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. Bert974

    Of course Jesus was "white". He was part jewish and part Italian. Unfortunately, he was not an Egyptian.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
  2. mark

    Bart Simpson is yellow, because that is how Groening created him. Fred Flinstone is White, because that is how Hannah Barbara created him. I suppose you could make a black Bart or a Black Fred, but since they are both fictional, who cares?

    December 14, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
    • Mack

      mark rules on this one. jesus is snowy white because that's how caucasian man decided he should be.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
  3. BuckRogere

    I don't care if it rains or freezis
    Cause I got a plastic Jeezis
    Super glued to the dashboard of my car
    Hurricanes they don't scare me
    Cause I got a plastic Mary
    Super glued right up there next to Jeezis on the dashboard of my car!

    December 14, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
  4. sigturner

    And before there is any more confusion regarding the race of fictional Christmas characters, let's set the record straight:

    Ebeneezer Scrooge: White

    Bob Cratchett: White

    Tiny Tim: White

    Ralphie Parker: White

    George Bailey: White

    Frosty the Snowman: definitely White

    Black Peter: obviously Black

    Gingerbread Man: possibly Black, definitely not White

    December 14, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
    • BuckRogere

      Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – brown except for the nose.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
      • sigturner

        Just to be clear: Rudolph is a reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). He has never been represented in anthropomorphic form. Thus, it cannot possibly be argued that he is humanly Black, White, or Brown. 'Nuff said.

        December 14, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
    • Brian

      I'm pretty sure Gingerbread Man is Indian. If there's some cardamom added, 100% sure.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  5. Jack Preacher

    Jesus was neither "white" nor "black" in the American sense. The real irony is that he looked just like the guys being pulled out of the line of travellers at any airport by the TSA for extra screening: a dark-haired bearded Middle Eastern male.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
    • kmpurcell

      You got it! and Saint Nicholas –>Santa Claus was born in what is now Turkey in 4th C. Same race as Jesus? Google St Nicholas and you will find he was a real Catholic (Roman and Orthodox) saint. Following the links: Santa Claus is a 19th C New York NY variation on the myths that grew up around St Nicholas. All but a complete myth invented by the NY elite and embraced by the populace.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
  6. ChickenHawkCivi

    Jesus was the greatest Jew to ever live. Are Jewish people classified as white? I dunno. Ask an EEOC staffer.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
    • Brian

      Jesus was what is now known as a Sephardic Jew – meaning Middle Eastern in origin, meaning not white.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
      • Sue

        Middle Easterners are Caucasian or White.

        December 14, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
        • BuckRogere

          Ask a White Supremacist about that and he'll say Huh uh.

          December 14, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
        • Tom, Tom, the Other One

          To understand the relationships between human beings it makes sense to look at haplogroups – mitochondrial and Y chromosomal, for example. If by Caucasian you mean originating from the Caucasus then yes, Semitic people are fairly closely related to them. If you are Northern European, probably you are not (M172).

          December 14, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
  7. Brian

    Sorry, people from the Middle East – you know, like Jesus – aren't 'white', which is a generic blanket term applied to people of European ancestry. And funny how I've never seen a picture of him that would indicate any semitic features.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
    • Dr Tom

      They didn't have cameras in those days.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
    • sigturner

      Actually, Semitic people are considered to be "White" in the capacity that they are classified as "Caucasian." Indeed, most Jews are considered "White" by the EEOC and self-identify as such. Moreover, you would be hard-pressed to find many Semitic people who self-identify as "Black."

      December 14, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
  8. Paul Preiswerck

    Neither Jesus or Santa exist, so why are you all arguing about what colour their skin is?

    December 14, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
    • cobalt100

      Actually, Santa exists. There are millions of Santa Claus's out there. They are called fathers and husbands.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
  9. sigturner

    I find it much less disturbing that Megyn Kelly should make a point of observing that the character of Santa Claus is traditionally white than the suggestion by Aisha Harris that there is something intrinsically wrong with a white Santa Claus.

