Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Taking Hate Seriously, or, Countering Christian White Nationalism | Righting America

by Camille Lewis

Camille Kaminski Lewis is currently a Lecturer 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 bookRomancing 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 JournalShe 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.

Photo of a copper statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson outside in front of trees and a house being covered by a tarp with a crane.
Statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson being covered. Image courtesy of c-ville.com

In his first book, Counter Statement, Kenneth Burke explains that any idea contains its opposite, as if it houses an ideological pendulum. According to Burke, every principle “is matched by an opposite principle flourishing and triumphant today. Heresies and orthodoxies will always be changing places, but whatever the minority view happens to be at any given time, one must consider it as ‘counter.’”1  In other words, every tradition contains its own critique. Ideas are always in dialogue, bridging gaps that we may not have known existed until the bridges were built. And alongside those bridges are other implied ways to transfer and create meaning.

To foreground that pendulum and address our contemporary political climate, I am compiling and editing the anthology, White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity through Peter Lang’s Speaking of Religion book series. The text will include American speeches since the Civil War which wield religious arguments in order to affirm or dismantle white supremacy. William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, William Ward Ayer, and Bob Jones, Sr. as well as Billy Graham, Barack Obama, and Reverend William Barber are just a few of the voices I want to include.

But first, this editor must tackle copyright permissions. I hired a student research assistant to help me along—thanks to a grant from the Furman Humanities Development Fund—but I didn’t want him to have to rub elbows with some of these characters. So I myself took on the first and worst: John Weaver, a Neo-Confederate infamously identified on the Southern Poverty Law Watch List. Weaver’s sermon “The Truth Concerning the Confederate Battle Flag” is the most frequently cited text defending the white “heritage” of the Confederacy. This sermon is the prominent touchstone for that perspective. Would he agree to a reprint?

I sent the email donning the detached, bureaucratic tone of a form letter. Within hours he responded. Read it for yourself.

Camil[l]e, first, I do not know you.  Second, I do not know in what context the message would be used.  Third, I am not interested in being labeled as a “white supremacist” nor being connected with the KKK or Aryan nation groups.  I do not belong to any of those groups neither do I hold their views. I have learned not to trust people who want to “use my materials” and then take everything out of context or present it in a liberal, leftist, humanistic light.  I know that Richard Furman was a sympathetic Confederate and that Furman supplied many soldiers for the South, yet, if I am correct, most of the history has been repudiated. His views on slavery have also been repudiated, I am sure, yet here is a reprint of his paper: https://confederateshop.com/shop/books/furman-and-the-baptists-on-slavery/.  I will not even consider granting permission until and unless I could see the context of the book as well as my message.

Pastor Weaver

Where to begin?

The series editor and I exchanged laughs and sighs. The entire melding of white nationalism and faith is right there in an eight-sentence email. “Oh well,” the editor shrugged.

But yet, I’m a rhetorician. I have to try. Weaver’s statement houses its own ideological pendulum, right? Can I, a “speech teacher” at an institution undergoing its own reconciliation with its slave-holding past, build a sufficient bridge between a Sons of the Confederate Veteran chaplain and myself? I had to try.

Pastor Weaver,

You are correct that we don’t know each other, but we do share a similar background. I, too, graduated from Bob Jones University. I earned a BA. in English in 1990 and an M.A. in Public Speaking in 1992. My husband and I taught there for 17 years—he in the Division of Music and I in the Division of Speech. He and I and our two sons are members in good standing at Mitchell Road Presbyterian (PCA) here in Greenville. We have been married for 29 years this summer, and, in addition to our living sons, we have four children waiting for us in Heaven.

To explain a little further, this volume I’m working on is an anthology. I want to include important public speeches and sermons since the Civil War. I intend to put speakers in dialogue with each other — to present two sides of the same conversation — with a contextual essay introducing each. Some of the pairs I have identified are Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Billy Sunday and the Princeton faculty, and Bob Jones Sr. and Billy Graham. I plan on including recent texts with Donald Trump and Barack Obama as well as Jefferson Sessions and Joe P. Kennedy III.

One additional pair that I know you would recognize is William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Cobb Erwin from the 1924 Democratic National Convention. I have quickly discovered that all Georgian gentlemen know of Erwin either through his father — Alexander Smith Erwin — or through his maternal grandfather — Howell Cobb. Erwin was the surprise renegade in that 1924 event, and I would argue that my students and other undergraduate speech students should know of his rhetorical prowess.Your sermon, “The Truth Concerning the Confederate Battle Flag,” is a significant text among all of these, and that’s why I’d like to include it in the volume. Within current conversations about Confederate memorials, I have found no other text quoted as often. Because of its influence, I consider it important among the others.

Whatever you decide, I will respect.

Best to you,

I have not heard back, and I likely won’t. Sometimes a bridge is built and lies fallow. Sometimes a pendulum stops swinging.

But this exchange points up the need and the possibilities within the anthology itself. When a political ideology such as white supremacy holds an entire nation in its thrall, we educated citizens are tempted to simply mock. In 1938, when the English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf was about to become a “Book of the Month,” Kenneth Burke warned his literati peers: “If the reviewer but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with a guaranty in advance that [the] article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population,” the writer “is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment.”2

So instead of “knocking off” a sneering meme on our newsfeed or shaking our heads among friends, Burke suggests we take the talk seriously. Similar to Burke’s challenge, our job, then, is to find all the available ways of making the white nationalist distortions of religion apparent, so that politicians of this kind will be ineffective in performing their swindle.

So how is John Weaver creating the same white supremacist drama as did William Jennings Bryan or Billy Sunday?  How have American rhetors since the Civil War constituted their white nationalism through religious rhetoric? And how have their contemporaries countered those statements? How can we now “put in” our “oar” in the continuing conversation over the last 150 years? Where do we stand next to our own American monuments so that we can create a better, more comic version of ourselves? With this anthology of statements and their contemporaneous counter-statements, I hope to craft and polish the same serious but comedic lens as Burke did with Mein Kampf.

1Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (Berkeley: U California P, 1984) vii.

2Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” The Philosophy of Literary Form (Berkeley: U California P, 1973) 191.