Kelly Baker is a Lecturer of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In the following interview, Baker discusses her recent book, Gospel According to the Klan (University Press of Kansas, 2011), which, as her UT webpage explains, “employs the 1920s Ku Klux Klan as a case study to explore the intersection of Protestantism, nationalism, whiteness, and gender. The Klan, rather than being a fringe movement in narratives of American religious history, proves to be more mainstream and essential to narratives of American culture. To understand the rise and fall of the Klan in American history complicates previous narratives that ignore the place race and Protestant Christianity in the creation of our national consciousness. The Klan’s vision of America was not so different from that of its peers, but adding Klansmen and Klanswomen to our narratives implores a darker reading of religious nationalism and American Christianity than we currently enjoy.”
How did you get started on researching Gospel According to the Klan?
This project grew out of my personal experiences growing up in the South, as well as a natural outgrowth of my academic work. I grew up in a small town in the Florida panhandle. Back in the 1990s, when I was in high school, there was a Klan rally in a nearby town. What I found most interesting about this was the nervousness that everyone seemed to feel, and display, about it. Not just that there might be violence (as it was also said that the Black Panthers planned a rally simultaneously in this same town), but also the attempt to tamp down the tawdriness of the reputation of the Klan, as it might get attached, or re-attached, to these people and places. “It’s in the past… it’s behind us,” was the basic attitude. While many people wanted to nostalgically hold onto some parts of the Southern past, the Klan represented a part of that past from which they wanted as much distance as possible.
As a scholar of religion, I’ve been intrigued by the ways in which groups like this tend to be understood in my field of study. It is often assumed that religious people we do not like are relatively easy to figure out and are thus not worth a lot of study, whereas people we do like are worth knowing more about. More, we tend to assume that ‘bad people’ equate to ‘bad evidence’ that necessarily invokes skepticism, while ‘good people’ equate to ‘good evidence’ that we can take at face value. I’m interested in studying and understanding not only the “unloved groups” themselves, but also how we tend to think about them, how we reify such groups and how so doing obscures much more than it tells us analytically. So, in writing Gospel According to the Klan, I wanted to produce a study that unsettles academic norms as to what counts as acceptable research subjects. What objects are worth study? What are not? Where do we draw those lines? What’s at stake when we do so, when we categorize things as ‘good data’ or ‘bad data’? Quite often these judgments tell us more about the researchers who made them than about their actual subjects.
How do these interests inform your teaching?
I explicitly emphasize the popular and the “unloved” in the classroom. I have students read, discuss, and write about, modes of cultural production that they typically do not, at least at first, think of as being ‘religious’ or even remotely plausible. For example, in my course on apocalypticism, we read the first Left Behind novel, the Turner Diaries, a zombie romance, and even alien abduction and conspiracy literature. We view films such as I Am Legend and documentaries about Americans preparing for Armageddon or the end times.
I want to get students thinking about what informs peoples’ religious worlds. What would motivate folks to spend their life-savings on Harold Camping’s end of the world campaign of 2011? We can’t possibly label the motivations that drive these social practices with a single factor, which is precisely what students initially assume we can do. They have trouble understanding that people really do believe, act on, and live, these genres. They have trouble getting past Protestant expectations as to how ‘real’ religion plays out. But when people participate in the social worlds mentioned above, they’re doing far more than merely giving their assent to religious ideas. They’re engaged in highly social and creative appropriations of ideas, practices, material culture, and these shape behaviors and attitudes in all sorts of ways.
How have your peers reacted to the book?
Responses have been both very positive and very helpful. Many said, ‘it’s about time someone wrote this book.’ Others were with me on my analysis – part of my work was to demystify the Klan, whereas they had seemed larger than life, mysterious, I wanted to show how profoundly ordinary, mundane, they were – but they were disappointed that I did not talk more about the violence the Klan regularly deployed. Some were surprised that early 20th century Klan were so invested in anti-Catholic causes, rather than strictly anti-African American polemics. A very few (mostly students) were upset that I made the Klan look so normal, and they were troubled that the Klan’s Christianity, even the Klan’s Jesus, could look so familiar. They wanted a far more distant Klan.
Are there any reviews that especially caught your attention?
The most notable so far was Kevin Boyle’s review in the NYT, who judged the book “a painstaking analysis of the banal,” which I actually find to be a badge of honor in some ways. I am not sure why it would be a problem to do analysis of the “banal,” but maybe there is some discomfort about my conclusion (that the Klan was by no means a marginal expression of early 20th century American attitude on race, religion, and nationalism). The book also presents an ethnographic approach to historical subjects, which might make some of my fellow historians uneasy. So, maybe my methodology did not set well with him. Still, I’m very happy to have been reviewed in the NYT and elsewhere. The reviews give me different perspectives on what I have done and what I could have. I appreciate those perspectives. I welcome them, and I think that we should respond to reviews, positive, negative, ambiguous, in a gracious manner that allows us to continue conversations, not stop them. Ultimately, I do my work because I like doing it, which I realize is a strange thing to say when you work on the topics that I do. As scholars, we’re trying to say something important about our subjects. We do this by generating and empowering conversation, which also means criticism and disagreement. Even a negative review can be helpful.
What is your next project?
I’m working on a book about zombies. I am compelled by the work of Jason Bivins and Kathryn Lofton to think carefully about the objects I choose to study and what they can us about American religious cultures. I’m interested in a cultural history of the zombie motif, how popular devotions to zombies shift and move over time from 1932 to 1968 to 1982 to 2012.
I’m also interested in how zombie fascination might act like religion. In fact, I’m distinctly nervous about the ethics of popular zombie devotions. Popular culture helps to create the spaces in which we live, how we construct who is human and who is not, who is worth saving and not, our ethical notions around violence, when is it redemptive, when not. It’s worth noting who survives in contemporary zombie media. It is rife with images of national destruction and rebuilding, and there is a remarkable amount of whiteness in the cast of characters that typically survive and get to rebuild society. I’m interested in what contemporary zombies communicate to us, how they shape the spaces in which we live, our expectations and perceptions. Why am I so interested in zombies? Because people are paying attention to them. Americans consume these monsters, so what does this mean. What are we working out here?
Ultimately, we do a disservice when we reduce and track religion in terms of institutional affiliation. As Lofton’s book showed, half of American women look to Oprah for all sorts of guidance. We miss a great deal when we think of religion in terms of check-box-surveys. People do spend time in churches. But they do many other things as well. So, how do we treat the popular appeal of white supremacy movements? What happens when we expand our view of religion? How do cultural groups and artifacts do religious work? People are always nervous about the study of pop culture. I get this. It is ephemera and fleeting. Something is popular in a moment, and then, discarded the next. It is different than working in archives, though questions of interpretation still remain. But it is also a vast and inescapable realm that is all around us, and in which we are deeply invested. So, we need to better understand it.