Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of an ongoing series of interviews about the study of religion and media around the world. The first part and second part appeared earlier this summer. The third, an interview with Rachel Wagner, appeared here last month. In his introduction then, Plate wrote:
Over the next several months, I will be interviewing scholars who are investigating the places where religion and media meet. Since The Revealer itself began alongside NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, this seems a logical venue. The hope is that these intersections will provide a forum for a broad range of scholars, but also make scholarly work accessible to a general public interested in such topics. After all… they are inescapable even if we don’t think of them in terms like “religion” or “media.”
By S. Brent Plate
In a disturbingly comic scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a group of marauding horsemen wear hoods over their heads as they set out to attack the former slave Django and his Germanic bounty hunter sidekick, Dr. King Schultz. The hooded, bumbling riders moan and groan that they can’t see through the eyeholes, the hoods are uncomfortable, and so they vote as to whether to keep them on as they carry out their dirty business. Critics of the film have noted that the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t founded until 1865, seven years after the film was set, though the film never claims these horsemen were the KKK. Indeed, Christian brotherhoods in southern Spain have long been using conically-tipped hoods (capirotes) as markers of identity and group belonging.
The imagistic association of one particular piece of clothing to a group ideology is one of the trajectories that Kelly Baker takes in her recent book, The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915–1930, published by the University Press of Kansas. In her clearly written, meticulously researched prose, Baker notes the role of media (including newspapers, novels, and pamphlets, but also hoods, robes, parades, crosses and flags), and how the spectacle of these symbols communicates the ideals of a Protestant, white supremacist nation. Ultimately, rather than leaving all this in the past, Baker draws upon currents coursing through U.S. religious culture over the past three centuries. She finds the KKK to not simply be a marginal oddity; they have a much deeper connection to broader concerns that move through contemporary Protestant movements.
Kelly J. Baker is an American religious historian, trained in Religious Studies and American Studies, with particular interests in religious intolerance in the U.S., gender and religion, material religion, supernaturalism and apocalypticism. She is currently Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Tennesse, Knoxville, and working on a book about Zombie culture. She is editor at the group blog Religion in American History.
S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World; and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. With Jolyon Mitchell he co-edited The Religion and Film Reader. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.
Image: Archival Klan meeting