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December 13th, 2013
09:30 AM ET

Call Jesus (or Santa) white? Expect a big fight

Opinion by Edward J. Blum, special to CNN

(CNN) - Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly sparked outrage this week by insisting that Jesus and Santa Claus are both white, saying it's "ridiculous" to argue that depicting Christ and St. Nick as Caucasian is "racist."

"And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white," Kelly said, "but this person is arguing that we should also have a black Santa."

Kelly was responding to an article in Slate that said St. Nick needs a makeover from fat, old white guy to something less "melanin-deficient."

The Fox News host would have none of it.

"Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change," Kelly said. "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure; that's a verifiable fact. As is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy, in the story, and change Santa from white to black?"

Arguing about St. Nick, who was originally Greek before Currier & Ives got their hands on him, is one thing. But as for Jesus, people have been arguing about his skin color since the earliest days of American history. You might even call it an American tradition.

What's new about this latest brouhaha is how swiftly Kelly’s remarks were attacked. Thousands of people have rebuked her through blogs, articles, Twitter posts and Facebook updates.

Comedian Jon Stewart accused Kelly of "going full Christmas nog."

“And who are you actually talking to?" Stewart said on "The Daily Show." "Children who are sophisticated enough to be watching a news channel at 10 o’clock at night, yet innocent enough to still believe Santa Claus is real — yet racist enough to be freaked out if he isn’t white?”

It seems that now, if you want to call Christ — or even Santa — white, you should expect a fierce fight.

The immediate and widespread rebuttal showcases how much America has changed over the past few decades. The nation not only has a black president, but also has refused to endorse the Christian savior as white.

Since the earliest days of America, Jesus was thought of as a white man.

When white Protestant missionaries brought Bibles and whitened images of Jesus to Native Americans, at least a few mocked what they saw.

Taking the imagery seriously, the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh asked future President William Henry Harrison, “How can we have confidence in the white people? When Jesus Christ came upon the earth you kill’d and nail’d him on a cross.”

It was not until around 1900 that a group of white Americans explicitly claimed Jesus was white.

Concerned that large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially Jewish immigrants, were “polluting” the nation, anti-immigrant spokesmen like attorney Madison Grant asserted the whiteness of Jesus to justify calls for exclusionary legislation.

READ MORE: From science and computers, a new face of Jesus

Making Jesus white was a means to distance him from Judaism.

“In depicting the crucifixion no artist hesitates to make the two thieves brunet in contrast to the blond Savior,” Grant wrote in his xenophobic best-seller "The Passing of the Great Race."

“This is something more than a convention,” Grant continued, and suggested that Jesus had “Nordic, possibly Greek, physical and moral attributes.”

Even Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that Jesus was white, after being asked why God created Jesus as a white man.

King responded that the color of Christ’s skin didn’t matter. Jesus would have been just as important “if His skin had been black.” He “is no less significant because His skin was white.”

READ MORE: Turkish town cashes in on Saint Nick legacy

Challenges to Christ’s whiteness have a long history, too.

Famed evangelist Billy Graham preached in the 1950s, and then wrote emphatically in his autobiography "Just As I Am," that, “Jesus was not a white man.”

But Graham was far from the first American to contradict the whiteness of Jesus. That honor goes to Methodist and Pequot Indian William Apess.

In 1833, he wrote to white Christians, “You know as well as I that you are not indebted to a principle beneath a white skin for your religious services but to a colored one.”

Almost 100 years later, the Jamaican born, “back-to-Africa” spokesman Marcus Garvey told his followers, “Never admit that Jesus Christ was a white man, otherwise he could not be the Son of God and God to redeem all mankind. Jesus Christ had the blood of all races in his veins.”

In our age, the color of Christ has become both politically dangerous and the butt of jokes.

In 2008, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s words “God damn America” and “Jesus was a poor black boy” almost derailed then-Sen. Barack Obama from winning the Democratic primary.

Now, Kelly bears the brunt of attacks and, in no surprise, was pilloried by comedians like Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Few Americans went on public record against King when he asserted Jesus had white skin in the 1950s. Today, thousands upon thousands from virtually every race and tribe of Americans have taken Kelly’s words seriously and seriously disdained them.

All the chatter about Jesus being white (or not) shows how much America has changed. There used to be “whites’ only” restaurants and schoolrooms. Now, even Jesus cannot be called white without repercussions.

What the debate hides, however, is what Jesus of the Bible actually did and how he related to people.

The gospels are full of discussions about Jesus and bodies. He healed the blind and those who suffered from disease. He touched and was touched by the sick. His body was pierced by thorns, a spear and nails. And he died.

READ MORE: What all those Jesus jokes tell us

The phenotype of Jesus was never an issue in the Bible. Neither Matthew, nor Mark, nor Luke, nor John mentioned Christ’s skin tone or hair color. None called him white or black or red or brown.

