Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Snacks for the Hegemon | Righting America

by Camille Lewis

Camille Kaminski Lewis is currently a Visiting Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. The story of that publication is available at The KB Journal.  She is currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled Klandamentalism: Dysfunction and Violence in America’s Most Romantic Religious Movements, while also compiling and editing an anthology – White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity – as part of Peter Lang’s Speaking of Religion book series.

Gif of King Kong in the 1933 movie being shot down by biplanes and falling down from the empire state building.

I was trying to explain “the Hegemon” to my 300-level class a few weeks back—the idea that a governing power gains its strength from those it subjugates. I think I failed. In my head, I imagined it to be King Kong scooping up radical ideas like another Fay Wray and digesting them as its own. I lumbered across the front of the room like a pre-CGI movie monster and munched on imaginary but hapless ideas I found in my path: labor, feminism, and reconciliation.

The Hegemon has been on my mind. I think I actually caught it shuffling across a church platform last month—not my own church, if that’s any consolation. I have been participating in local conversations among evangelicals – almost all of them white –  about racial reconciliation. Every talk follows the same pattern.

We start with a wish disguised as a declaration that “this isn’t a fad.” We mean, “we hope this isn’t only a fad.” 

Following a fad isn’t the crux of the problem. Feeding the Hegemon is the problem. A fad, in time, becomes hilarious. Have you looked at your tenth-grade school photos? 

The Hegemon, however, is never funny. The Hegemon gets stronger as it digests the ideas that could topple it. Those who would critique its power are mere snacks fueling its walk between skyscrapers.

In one particular racial reconciliation talk, the speaker began by reassuring the “Truly Reformed” bow-tie crowd that he is not a member of the “radical left.” Don’t be afraid, fathers and brothers. This white cis-het male Ph.D. in History speaking in front of you is not “being led by academics,” whom he identifies as scholars of “critical race theory.” 

This first step reveals the entire path. You know where the Hegemon is going when he starts with this Othering.  Academics are too bitter for the evangelical Hegemon to consume. Don’t pick those. And avoid the “dark meat” of critical race theory too. Too much cholesterol.

After explaining what we are not, the speaker summarizes the available metanarratives. Predictably, in his telling there are “two schools of thought” in historical scholarship: evangelicals have either “reflected” culture (naively tripping into its vices), or evangelicals have “challenged” culture (following the Bible’s mandates). 

So we have either submitted to peer pressure, or directed people to God. We have either followed blindly like dupes, or led triumphantly like heroes. We have either been influenced toward the bad, or have influenced toward the good. When we are passive, it’s unfortunate; when we are active, it’s always virtuous. King Kong either gets tricked into hurting people or leads them to a better world. 

I have yet to hear an evangelical historian in these talks plainly confess the sin of our tribe. For a group that holds to the Westminster Confession (chapter 15) and that confesses our sin every Sunday in the liturgy, we just don’t confess our sin of white supremacy. We never mention that evangelicals led culture toward the bad. Never. It’s not even in our purview.

So if we’re not like those bitter academics, and we have the two choices of following the bad or leading toward the good, the third step is easy. Let’s look at all the good we South Carolinian evangelicals have accomplished. Let’s pull out the Hall of Famers! All the talks include the same ones. There’s the Zion Presbyterian Church in Charleston which integrated and placed African Americans at the center of the ministry, albeit with a white pastor, thirteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation. And yes, Black South Carolinian Robert Smalls did represent the state in the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction. All true. 

Then it gets weird. Benjamin Franklin Perry gets props for being a Greenvillian who resisted secession, a hero whom Andrew Jackson recognized and affirmed in appointing him South Carolina’s Reconstruction Governor. Governor Strom Thurmond is another hero, didn’t you know? He condemned Greenville County’s most infamous lynching of Willie Earle in 1947

Hell no he didn’t. Thurmond said that Willie Earle’s lynchers “ought to be strongly prosecuted. The Officers are doing a mighty fine job up there, and it won’t be long until the entire case is cleaned up.” That’s it. He praised the police. He didn’t mourn white supremacist injustice.[1]

And Perry’s opening address to the 1865 South Carolina constitutional convention—the very convention that would create black codes eliminating freedmen suffrage—is unadulterated white nationalism. Perry conceded that, while slavery must never again exist in South Carolina, the Negro will never in any way be a citizen, no matter what the Northern radicals (i.e. “critical race theorists”) want: 

The African has been, in all ages, a savage or a slave. God created him inferior to the white man in form, color, and intellect, and no legislation or culture can make him his equal. You might as well expect to make the fox the equal of the lion in courage and strength, or the ass the equal of the horse in symmetry and fleetness. His color is black; his head covered with wool instead of hair, his form and features will not compete with the Caucasian race, and it is in vain to think of elevating him to the dignity of the white man. God created differences between the two races, and nothing can make him equal.[2]

When finally I heard the speaker actually admit, in so many words, that we are fueling the Hegemon, I genuinely questioned my participation as a listener: “White Christians in the South can benefit from studying African-American history.” Yes, the bow-tied Powers-that-Be do benefit from casting aside critical voices, from narrowing historical narratives to make us either the dupe or the hero, and from telling only the pleasant facts from the historical record. That benefit is the problem. We’re making the monster stronger. 

When my students and I talked about ideological rhetorical criticism that week, I mentioned that sometimes our best analyses start by asking “What’s missing?” What’s missing in recent white evangelical racial reconciliation attempts? Dissent, truth-telling, and humility. We throw out our most pointed critics, we bend history to make us heroes, and we skip past confession. 

In my framing the problem this way, I admit that I, too, am bending the story. I think we white evangelicals can do better. I think there is hope. But that hope isn’t in feeding the white nationalist monster. It’s admitting that we created him.

The Hegemon might eat that idea too. It’s a risk. The next class period I ended up describing the Hegemon as a Weeble. It wobbles, but it doesn’t fall down. 

Gif of a Russian Doll painted with a red and white stripped shirt rolling around in circles.

[1] “Sheriff Bearden Swears Warrant in Lynching Case,” Orangeburg Times and Democrat, February 22, 1947, 1 and 3. Wayne Freeman, “Constables Assisting in Lynch Probe,” Greenville News, February 18, 1947, 1.

[2] Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (New York: Penguin, 2008).