic idols of our age.

Secular folks like me, progressive people who celebrate the SCOTUS decision, might blanch at these dire warnings. Some of my friends and colleagues might take these statements as proof that conservative Christians will never admit to marriage equality. But folks like us need to listen also to the other voices of conservative Christians.

In the Washington Post, for example, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests Christians calm down. It is a terrible ruling, Moore agrees. And it does indeed push conservative evangelicals into a dissenting position that might seem “freakish” these days. But so what? Moore wants conservatives to “embrace a freakishness that saves.”

Similarly, Mark Galli of Christianity Today worries that evangelicals will react badly. “The temptation,” he writes,

is to go off and sulk in our holy corner. Or to dig in our heels and fight harder. Or to lash out in anger. Or to despair. We can do better.

The goal for Christians, Galli writes, is to take confidence that they are on the right side, God’s side. This decision provides another healthy—if intensely uncomfortable—opportunity for Christians to re-engage with important questions above love, marriage, and the proper relationship between Church and society. Though some conservatives might offer extreme rhetoric, Galli warns, evangelicals in America “are far from living at the margins.”

If we are to make sense of the culture-war rhetoric surrounding this SCOTUS decision, we need at least to remember some historical precedent. As I’ve argued elsewhere, for generations evangelical Christians have been battered by landmark SCOTUS decisions that seem to kick them out of public life. In every case, evangelical pundits have insisted that each new SCOTUS decision changed America from a Christian nation to a persecuting Babylon. In every case, however, evangelicals have continued to wield enormous cultural and political power.

Will this decision be any different? Will this decision really change the balance of power in America’s continuing culture-war debates?