Obsessions about race are obsessions of our age, not the biblical one. When asked what mattered most, Jesus did not say his skin tone or body shape. He instructed his followers to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

Maybe this Christmas season, we can reflect not so much on whether or not Jesus was white and instead consider what it meant for him to be called the “light” of the world.

Edward J. Blum is the co-author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. He can be followed on Twitter @edwardjblum. The views expressed in this column belong to Blum alone.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Art • Belief • Bible • Billy Graham • Black issues • Christianity • Discrimination • Faith • God • Jesus • News media • Opinion • Persecution • Prejudice • Race • United States

soundoff (7,485 Responses)
  1. Alexander the Kinda Good

    Since none of you seem to have actually read the blog that triggered this, though it is readily available in a link above, allow me to share a few key points:

    The blog that the FOX woman is commenting on says absolutely NOTHING about Jesus. Nothing. That was just pure fraud from Megyn Kelly.

    The Blog never says Santa is black. She suggests quite rationally that the present character is so removed from St. Nicholas that it is essentially pure invention anyway, so instead of having an old white guy, how aboout . . . not a black Santa, but . . . a penguin. The flightless Antarctic waterfowl.

    And the blog is obviously just a bit of humor, which Megyn Kelly obviously has no sense of.

    So for all the dingbats who suggest the original blog was racist, or that sje said Jesus or Santa were black, well, ya just didn't bother to actually find out what you were talking about before ya jumped in and brayed and bellowed.

    And Megyn Kelly is still a fluffle-brained nincompoop.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:04 am |
    • ThinkAgain

      Excellent post!

      December 14, 2013 at 1:23 am |
      • redzoa

        Thank you for this post! I wanted to add something regarding Megyn Kelly's reference to St. Nicholas being "white" because he was Greek. I have a Greek relative who immigrated to the U.S. and fought in WWII. Although he wouldn't talk about his experiences, the story is that he was involved in two beach landings. After the war, he returned home to the U.S. to raise a family. He had dark olive skin and in the summer, he would turn even darker. For this reason, and despite his service, he was excluded from various segregated beaches along the east coast. I appreciate this is anecdotal and I appreciate that not all Greeks have olive skin (some darker, some lighter), but to flatly claim St. Nicholas was a "white" person does not reflect the reality of Greek physical characteristics nor does it reflect how darker-skinned Greeks were actually viewed by their paler Anglo counterparts.

        December 14, 2013 at 1:57 am |
    • Bill

      Absolutely Wonderful! #GreatPost

      December 14, 2013 at 1:32 am |
  2. jay

    only an idiot would think Jesus was white. Its impossible no one in that region was white NO ONE also he was a JEW he would of had to fit in with his family. right? blonde hair blue eyes would have drawn some attention dont you think she's a faux news idiot.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:02 am |
  3. Apple Bush

    Being a piece of the nothing is familiar to us all, because we are-

    We don’t know what came before the nothing.

    A simple educated man would deduce a negative for every positive but why?

    There is a nothing for every nothing-

    It is all but a dream in a make believe sleep.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:58 am |
    • Bill

      Must be some good weed!

      December 14, 2013 at 1:35 am |
  4. Karin

    You would think that those that have a personal relationship with a god would know the skin color of this gods son/him/whatever it is...

    December 14, 2013 at 12:55 am |
  5. cgs

    Santa is based on an actual historical figure, St. Nicholas, who was born a Greek. He was white. The legend comes through the Europeans. Still white. Blacks and other cultures do not need to adopt European traditions if they don't want to. Don't whine, just come up with your own figures that you like better. No one cares.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:54 am |
    • wilf

      pehaps you should learn the facts before you spout off

      December 14, 2013 at 12:59 am |
  6. Frank

    "He touched and was touched by the sick. His body was pierced by thorns, a spear and nails. And he died."

    You forgot the part where he rose again.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:53 am |
    • Alexander the Kinda Good

      The zombie resurrection is the best part. If only the Romans had learned Zombie Rule #2.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:07 am |
  7. Republicans hate America

    HISTORICAL FACT: "Jesus Christ" was middle-eastern Jew (one of the most bi-racial/multi-ethnic places on the entire planet Earth) and we don't know how white he was. Santa is a figment of someone's imagination so he can be white or black or whatever, depending on what you want him to be. What was the purpose of her race baiting conversation? FACT: Absent contemporary photographs and DNA test there is NO way to know what race Jesus Christ was and Santa Claus is pure fiction that NEVER existed! The F.B.I. has either photos or DNA for Jesus or Santa Claus! – The REAL QUESTION: Why is an unqualified moron, with no expertise or academic credentials like MEGYN KELLY of all people discussing the subject on national television at all? Oh I forgot misinformation, LIES and Nazi style propaganda is really what a hack, right-wing racist, SHILL like MEGYN KELLY is paid to do at the FOX foreign owned, divide and conquer, Anti-American, Nazi style propaganda machine!

