At the beginning of 1912, most Americans were in a fairly positive frame of mind about themselves and their country. This was known as the “Progressive Era,” the country was at peace and seemed to be more prosperous than at any time in her history. The United States was the leading industrial power in the world. A real confidence in business, politics, and the country’s overall direction was felt by most people. The Industrial Revolution and business had changed the face of the country forever; people felt that business was the opportunity for everyman to get rich, whatever his beginnings. Governmental intervention in people’s lives was at a minimum. Science and technology were seen as the keys to a future whose possibilities seemed endless; the past twenty years alone had seen the invention of the automobile and airplane, and many homes now had electricity, running water, a telephone, a flush toilet and a new contraption called the phonograph. There was a burgeoning motion picture industry, and people for the first time found that they had leisure time to spend on entertainment. Overall, people’s lives were changing, and for the better; they had more time for entertainment, and most people no longer worked as many hours per day as previous generations had. Even the prevailing religious doctrine of the era, the Social Gospel, reflected this positive attitude. Taking root after the Civil War, the Social Gospel said that Christians should dedicate themselves to the further advancement not only of their fellow humans, but of civilization in general. By emphasizing such good works, it was felt that a Kingdom of Heaven might actually be realized here on earth. This article will examine how that confidence was forever shaken by three seemingly unrelated events: the rise of religious fundamentalism, the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, and the resurgence of the long dormant Ku Klux Klan.
To be sure, there were ominous portents of things to come prior to this time. The lessons of freedom and equality supposedly learned as a consequence of the Civil War had been generally lost on the American people, and a series of rulings by the Supreme Court destroyed piecemeal the victories that had been won by the freed blacks. Lynchings were fairly commonplace, and black people had few resources as laws were added to the books which effectively nullified the comprehensive civil rights legislation enacted in 1875. Labor strikes were becoming increasingly violent and street gangs ruled many parts of our major cities. Despite this, most Americans generally seemed satisfied with the general course the country was taking.
This confidence was irreparably shattered in April 1912 when the R.M.S. Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on her maiden voyage. Over fifteen hundred people lost their lives in this disaster. The largest moving object ever built, the luxury liner had seemed to be a testament to the possibilities inherent in technological advancement and man’s engineering skills. This disaster caused many to re-think these views.
On the Sunday following the sinking, a religious sea change began to emerge: preachers began condemning those who trusted technology more than god, conveniently ignoring that an all-powerful god could easily have averted the disaster. The Social Gospel came first under scrutiny, and then under attack. In subsequent months, a previously little-known twelve volume series entitled “The Fundamentals” began to be widely examined across the country. First published in 1909, The Fundamentals attacked modernity in any of its manifestations. It condemned the Social Gospel and insisted that the Bible was to be interpreted literally, exactly as written, and that Jesus Christ’s Second Coming was imminent. In addition, science was roundly attacked while religious ideas that had begun to die out, such as miracles, were resurrected once again. During the First World War which followed a few years later, the ideas contained in The Fundamentals began to be associated with patriotism, a trait that has continued to this day. Adherents pointed to German “higher criticism” of the Bible as evidence of Germanic depravity. Of course, this ignored the fact that the German army was fighting for “Gott, Kaiser, und Vaterland” (God, Kaiser, and Fatherland).
In 1915, a hugely influential motion picture was produced by David W. Griffith and soon became wildly popular. “The Birth of a Nation” was based on a book called “The Clansman” written in the previous decade by a minister named Thomas Dixon. In his 1987 book “The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America,” author Wyn Craig states that Dixon was “undoubtedly the first in a string of twentieth century Southern born, fire-breathing evangelists who greatly appealed to Yankees.” (1) Wade calls him “a feisty, acid-mouthed racist” who inflamed his congregation with his views of white Christian superiority and his paranoia against blacks. Craig rightly observes that “the degree to which he (Dixon) saw the difference between good and evil as being determined entirely by race was unrivalled until ‘Mein Kampf’.” (2)
In his book, and in the subsequent movie, the South was “saved” by the Ku Klux Klan who Dixon compares to the knights of the Middle Ages and their “holy” Crusades. Dixon’s book became a best seller and Griffith patterned his epic movie on it.
“The Birth of a Nation” received an enormous shot in the arm after it had been viewed by President Woodrow Wilson, who gave it his unqualified approval. Wilson had previously authored his own version of American history in his “A History of the American People.” The movie depicts several direct quotes from Wilson’s book. For example, in reference to how Southerners reacted to the so-called “Radical Republican” Reconstruction policy following the Civil War, Wilson’s words are shown on-screen: “…the white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation…until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” Despite this nonsense and his overt racism, Wilson was widely considered to be the most “intellectual” of our presidents up to that time and had previously been president of Princeton University.
After viewing the film, Wilson stated that “it is like writing history in lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” (3)
The movie had an enormous impact on the American people. One viewer said that “it makes me want to go out and kill the first Negro I see.” (4) Although it had largely been dormant and inactive for about twenty years, the Klan, portrayed in the film as the heroes who had saved the South and, by extension, the American Dream, was perhaps inevitably revived. The film, which like the book was little more than a reflection of the racism and false view of history then in vogue, became a cinema classic, and was shown in Southern theaters for decades. The movie also served to pave the way for a new wave of proto-American fascism.
