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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. Roger Mike

    CNN trying to create controversy out of nothing?

    the image of santa created by cocacola was a fat jolly white man = santa is white.

    jewish people are white so yes jesus would of been white. it takes longer than 2000 years for skin color to change color through evolution, it takes about 40,000 years.

    jewish DNA has remained unchanged for 4,000 years.

    rossanne bar is white
    larry david is white
    jerry seinfeld is white
    william shatner is white

    if you got o israel you will notice that jews are white.

    facts are facts

    December 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • .

      You know those folks aren't Hebrew like Jesus was, right ?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
      • Roger Mike

        jesus was jewish

        December 13, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
        • Stand Your Ground

          If he existed, which there is no evidence, he was a Palestinian Jew. Not european jew (which are conversions)

          December 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
      • Roger Mike

        hebrews are caucasian

        December 13, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
        • : D

          So are Armenians, Iraqis, Iranians, Georgians, Lebanese, Arabs, Turks, Syrians, Palestinians...................

          December 13, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
        • David

          Nope...

          That is unless you change what "Caucasian" means.

          December 14, 2013 at 7:46 am |
    • Harold Smith

      I just traveled to Israel, those people are Olive in color. And you do know Jesus was described as skin like brass in the bible. So how is that white?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • Jura

      Jewish DNA has not remained unchanged, Jews have intermingled with people's from the nations they migrated too in Europe and Russia over the centuries. This why you can see a differences today between Jews, like Jon Stewart who has a very European look and guys like Benjamin Netanyahu who has a very distinct (for the lack of a better term) ethnic look to him. There is without a doubt been changes.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Bruce

      Jordan Farmar is black and Jewish...guess your logic is useless.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • skarphace

      White as in appearance? Or White as in Caucasian? As most Jews are light-skinned, you may be right on the first claim. But to claim that Jews are Caucasian is a matter of debate, and I would disagree. The earliest mention of Jews was when they were slaves in Greece. Therefore, they were more likely Asian or African, although they could have been either Caucasian or a mix of races. There is even some debate that Jews are a race unto themselves.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • Pastapharian

      Wow, this post is hilarious! Thanks for making me laugh! Oh, what? You were being serious? Did you take any science classes past elementary school???

      December 13, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • AK

      Man, your logic and knowledge of science are so appalling that I now understand why America is on the decline.

      Fact is Jesus, in all likely hood, had brown skin, brown eyes, and close cropped black hair like his contemporaries. Also, evolution need not be responsible for changes in skin color over the centuries. That can be explained by inter-racial breeding.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  2. Maureen N

    At our house Santa is a slightly tubby Canadian woman.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • : D

      Ho Ho Ho! – where's my smokes, eh?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  3. Harold Smith

    Are you guys insane. Jesus was born and lived in a reigon of color. The Bible itself describes Jesus of skin like Brass and hair like wool. He was a person of color. He lived in Nazareth and was hebrew. The Hebrews were not caucasian. Look at that region of the world. Also let me help why peoplem come to arms when you depict Jesus as white. When minorities were oppressed in this country , the oppressors used the bible and images of Jesus as a means to glorify their methods and rascist philosphies. In simple terms Jesus is white and so am I, so that means your race is inferior to mines. Now I don't believe he was black, but I'm 1000% sure he was not white. He was a jew, and in that part of the world if he was white...he would have been like a leopard without spots.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  4. Jesse

    FOX is better at cartoons than news and draws the same audience.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  5. Mopery

    This holiday season we must all remember the man who was the son of God, who triumphed over adversity to show us all a better way: Praise Hercules!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Matt

      Yes! Thank Hercules!

      December 13, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  6. Ray

    This from the same woman who, after some young kid was hosed down with pepper spray by a cop, said: "What is the big deal…it is a natural substance! Pepper spray is made with pepper..what is the big deal already?" Wonder how she would feel now about that since she has become a "mom"? More Faux News Channel blather posing as journalism / news.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  7. Rob

    Edward J. Blum, maybe the black, white, or green Santa will bring you some journalistic talent this year.
    Maybe then you'll have the ability the author something of merit without having to rely on baiting a reaction out of people.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • .

      Hey, he didn't start this fox fire.. Moron Megyn did.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
      • ScottC

        This is no fire, just fluff. *shrug*

        December 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  8. Holly J

    Interesting...I grew up in the 1960's thinking that Jesus looked EXACTLY like Mighty Mouse; cape, huge mouse ears and he/she (let's be politically correct here) could fly with one arm pointed up to the sky,conquring anything. My favorite cartoon was Mighty Mouse and was "ALWAYS THERE TO SAVE THE DAY", hence my vision of Jesus was a grey mouse....does that have any impact on my spiritual beliefs?

    December 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  9. AverageJoe76

    Jamaican Jesus is more believable.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Mopery

      Ja mon.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  10. MED

    I'm white and my family had a black girl Santa decoration when I was a little girl. It didn't faze us that she was a girl or black. We were more concerned about not breaking her porcelain face. And half my family is Jewish...I'm not kidding. It's about being festive and happy not race.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Dave

      Tell that to the racist Fox News Republican party.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
      • Darren

        They are not racists. They like people of all color. In fact all the colors of the rainbow, so yes no blacks!

        December 13, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  11. Dave

    I laugh everytime a Republican says they're not racist. You sure seem like it!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  12. Alan

    When a News person suggests someone take a dump in one of America's most powerful women – it's not news. If an actor turned TV Host uses gay slurs or is brutally mean to women, his daughter, or staff – it's not news. But if a Foxnews person says Santa, Scooby Doo, Fred Flintstone or Tinkerbell are white – it makes the main page?

    December 13, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
  13. Charles

    My commentary on this post is this – Having been raised in a Christian Church, I have never been able to understand why White people (meaning folks from Aryan population groups from Western Europe) insist on making Jesus out to be White. The Foxy Fox lady that called Jesus White, did so because she was raised to believe that he is White, even though clear logic would mean that Jesus was not White. If you pay attention to what you learn in Sunday School, and not get brainwashed by a racist society, this would not be a debate. The Arabs and the Jews are decendant of Abraham and Abraham was a semite. Semites are not White, as the term White is used. Any White Supremist will tell you that. Jesus was a Jew which makes him a Semite. I never thought of Jesus as a White man. Now the KKK will tell you that he was White. So will the Mormons. But they have no logic to back it up. The admit that he is a son Abraham, but how can he be the only decendant that is not a Semite? It is as if they don't realize that pure logic, because their thinking is so clouded by the idea that a person must be a genetically pure White, blonde hair, blue eyed, with not much color in you skin tone, in order to be any good. Personally I am glad that God chose the Semites in order to bring fourth the good word, and salvation to human kind. The Black Africans as a population group have some issues, Asians have some issues, Whites from the Germanic tribes, certainly have issues. Not to say that the Semites don't have their issues (one being fighting for a piece of sand in the desert forever) but that being said, they are a cool group to bring fourth the worlds salvation.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • Mason3735

      Most of the people who believe or what to classify Jesus as being white are in denial, the bible clearly says in Revelation 1:14-18 New King James Version (NKJV)
      14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; 15 His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace. Now if you put something in a furnace what do you think it would look like?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Jamon

      I don't know where you got your information about what Mormons believe, but your insistence that Mormons believe Jesus was "white" and not a semite is simply not true. Actually there is no official doctrine what exact shade of color His skin is because it doesn't matter. Please don't lump Mormons in with the KKK.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  14. Liberace: Americas Greatest American

    Brown Jesus loves me yes I know..........................

    December 13, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  15. SheilaKA

    Jesus was a Palestinian Jew....by definition Caucasian. St. Nicholas was a Greek...Caucasian. What's the big deal? Ohhhhhhhhh I get it..."Caucasian" means "bad" these days.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • Roger Mike

      caucasian means racist these days

      December 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Hard Drinkin' Lincoln

      Did it ever mean "white"?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • Franky

      When did "Caucas" mountains relocate to "Palestine"?

      Jesus was jewish that is his ethnicity. There are "jews" that would fit the misnomor of "Caucasian" but they certainly wouldn't come from Palestine, step 1) They need to Ashkenazi Jews , not Sephardic Jews as Jesus being born in the Middle East would have been.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • skarphace

      Palestinian? Where do you get that? Rome had control over that territory during that time in history. The whole reason that Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem was to report to the Roman census enforcers.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
      • ryanwin

        Have you read the Bible? What does Rome have to do with the ancestry of Jesus. The Bible tells us what it was. Read a book.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  16. Lee Crowell

    What a stupid waste of time arguing over fictional characters.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • P. Siegel

      Jesus is not a fictional character.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Hard Drinkin' Lincoln

      You're thinking of the guy's dad.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
  17. Franky

    I thought this was settled some 2000 years ago, JEsus was Jewish???

    December 13, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  18. Jib76

    Most people who live in the Middle East would self characterize themselves as white. Look into two children's descriptions who went to heaven of Jesus the Christ's appearance; Akiane Kramarik and Todd Burpo:

    December 13, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • Franky

      What is "white" and certainly no one of middle eastern descent thinks of themselves that way. "White" really has no ethnic meaning what so ever, especially, not from a biological sense. Even here in this discussion people can't define what is "white".

      December 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  19. Not All Docs Play Golf

    So, I bet Mary and Joseph were really turned away from the Inn because it was "whites only."

    December 13, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  20. ryanwin

    When Jesus comes again, everyone will look black compared to him.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
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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.