    December 14, 2013 at 12:52 am |
    • Frank

      You do know Megyn was a very successful trial lawyer, right?

      December 14, 2013 at 12:54 am |
      • Lenny Pincus

        Megyn Kelly was a corporate litigator. What is your source that she was a trial lawyer. She has also done a series of semi-skin photo shoots that make her a floozy. She is also a divorced Roman Catholic which is considered a mortal sin by conservative Catholics.

        December 14, 2013 at 1:08 am |
      • Ned Nederlander

        "Very successful trial lawyers" don't leave to become an ordinary reporter at the local newsstation, what with the 80% cut in wages and all that.

        She made an idiot of herself, and the only redeeming element in that is that conservatives LOVE idiotic ridiculous absurd comments when they agree with their ideology . . . and she delivered. Limbaugh, Palin, O'Reilly, Beck, and so many others have gotten ugly rich one saying intensely stupid and untrue things, because the Republican base wants to be like a delinquent junior high bully.

        She made a fool of herself, and she is applauded by fools. Good money in it. She probably Palinized herself as a cash cow from now on.

        December 14, 2013 at 1:18 am |
      • Bill

        Go to sleep frank! You're way to ignorant to be up talking with the big boys! Get some rest and try again tomorrow! #NightNight #GetEducated

        December 14, 2013 at 1:41 am |
  8. Thomas Hightower Jr.

    Jesus is not white,he is a jew.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:52 am |
  9. Don

    This is news?

    My Bible says he was born as a Jew. White? Black? Who cares. People are willing to fight over this? Talk about missing the message.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:43 am |
  10. Angela

    Who cares. Jesus is love Santa is imaginary and Kim Kardashian is a hobbit.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:37 am |
  11. cjacja

    If Jesus was a white european living in where and when he did he would have looked like a freak. Don't Christians think he was somehow related the David? If so that would make him about as jewish as it gets.

    The only reason he looks white is because of those old European painting of him. And they all dressed mike medieval europeans in those paints too. I always wondered if thoe artets were ignorant or if they were trying to make him look less exotic. Like if a modern artist painted Jesus wearing a tee-shirt and jeans and holding an iPod. I'm betting on "ignorant".

    December 14, 2013 at 12:35 am |
    • wilf

      he catholic church was very anti Jewish. so it would not look good to paint there savior as a middle eastern Jew now would it. Interestingly enough the romans where persecuting the Jews in Jesus's. And continued on persecuting the jews Jesus's peaple even after they became Christians to ironic

      December 14, 2013 at 1:07 am |
  12. dwitepriviledge

    F it. if white people can claim jesus was white (which isn't true) the screw it. I don't see why black people can't claim he was black (which isn't true either). Whatever makes you sleep at night right?

    December 14, 2013 at 12:27 am |
  13. chas

    She is only expressing the views of her bosses at Fox. She only showed how ridiculous this thinking is. And yes, it is racists, especially in the case of Jesus, who if he really existed, which is unlikely, was not white.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:26 am |
  14. Rollo Tomasi

    I bet the brainless wonder is the toast of FOX today. It once again proves that there is virtually nothing FOX or Limbaugh can say, no matter how flagrantly idiotic and impossible, that their audiences won't believe.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:25 am |
  15. Midnight Rider

    HOW, did this young lady EVER get her job?

    December 14, 2013 at 12:22 am |
  16. Anda

    I just visited that ....god...is..imaginary.....com website....AND I FEEL BETTER 🙂

    December 14, 2013 at 12:22 am |
  17. Cattlelight

    A peace to remember

    Colors of the skin make a person see envy jealousy hatred... Though not a just accord it is color, though color is bearing of weight, and though weight is power, but through life I shall ascend touching the everglades of heaven reaching for the stars,
    Just as I defy all gravity, I shall correct my port, I shall sail in a land of beauty and fret not but what of death, but what of life I shall find and of simple days I shall again, yet again and again love not of what I have lost, but what I have gained in my heart and in my arms
    Christ

    December 14, 2013 at 12:21 am |
  18. Rick777

    I thought I saw cnn male anchor being flirted by another male on air until they were warned by their boss. Cnn used to be about news now they are like fox news.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:21 am |
  19. Joe L.

    Of course Jesus was not white ( IF he existed, which is up for debate) to say he is white is ridiculous and ignorant of history and geography.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:17 am |
  20. dwitepriviledge

    lol jesus was not white. He didn't have blonde hair and blue eyes. Only the dumbest of the dumb believe that nonsense. Even atheists know jesus wasn't white.

    December 14, 2013 at 12:17 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.