This post began as a series of tweets. What do you mean you don’t follow me on Twitter?
All I did was google the symbol of the burning cross. I wanted to know where it started: how the primary Christian symbol ended up aflame and overshadowed by American racists.
I read that the Scottish once used the fiery cross, the Crann Tara, to summon allies during times of danger or war. Google then pointed me to Thomas Dixon, Jr., Baptist preacher and author of the Romantic (not romantic) novel The Clansman (1905).
The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan was one of a series of novels on the post-Civil War South, the Klan, and treacherous Northern government. Within 10 years, The Clansman had become D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation, an earnest three-hour tour of the U.S. Civil War, Reconstruction, and the key tropes of Southern racism:
- besieged, mistreated Southern landowners;
- power-hungry and manipulative Northern politicians;
- helpless Southern White women;
- bug-eyed, violent, predatory ‘Negro’ freemen—most of them White actors in blackface;
- attempted rape of the Southern woman;
- outraged noble townsmen;
- community catharsis through lynching.
(Watch the full video at your own discretion.)
“Griffith and ‘The Birth of a Nation’ were no more enlightened than the America which produced them. The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all.” —Roger Ebert, 2003
Thomas Dixon, Jr., had a brother who was just five months younger than him. Amzi Clarence Dixon also preached in the Baptist tradition and wrote and edited several books of his own. Rather than American Romance novels, A.C. Dixon wrote Christian apologetics, and the most famous project he contributed to was The Fundamentals, a 1911 collection of essays identifying the non-negotiable tenets of the Christian faith.
The brother of the man who introduced the Klan to its modern terrorism symbol co-edited the main text of US fundamentalism. I had no idea. But it makes the most perverse sense.
Early this October, a modern Southern Klansman pled guilty to burning a cross in the yard of an interracial family: he actually was arrested and charged, underwent trial, pled guilty, and is subject to 20 years in jail. So are his accomplices. So some big picture items have changed in the last century!
But others haven’t.
When I look at where some of the most dogged prejudices persist in the public sphere, I’m seeing rows of preachers and pews of believers behind them.
I’m beginning to doubt that conventional Christianity’s institutions can recognize colonial reasoning patterns. And it may be that they can’t recognize colonial reasoning because they are themselves colonial. Christianity and colonialism have always been enmeshed.
When I saw the literal bond between Thomas Dixon Jr. (literature, pulpit, KKK) and A.C. Dixon (law, pulpit, fundamentalism), it pulled me up short. I didn’t stall because of the cortisol spike of surprise or stress, but because it was so dully monotonous: there it was again, the common law marriage of the cross and the sword.
Two facets of colonialism interest me most: the “go to all the earth” expansionist expression and within-the-borders internal functions: the definitions and constructed classes that stratify the colonizing group, the stratification processes, the rules of nobility and inter-class mobility, policy and law, and so on. Toni Morrison articulates several of these intra-border functions and their ability to distract the targets of colonialism in her classic 1975 lecture at Portland State.
But that moment made me wonder why the Dixons’ path was more familiar than shocking: why the same colonialist logic permits secular racism as permits religious domination. Both, I realized, depend on hatred for and exclusion of various forms of difference. Religious communities like the Dixons’ Southern Baptist denomination haven’t been subtle about transferring their founding logic from one minority (e.g. US Blacks) to others (e.g. LGBTQ people).
Thomas + A.C. Dixon’s father was a slave-owner who joined the Klan but later left it because he thought it corrupt, not because he found it wrong. The two brothers grew up during Reconstruction, when the U.S. was fumbling both abolition and Black emancipation and had no relatives or other elders to challenge the lessons their country was teaching them about who was of value and who was not.
They didn’t grow up with a sense of moral or intellectual equality between their people and other groups. The religion they adopted and that trained them to teach others didn’t teach them to recognize that equality either. It’s an incalculable waste of myths, rites, and ethics when a religion doesn’t even nudge a person toward growing up.
As it was, both brothers used the power of the written, spoken, and legal word to promote inequality between Whites and so-called “lesser races.” Thomas Dixon, Jr. advanced it through his pro-White fiction, while A.C. Dixon enshrined it through pro-fundamentalist speeches and the doctrines that still dominate the US public view of the Church today.
T. Dixon’s fiction inspired over a century of White nationalist racism, from The Clansman and Birth of a Nation to the hate organizations that still sputter along this century. A.C. Dixon’s doctrines mingled with the 1900s’ reaction against modernism, and in part because of that movement, we’re still forced to debate basic human rights with religious people.
As the legal tide slowly shifts, some groups are willing to concede denominational policies to racist, sexist, heterosexist, and/or ableist people and continue to debate only shared, civil law. That’s not a trade-off I’m comfortable making, and the reason why not is in the logic of colonial religion itself.
Colonial religion claims that it overrules limited civic authority. It represents itself as the universal truth. Colonial religion appeals to its god over all gods and proposes its standards are the First Law all other laws will ultimately fall subject to.
So if a believer’s universal Real True Morality is racist, sexist, heterosexist, or ableist, if that’s what the archetype of righteousness is, it doesn’t comfort me that the believer is willing to reserve the place of worship and religious institutions for herself and adopt a Prime Directive-style non-interference policy with regard to the rest of the planet. It may seem magnanimous for a time, but it becomes discomforting when weekend services include the message that one day, very soon, the believers’ god will return to enforce Real True Morality and smash the upstart state into oblivion.
When that’s the underlying religious story, that one day universal Real True Morality will trump localized accommodating state morality, I’m going to question the quality of those “universal” rules, policies, and doctrines. If they will govern me now or govern me later, what’s the point in waiting to question them?
Religious colonialism is opaque to many of those who exercise it, and even to some of those marginalized by it, because it is everywhere. Some groups have opted out of institutional state support and suffered persecution for it, but even these groups aren’t wholly free from colonialism, racism, or the marginalization of social minorities.
My invitation, especially for those from denominations that have historically been either marginal or tentative with the state, is that we recognize how we nevertheless act as agents of colonial marginalization in our own spheres.
“The beast” many of us have seen in the state isn’t Other to us. It is us. The questions we have to answer are whether we can recognize our own handiwork when it spills over in the town square and whether we can rewrite our own code, the ideological and perceptual code that drives our beast-like influence on the world.