Profiles in Cowardice:
America’s White Protestant Establishment and the Klan

For anyone with even a glancing knowledge of U.S. history, it’s impossible not to see similarities between 2016 and the 1920s. The U.S. has elected as president a man whose promise to Make America Great Again echoes the urgent nostalgia of Warren Harding’s pledge of a Return to Normalcy. Anti-Semitism has wormed itself into mainstream political discourse in a way that seems directly out of Henry Ford’s playbook. The popularity of nativist policies is eerily similar to the national mood just before the passage of stringent immigration restrictions in 1924.

And the KKK has emerged from the shadows.

Since the election, reports have emerged that the newly emboldened white supremacist organization plans to hold a public rally in North Carolina celebrating Donald Trump’s victory. This is perhaps the most chilling of parallels to the 1920s. In that decade, too, the Klan reemerged, promising “a torrential flood” that would sweep everyone except white, Protestant, native-born Americans “from the face of our beloved land.” Historians have estimated that the organization reached a membership in the millions and elected its members to municipal, state, and federal office.

During the 1920s, the nation’s white, establishment Protestant churches responded to the Klan with striking apathy. The obligatory resolutions were passed, by individual denominations as well as the interdenominational Federal Council of Churches, expressing outrage. But these amounted to little. Prominent churchgoers, and even clergy, were active members of the organization.

And the non-Protestant victims of the Klan noticed. “The authoritative bodies of all Protestant churches should not content themselves with merely a resolution,” wrote one prominent New York rabbi, “but should discipline severely everyone who has any connection directly with the K.K.K., be it minister or layman.” According to this rabbi, “action not words is necessary, in order to set the Protestant church right before the world.”

Words were pretty much all anyone got, however. Leaders of the Federal Council of Churches, which during the 1920s represented all of the major Protestant denominations in the U.S., insisted they had no right to act. The best solution was “publicity in the religious press” in the hopes of pushing “the various Protestant churches to a more sane and intelligent attitude toward the Klan.”

These white, establishment Protestant leaders of the 1920s were not, by and large, outright bigots. As I’ve explored in Saving Faith, these men and women were enormously influential in fostering a spirit of religious inclusiveness in American culture. And this commitment to religious pluralism also led to a rhetoric of acceptance of racial and ethnic diversity as well.

But faced with the need to respond to prominent clergy and churchgoers who supported the Klan, leaders of the Protestant establishment failed to live up to the values they loudly proclaimed.

And their failure provides some important lessons for the Protestants of 2016 who again live in a political culture at odds with their values:

1.             Avoid False Equivalences that Delay Responding
The discussions of the Klan within 1920s establishment Protestantism reached a dead-end. Many religious leaders opposed the group; others supported it. Nothing happened as each side tried to sway the other. But not acting while waiting to persuade people has significant consequences: it normalizes racist and nationalist positions as being open to debate; it allows hostility and violence to continue unchecked; and, ultimately, it undermines the moral authority of religious institutions. 

2.             Don’t Let Institution Machinery Become an Excuse for Inaction
Like all institutions, churches and denominations are slow, plodding machines. Many Protestant churches pride themselves on democratic governance. Often, that’s an admirable thing. But institutional processes can easily become an excuse for delaying action. That happened in the 1920s, as churches and denominations shuffled anti-KKK efforts through committee after committee. It shouldn’t happen now.

3.             Stop Pretending You Know Better than the People Who Need Your Help
As illustrated in the exchange between the New York rabbi and the Federal Council of Churches, the representatives of the Protestant body felt the need to lecture their Jewish correspondent on the value of publicity. But here’s the thing: people who are being persecuted often know what they need when they ask for help. The appropriate response for today’s Protestant churches is to help – not to issue condescending proclamations while avoiding the actual hard work.

The record of the white, establishment Protestant churches in combatting the KKK during the 1920s was quite poor. While these churches lack the cultural power in 2016 that they possessed in the early 20th century, they still have the ability to wield significant influence and do enormous work for good.

The United States seems not to have learned the lessons of history. But we might hope that its churches have.