The Art of Religious Intolerance: Alma White and Branford Clarke
This is more the bailiwick of our assistant editor Kelly Baker (currently en route to Tennessee, I believe, where she is moving with her family) than me, but Lynn Neal, "Christianizing the Klan: Alma White, Branford Clarke, and the Art of Religious Intolerance," in Church History, 78 (June 2009): 350-378, is this week's recommended reading to send your way. Don't read it when you're in a foul mood already, as I did this weekend (this piece combined with unexpected cat illness and death really put a damper on things), because you'll need some ironic distance and humor to keep you from getting dragged down into this foul but fascinating material.
The visual culture of American religion has been quite a boom field in recent years, thanks largely to David Morgan, Salley Promey, Colleen McDannell, and some others. That's a good thing, because logocentrists like myself (and most historians, I would guess) need frequent reminding of the power of the visual. Neal's article does precisely that, but with somewhat different and far more polemically ugly (albeit visually interesting) material than in some of the other works in visual culture. Neal discusses the work of Branford Clarke, a British-born illustrator who hooked up with the Pentecostal evangelist Alma White, author of such classics as Heroes of the Fiery Cross. White's words and Clarke's illustrations proved powerful for developing the visual culture of 1920s Klansmen. My favorite of all, reproduced on p. 368 of the article, shows Jesus distributing the loaves and fishes, each loaf a tenet of the Klan; Jesus gives them to his Klansmen disciples, who then feed the multitudes. Lynn Neal concludes, of Clarke's version of the 1920s religion of fear: "They [the viewers] were provided with a way of seeing that divinized the Klan's mission, sacralized the American nation, and demonized the Catholic church. . . . Examining their [White and Clarke's] way of seeing reveals aspects of how people create and replicate religious intolerance, then and now. They provide us with a glimpse into those contours and teach us how religion often functions as a way for people to exorcise their fears and exercise their power."