Kelly J. Baker

“Foregrounding White Supremacists in Religious Studies”

Baker 200 x 267How do we directly address white supremacy and white supremacists in our scholarship and teaching? (Or do we?) How should we approach these controversial, but common groups? These questions plagued me since I began my research on the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy 13 years ago. Trained as an American religious historian, I realized early on that white supremacists, much less white supremacy, were often excluded, overlooked or marginalized in narratives about American religions. White supremacists appeared as weird, fringe, or worse, inconsequential, especially in works that emphasized democracy, progress and pluralism. In my book, Gospel According to the Klan, I attempted to revise of the standard narrative of American history by showing how religion and racism work together–fostering, affirming, and justifying one another–in the white Protestant nationalism of the 1920s Klan. White nationalism is not a historical artifact, but it remains influential today, as became obvious in the 2016 presidential election.

For this conversation, I want us to think together about how norms of civility (and assumptions of community) within religious studies (and stories about the United States) have produced historical amnesia about white supremacists, so their actions always appear new, newsworthy, and never historical. As I’ve written previously, “to see the Klan as citizens rather than villains” helps create a more complex—more troubling and likely more controversial—narrative of American religions. To understand the Klan this way also brings into question how some scholars understand what religion is and cannot be. To study the Klan as a religious and racist movement pushes against professional norms of how to study religion, which has everything to do with whiteness and systems of white supremacy. This session aims to be a dialogue, in which we can think through together why religious studies still seems to have a hard time approaching white supremacists and white supremacy.

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