Paper Presentation at Harvard Divinity School


I learned today that my paper “The Ku Klux Klan, the Industrial Workers of the World, and Cultural Apocalypse” has been accepted for the 2015 Harvard Divinity School Graduate Religion Conference Ways of Knowing. Here’s the abstract that I submitted:

In the wake of the catastrophic violence of World War I, American social movements across the ideological spectrum deployed eschatological rhetoric to articulate visions of a coming end time. Members of the Ku Klux Klan feared a “rising tide of color” would soon “seal the white world’s doom.” At the same time revolutionaries affiliated with the left-wing labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, believed that the crisis of the war would bring about a global general strike, end capitalism, and issue in a worker’s utopia.

My methodology pays particular attention to the religious tropes found within the poetry and prose of historical documents residing in archives such as the Walter P. Reuther Library of Wayne State University and the special collections of the University of Georgia. I compare the rhetoric of Klan founder William Joseph Simmons and IWW organizer and poet Ralph Chaplin to argue that the crisis of the war unleashed what theologian Catherine Keller has called the “cultural apocalypse” script, the idea that a series of traumatic events will usher in a new social order, across American culture.

In making this argument my work differs from those scholars of American religion in the twentieth-century like Matthew Avery Sutton who see millennialism and apocalypticism primarily as a mark of religious fundamentalism and the political right. Instead, I argue that regardless of ideology social movements draw from a common cultural repertoire that includes religious symbols, narratives, and rituals to mobilize their memberships for political action.

In my conclusion, I consider how the crisis of war has in the past, and might in the future, intersect with religious narratives to fuel social movements in ways that transcend the bounds of ideology. This paper proposal is submitted to the Religion and Crisis special module.

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