Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
White Nationalism and Faith: An Interview with Camille Kaminski Lewis | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Camille Kaminski Lewis is, as of this fall, an Assistant Professor 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.  And she is currently working on a manuscript titled Klandamentalism: America’s Most Dysfunctional Romance.

Cover for White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity, edited by Camille Kaminski Lewis. Peter Lang, 2020.

And she has just published an edited volume, White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity (Peter Lang, 2020). This anthology makes for both appalling and inspiring reading, and we here at rightingamerica are delighted that Camille was willing to be interviewed about White Nationalism and Faith.

  1. Could you give a brief overview of what this volume contains, and how you imagine it being used in the classroom?
    • I include American texts since the Civil War that both featured white nationalist arguments in religious rhetoric as well as those texts that countered those same arguments. For instance, after James Forman read his “Black Manifesto” at Rockefeller’s Riverside Church in Manhattan, Carl McIntire came back with his own “Christian Manifesto.” McIntire (poorly) imitates Forman’s organization and arguments – an imitation that my students perceived was very similar to current #AllLivesMatter appeals. Thus, each set of artifacts in the book is a conversation that might give us solutions in countering white nationalism and faith.
    • Since I just finished using the volume in my classroom this semester, I have a very clear picture on its use. I coupled my volume with Patricia Roberts-Miller’s Demagoguery and Democracy. The students read the secondary source every Monday and these primary sources every Wednesday. And then on Friday they were tasked with facilitating the class discussion. The selections worked both to inform the students about the persistence of demagogic white nationalism in our public conversations as well as to help them imagine democratic solutions to them. 
  2. In introducing this collection of documents you make – drawing from Kenneth Burke – this powerful (and on point) assertion: “Ignoring the rhetoric with the strain of One-Hundred Percenters – or what current conversations dub ‘white nationalists’ – will vandalize our civic sphere. Knocking off a few adverse memes will only gratify ourselves. Our job, then, is to find all the available ways of making the white nationalist distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of this kind will be ineffective in performing their swindle.” Can you say more about what constitutes civic vandalism, and what it is that we need to do? 
    • I have regularly confessed to my students over the last five years that I feel very gratified when I post a meme about our former “Cheeto-in-Chief.” That is what Burke is talking about in his “Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle.” Calling Hitler in Burke’s time or Trump in our time “a clown” does not take him seriously enough but only makes us feel pious. That self-righteous political piety is how Burke described what we today call “purity politics.” Voltaire is referencing the same thing with his aphorism, “il meglio è l’inimico del bene” or “the best is the enemy of the good.” Piously clinging to the purest of motives or piously spitting on the evilest of actors ruins the political sphere. It’s a kind of vandalism. I remember when I tried to grow a tea rose in this Southern climate. I was constantly pruning and powdering and spraying and plucking, and the plant grew to take over the entire bed. And I never got a bloom. The dumb plant was ruining the looks of that flower bed and grating on my last nerve, and for what? That’s what “knocking off a few adverse attitudizings” does for our public sphere. We need to resist that and get to work solving the rhetorical problems before us.
  3. In your estimation what is the most appalling document you have included here? (I will nominate Billy James Hargis’ “The Cross and the Sickle.”) What is the most inspiring?
    • I didn’t get permission for one text that I wanted to include: Bob Jones, Sr.’s Easter Sunday morning sermon, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” So I would nominate that one especially since its counter-statement is also my most inspiring. At a Springfield, Missouri town hall Pastor Phil Snider took Bob Jones’ text and changed “racial segregation” to “gay rights”  to show how similar the arguments against marriage equality were to the arguments against racial integration. Snider’s speech makes me sweat every time I hear it, and my students get enraptured with his creativity. 
    • But yes, Billy James Hargis is perfectly terrible, isn’t he? It might be that he’s preaching in such a familiar, anti-logical, midwestern, mid-century way. 
  4. In your acknowledgments you make this arresting statement: “I am also grateful to those rhetors who took umbrage at the mere suggestion that I include them in a volume on white nationalism and faith.” Could you elaborate on this?
    • Well, three people objected to my even asking for reprint permission. Instead of just saying, “no,” or not responding at all, they took this opportunity to preen and strut. And after several cordial phone conversations with Franklin Graham’s press agent, I received the following boiler-plate refusal: “Franklin has publicly denounced all forms of racism and bigotry. As president of Samaritan’s Purse, he has dedicated his life to serving people of all races and backgrounds. His ministry is currently providing spiritual and physical aid to victims of war, natural disasters, disease, famine, poverty, and persecution in more than 100 countries. Franklin has already made his position on this issue clear, so permission will not be granted to reprint his sermon in this publication.”
    • Fair enough. Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch List includes John Weaver, who objected to my using his “The Truth about the Confederate Flag” and stated, “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.” 
    • But Bob Jones University’s Chief of Staff, Randy Page, was the most insulting and, frankly, revealing. He stated to my assistant: “We have no interest in providing information for an academically farcical publication.” I wanted to include Page’s statement especially since I was acting as that “Modern Woman” Bob Jones railed against in the now-public-domain sermon I could include. But the editors suggested I be more euphemistic in my mention. 
  5. What is your current scholarly project?
    • I am about 75% done with my next project called Klandamentalism: America’s Most Dysfunctional Romance. I have named the rhetoric that supported and perpetuated this intersection of conservative politics, revivalism, and white male supremacy, “Klandamentalism.” Contrary to the academic assumption that the Ku Klux Klan exploited naïve and pious evangelicals for its own gain, a close reading of twentieth-century revival sermons and their media coverage shows that the Klansman and the fundamentalist spokesman were promoting the same ideology, from the same pulpits, and with the same rhetoric. My neologism features this fusion. Through rhetorical analysis, I will map the trajectory of Klandamentalism from the Civil War through the twenty-first century. 
    • Bob Jones melded an orthodoxish vocabulary with a violent white male supremacy that sets up one strain of the American citizenry to be comfortable with a tyrant. Klandamentalism starts with a forceful, egocentric singular personality and a small but secret cadre of young, white males who alone act upon their neighbors, employees, families, and nation to “bring them to God” in order to earn their own entry into Heaven. Their actions are imprecise and bland. Their antagonists—usually gendered feminine—flamboyantly lure the white male believers’ attention away from their heavenly destination. 
    • Throughout the twentieth-century, Jones laid his Klandamentalist cards out on the table for us to examine. His hand has been passed to four generations now, and the latest one has picked it up to win the presidency for its own demagogue all with white evangelical support—with Klandamentalist support. This twentieth-century “Klandamentalism” persists past Bob Jones’ prolific public life and continues to goad a particular American subculture into the twenty-first century. The current civic conversation in the United States is caught in a trap of religious arguments masking white supremacy. We as a nation are struggling with how to identify, address, and counter an ideology that can be alternatively too religious to be public or too racist to be admitted. But we have encountered this same rhetorical strategy before. Our great-grandparents addressed white supremacist religious arguments in their civic conversations, and unraveling how they countered those white supremacist strategies will help us solve inequality today.

Thank you Camille!