Letters to the Editor

The more things change, brings more of the same

I enjoyed reading and, generally agree with the premise presented by Mr. Chinn regarding religious rhetoric in your June 22 issue. I’ve been thinking along similar lines since Wally DuChateau’s column several weeks ago describing, a painting of an angel smiling down on the ratification of the Constitution. As a shanty Irish soup kitchen Catholic having received my early indoctrination at a parochial school named for St. Gerard, patron saint of unwed mothers and with a quick nod to Mr. Purtzer’s facetious suggestion to eliminate history classes in schools to save money (June 22 “Our Corner”), I propose that we stop gently poking a figurative wasp’s nest and use rhetorical baseball bats and lighter fluid to shape public discourse (always coloring within the lines, of course).

I often find myself more than mildly annoyed by the so called Christian conservative faction of my chosen party coalition. I don’t necessarily disagree with their positions, but I don’t view them as winning campaign issues of overall supreme importance preferring to focus on more secular matters to win elections. I’ve spoken to many independent minded people who have expressed similar sentiments. Without casting aspersions or calumny on individual spirituality, let’s take a quick look at where the religious right’s ideology has been and where it’s going, especially among the radical splinter factions like the Westboro Baptists, the Koran burning preacher/and abortion clinic bombers.

In 1914, Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith produced “Birth of A Nation,” a silent movie with a special musical score for a 30 piece orchestra. It had a documentary look and ‘depicted a romanticized view of the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction period. In special showings to President Wilson, Congress, and the Supreme Court, Wilson called it “terribly true” and Chief Justice Edward White confided to Dixon, “I was a member of the Klan, Sir.”

When the movie opened in Atlanta, a Methodist minister turned-salesman turned fraternal organizer named William Simmons ran an ad for a revived Klan. He copyrighted the organization, name, rituals, and robes. The first cross burning was on Thanksgiving eve 1915. It involved a stone alter, a U.S. flag, a sword, an open Bible, and a canteen.

In June, 1920, he hired a publicity firm, promising them an 80 percent commission.  They sent out 11,000 “Kleagles” (recruiters) who first approached Baptist and Methodist ministers with offers of free membership positions. The Kleagle would be invited to address Sunday services followed by the minister urging the congregation to join “this good Christian Society.” By September 1921, 100,000 white Protestant men had paid $10 to join and $6 for a robe. Simmons had earned $170,000 and his Invisible Empire had a factory for making the robes, one for printing propaganda, and a real estate company to manage its properties.

Recruiting was easy in a world where basically rural and religious people were urbanized due to industrialization, the newly enacted 19th amendment granting women voting rights and political equality, crime on the streets associated with the 18th amendment (prohibition) and fear of a “Red Revolution” associated with U.S. labor unrest and the post war situation in Europe. Major focus was on street crime and immorality everywhere.

This Klan fought for a puritanical, chaste world and “100 percent Americanism. “The great city,” according to an Imperial Wizard, “corrodes the very soul American life.” For them the city meant nonconformists, Blacks, Catholics, Jews, people who didn’t speak English; sexually suggestive “jazz” music; and independent women who saw life beyond home, family and church. Against a terrifying urban America, it proclaimed the “God fearing ways” of a Biblical Christianity.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is much more to be said when space permits. Meanwhile, let’s try to have a serious discussion about replacing Obama with Michelle Bachman or Sarah Palin.

Edward Neil


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