An Imperial Wizard of a Virginia segment of the Ku Klux Klan asserted that his organization was Christian and not a hate organization. He further labeled some KKK members who have been guilty of using violence as “rogue” members and declared that the ideology to maintain white supremacy did not constitute hate. The media took notice (see here, here, and here). When Pope Francis or an Episcopalian asserts that they are Christian, such assertions are not generally newsworthy today (though in the1926 cartoon above, the Christian identification of Catholicism is questioned while the KKK is clearly Christian and American). One reason for this distinction is obvious; some of this leader’s assertions about the KKK diverge from typical characterizations of the group.
With the difference between common perceptions and his assertions, many people are quick to dismiss his assertions as strategic expressions to bolster his ideological positions and his group’s recruitment efforts (check the comments on the Huffington Post article for evidence). However, is the designation of the KKK as a hate organization or al Qaeda as a terrorist organization any less strategic? Those who reject his designation of the KKK as Christian are following a strategy of excluding those whose actions they reject from using a label that they respect, which is similar to his effort to marginalize some KKK members as rogue. Acts of identification (of oneself and of others) are strategic, even when you agree with the ideology and strategy being employed. So, it would be a mistake to read my analysis as endorsing the KKK or another group as representative of Christianity or another category; such a reading misses my interest to highlight the ideological positioning within acts of labeling, as I have asserted before.
Efforts to distinguish between accepted identifications and strategic, questionable identifications also relate to questions surrounding analysis. When scholars and practitioners assert that analysis (whether academic or journalistic) should reflect the conceptions of those who follow that particular movement or employ a particular label (insiders), they often do not apply that standard to statements like these from a KKK leader. Whose insider viewpoint do we accept if we are studying Christianity, the Pope’s or the KKK? For that matter, which KKK assertions do we emphasize, this leader’s or the “rogue” members whom he rejected? The decision about which assertions to see as authoritative and which to question are strategic decisions for the person analyzing the information, just as the assertions of identification are strategic choices of the identifier. They reflect the analyst more than the object being analyzed.
Image credit: St. Patricks Day in America cartoon 1926 by Clarke, Branford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons