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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. politimom2

    Jesus was not white so why did she say "just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change" and then change Jesus from an palestinian jew to a verifiable white man....* hypocrisy*

    December 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  2. Jim

    Megan Kelly is right in the fact that Santa Claus is white and has always been white in America...Wrong on the Jesus front, but no more wrong than the protesting "brown lady" on Out Front with Erin this evening. Read your history and do your research before you spout off misleading facts.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  3. troll Spotter

    And a job well done i might add. You are on here all the time talking your S–t.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  4. greg

    It's so silly that people are debating the color of skin when discussing the fairy tale of both Santa and Jesus.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  5. Dr E

    I don't think it's racist to Jesus is white, perhaps just ignorant. The bible clearly describes his feet as the color "bronze" and his hair as "wool"; SURE sounds black to me. Of course, those descriptions have been conveniently overlooked as the (vanishing) majority in this country considers anything related to "blackness" as inferior.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
  6. Franz Ferdinand

    Iv'e always thought of Jesus as more of Muave??

    December 13, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  7. P. Keary

    Who really gives a crap about it...waste of time!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
    • dontbow

      lol exactly. Just another excuse for liberals to play the race card. move on.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
      • greg

        "Liberals" playing the race card? K..

        December 13, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
  8. Scott

    Fox is great. Without Fox, the only national news would be CNN or MSNBC, both vacant.

    Although I can still listen to 3 CNN hosts, I can't even stand to listen to hosts on MSNBC except a couple of minutes, once a week, of Maddow.

    If CNN would report some stories ahead of the internet I'd look at them awhile even if they are liberally biased. Blitzer and Cooper are OK it's just that they selectively leave out news I'm interested in.

    Morning Joe is decent but I'm not up that early normally.

    I'm repulsed by Mathews or Morgan. Thank God for the remote off switch.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      I cannot watch Rachel Maddow either, but Fox is neither fair nor balanced. It is the fearmongering trumpet of the conservative king-maker – Rupert Murdoch. It is awful.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
    • Maddy

      Fox is nothing but an extension of Rush. Get real.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Larry H.

      Piers Morgan is an a**. I don't know why anyone even watches him.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
  9. Franz Ferdinand

    He was a SErbian!

    December 13, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
  10. dontbow

    Look at all the black Santa depictions...hmm oh yea there aren't any.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
    • Larry H.

      I'll bet there are quite a few, if you look in the right place. I don't think the race of an imaginary character is that important, though. Imagine him (or her or it!) however you like.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
  11. Robert Brown

    Luke 1: 26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. 29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. 30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible. 38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
      • Robert Brown

        Luke 2: 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

        December 13, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • JJ

      Were those quotes from some bronze age text supposed to tell us the race of this supposed son of a god?

      December 13, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
      • Robert Brown

        The house of David.

        December 13, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
        • JJ

          Still not clear.

          December 13, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          His mother was an Israelite or Jew if you like.

          December 13, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
        • JJ

          Still not clear.

          December 13, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Logical fallacy – appeal to an alleged, unproven authority.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
      • troll Spotter

        Here is the biggest one.

        December 13, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
      • Robert Brown

        I have it on very good authority that the word of God is authoritative.

        December 13, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
  12. Jim

    It doesn't matter if Jesus or Santa Claus is black or white. We have an image of them as white that we all enjoy and has become tradition. Why change an image so familiar to us all? How do you explain to a 4 year old that Santa was white last year and now he's black. Maybe someday Nelson Mandela will be the new "Santa" and everyone will be so happy that he's black and not white.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • Pensimmon

      It's a fact that Jesus was middle eastern Jewish. ITS A FACT, He would have been a dark skinned man. Look at people from the area. Most of ua want the truth, not fairy tales. He was dark. Doesn't make him less of a person of corse.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
  13. Vennie

    How idiotic for the news to ask such a stupid question when the work of fiction called 'the bible" clearly describes jesus with woolen hair and dark skin. just another way for the zionist news to perpetuate racial separation. stop it already.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  14. cleareye1

    Kelly is not this dumb. She just using a little foxspeak to make a point.

    Anyways. Why is it that the cons have all the good looking talking heads and absolutely no funny people and the libs have all the funny people but no good looking chicks? I'm torn.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
    • Maddy

      If you want lies from hot blondes, Fox is for you. If that's the way you're bent.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
    • Larry H.

      What point? That she is ignorant?

      December 13, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
  15. toast71

    It's the dead-from-the-neck-up media that is pitting us against each other by publishing this drivel when they should be far more concerned about a truckload other things like, gee, I don't know, 17 trillion in debt, the Obama white house which seems unable to go even a day without lying their faces off and the "Affordable" health care that is not-so-cleverly disguised as deliberate economic sabotage and will create political prisoners in the very near future.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
  16. Brian

    Santa Claus is a mix of Germanic and Norwegian myths so he's definitely white.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
    • Maddy

      Myth? Yes. The real St. Nicholas cane from the Turkey area and was Greek.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Please read up on St. Nikolaos of Myra in Anatolia (modern Turkey) the 4th century Christian from whom theses myths evolved.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  17. Jake Gittes

    Okay, a serious question. Can anyone recommend a serious, thoughtful source of news? I have had the worst trouble finding one that actually does in-depth intelligent unbiased reporting, hopefully with good international coverage as well? The best I could find was BBC, The Economist, and Der Spiegel, but even those have weakensses and slants.

    Anyone have a recommendation?

    December 13, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
    • Vennie

      I personally enjoy RT News, The Student Operated Press and the Huffington Post.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Stick with the BBC.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
    • cleareye1

      Al Jazeera!

      December 13, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
    • Wayne

      http://www.csmonitor.com

      December 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • Larry H.

      I read the Economist, but they say some odd things about US culture and politics, which sometimes makes me wonder about the rest.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
      • Jake Gittes

        They can't seem to get past their Tony Blair era world economy stance in their stories, but they do at least cover more than four countries.

        December 13, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
  18. MashaSobaka

    As The Daily Show already pointed out, the original saint upon whom Santa is based was actually ethnically Turkish ("Greek" meant ethnic Greeks as well as all the people under the control of Greece at the time) and would not be called "white" by the folks at Faux News if they ran into him on the street. Jesus, even the purely mythical Jesus, was from the Middle East / Mediterranean, and was Jewish...so I doubt the Faux News Brigade would call him "white" either. These people should really stick to the arguments that they can win. I know that doesn't give them much to argue, but still.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
  19. Chef

    If Jesus was white, then how come I only see his image when making wheat toast?

    December 13, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
    • troll Spotter

      Because you are stupid. That was quick and painless wasn't it Dumb-ass.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
    • cleareye1

      I see him in white toast, but only when the toaster is set on high. Pumpernickle is best!

      December 13, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  20. zr1100c3

    Jesus was Jewish and born in the Middle East. How white could he have been?

    December 13, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
    • Maddy

      You'll confuse Megyn. Careful.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:12 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.