While the original Ku Klux Klan was a strictly Southern phenomenon, the revived version appeared all over the country. Interestingly, the largest klaverns appeared in the Northern cities, some of which sported a Klan membership of up to 90 percent of its adult population. This rise of bigotry was a manifestation both of racial hatred and of a nativist reaction against the scores of immigrants who had come to our shores in previous decades.
In order to join the Klan, certain requirements had to be met. One obviously had to be white. In addition, one had to be a native-born Protestant; bigotry against Catholics extended back to the great Irish immigrations of the 1840s.
The fledgling Klan received an enormous boost when a Congressional investigation into the Klan’s activities was launched in 1921. Grand Wizard Reverend William Simmons, the man who was probably more responsible than anyone else for the revival of the Klan, was called as a witness and gave a stellar performance on how to lie, evade, and get away with it. He stated that the Klan was not a racist organization (!), that it was a non-discriminating Christian order and did not emphasize racial hatred but instead, racial pride. This pride was, of course, restricted to the white race and its accomplishments. When presented with evidence of the Klan’s violence and crimes committed, Simmons brushed this aside, claiming that these were done by impostors posing as Klansmen. This tactic continues to this day among fundamentalist Christians who, when presented with evidence of Christian atrocities, wave them aside claiming they were not done by “real Christians.”
Due to Simmons’ non-flustered performance, Congress pursued the matter no further. This was, in effect, a stamp of approval on the Invisible Empire and its operations. Membership rosters mushroomed to enormous numbers in the months following Simmons’ testimony. It is estimated that as many as four million Americans joined the Klan’s ranks. A testament to the Klan’s growth and power was seen when President Warren Harding agreed to be sworn in as a member.
As previously stated, the revived Klan placed a strong emphasis on Christian fundamentalism, a term coined in 1920 to describe those who accepted the tenets of “The Fundamentals.” Many of the ideas we associate with today’s Christian fundamentalists have their roots in this time period. For example, the notion that America was founded as a Christian Nation was first promulgated in 1920 by Christian minister David S. Kennedy. What Kennedy and his ilk were saying was that America had fallen away from its Christian roots and this was the cause of its moral decline. Notably, Kennedy did not include the revised Ku Klux Klan as evidence of this “decline.” Kennedy, like today’s fundamentalist Christians, sought to return this country to a pristine form of Christianity that would purge it of its alleged demons.
One fact cannot be over-emphasized: that without the emphasis of fundamentalist Christian dogma, the Ku Klux Klan would never have achieved the popularity and power it did in the 1920s.
Lest anyone think that the foregoing is merely a history lesson irrelevant to today’s world, consider the following: the national platform of today’s Republican Party is in many respects identical to that of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan. Although the overt racism has disappeared (or at least removed from public view), the Republican Party today vilifies its opponents in the same way as the Klan did. While the opponents are no longer blacks, Catholics, and Jews, Republicans still demonize secularism, the gay and lesbian community, women’s rights, liberalism, and anybody else it views as a threat. Consider the other similarities: both claim to be super patriots and ardently wave the flag at every opportunity. Both promote a historically false view of our nation’s founding. Both have displayed hostility toward science, in particular stem-cell research and biological evolution. Both are hostile toward intellectuals, the media, and the motion picture industry. Both are downright vitriolic in their condemnation of any views other than their own. Both claim to be vigorous upholders of “traditional values” which always means their values. Tellingly, both have survived numerous scandals and emerged unscathed due to their favorable treatment by the media they claim discriminates against them.
Most significantly of all, today’s Republicans and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s were/are fundamentalist Christians to the core. Can any Republican leader today argue with the Klan Creed which states “I believe in God and in the tenets of the Christian religion and that a godless nation cannot long prosper?” Today’s Republicans, like their Klan predecessors, are innately Calvinistic and seek to impose their version of a “Christian Nation” on the entire United States. Both want mandatory school prayer, legislation making abortion a crime and other social issues associated with fundamentalist Christianity. In other words, both the Klan and the Republican party want a Christian theocracy.
Senator Jesse Helms, who died in 2008, was an unapologetic racist and hate monger who was elected time and again to the United States Senate. Helms never renounced his segregationist views, and at his death was praised by President George W. Bush as a “patriot,” a sentiment shared by numerous Republican demagogues and pundits such as Patrick Buchanan. No leading Republican spoke a word against Helms or condemned his despicable views and congressional record. It is a telling indictment of today’s Radical Republicans that a thoroughly repugnant man such as Jesse Helms, rather than being universally condemned as the national disgrace he was, instead is viewed by them in a positive light. Clearly, he was one of them. These are some of the people who make up today’s Republican Party. Is it any wonder why the United States has lost so many of its former allies abroad?
Today’s Republicans and fundamentalist Christian leaders would be right at home in the 1920s Ku Klux Klan.
- The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America by Wyn Craig. Published 1987 by Oxford University Press. Pg. 122
- Ibid, pg. 123
- Ibid, pg. 126
- Ibid, pg. 138
- Citizen Klan: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 by Leonard J. Moore. Published 1991 by the University of North Carolina Press
By: Jon Nelson