    Perhaps, the most disturbing thing about this ridiculous episode of distractive journalism is that it is Ms. Kelly who has earned the raspberries for pointing out the absurd racism of Ms. Aisha, and not Ms. Aisha for being so absurdly racist.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
    • Brian

      I have to assume you did not actually read her article, in which she suggests a 'Penguin Claus'. Real offensive, yes.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
      • sigturner

        I read her article. Your assumption (like your reply) is foolish. What is offensive that Ms. Harris is so pained by a fictional Christmas character being represented as White that she would rather see said character portrayed in the form of a bird rather than a human being. This is not only offensively racist to the core, it is downright sick.

        December 14, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
  10. Buhgeep

    Jeezus was a train conductor, yo.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
  11. Rock Reynolds

    There has been an update on one of the other so-called "news" stations.
    The update NOW claims that Megyn was just exercising "mere" race-baiting, in an effort to show how ridiculous people are about race. (The spin – Whew!!!! It turned out that Megyn's comments were ONLY a little race-baiting social experiment. That ain't so bad.)
    Ain't that sweet, folks? That our "news" now resort to "race-baiting" to "entertain us?
    In actual encouraging news, the major media outlets seem to be experiencing some problems. I have noticed a significant shortage of trolls (not on this thread, but elsewhere). Comments are being cut off. Anchors are behaving strangely.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
    • Akira

      Fox isn't news. It's entertainment. Her show isn't news. It's entertainment.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
      • vinster76

        What I like about Fox is their insistence on BOTH sides of any argument appear together to voice the argument of either side. For the last 5 years, CNN and the other imbecilic cable "news" stations have been shills for this bankrupt regime in power....Only recently, has CNN come up out of the ether long enough to raise some questions as to the veracity of this president. You can call Fox entertainment all day long, if you choose, but there is a reason the other outlets are getting their as__s handed to them on a daily basis......

        December 14, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
      • Salero21

        And if is about entertainment you're the one to look for hum Sharkira. Was it hard at the office today?

        December 14, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
  12. Dajiba

    eat too much

    December 14, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
  13. rc

    So they're saying Jesus can't hear Jimmy? That's B+S man, Jesus can hear Jimmy man. Jesus can hear Jimmy!

    December 14, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
  14. The Truth

    Why is it so hard for people to just face the fact that Jesus was a man of color with melanin in his skin, as his lineage was comprised from the 12 Tribes of Israel also known as Hebrews whose image was closer to that of African Peoples from Ethiopia and Egypt (Before the Persian, Greek, and Roman Invaders).
    People, I sincerely hope you wake up one day and realize that Jesus was nothing like the images you have been deceived into worshipping. Heck, even the caucasian population of Jews who currently occupy Israel are not true Hebrew Israelites but instead European imposters whose ancestors were from Germany and Russia, but converted to Judaism

    December 14, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
  15. liberal disease

    5 years ago he was a Kenyan...

    December 14, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • kvinson

      .from what i seen in the bible his skin was like copper and hair was like wool. .and the land he comes from is part of Africa .i am still trying to find out how he ended up with reddish brown hair and skin like porcelain

      December 14, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
  16. Whatever

    Jesus' skin color depends on the imagination of the original author of the fiction called Bible.

    December 14, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
    • Thomas

      How sad the atheist movement has become. Many no long just don't believe in God, but rather get so worked up about the faith of other people. Really pathetic.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
      • Hank Peters

        And Christians don't get worked up enough about other people's faith to send missionaries all around the world and protest gay marriage everywhere? Why are YOU guys getting so worked up, eh?

        December 14, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
  17. hmmm

    I don't know what the white man says Santa Claus was a black man

    December 14, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
  18. Megyn Kelly


    ♫ I'm dreaming of a WHITE Christmas . . . ♫

    December 14, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
  19. Ron

    The ignorance concerning God's plan for mankind and history is astounding. Jesus is JEWISH. He was born to this world as the Son of David from the tribe of Judah. This was foretold concerning the Messiah and Savior of both Jews and gentiles. Why? Because God chose Israel to bring forth His plan to this world. Israel was given the oracles of God (Bible) and properly recorded them, and preserved them for all of us. From Israel God promised to send the Savior of the world, which He did. Savior from what? From the penalty for death (eternal) as a result of our sins. "All have sinned" Rom 3 Jesus, who never sinned, took the sins of the world upon Himself on the cross so that those who believe in Him would have eternal life. This is God's plan for the ages. To not understand that Jesus is Jewish is to not understand God's plan for the world. If you have not yet trusted in Christ as Savior then receive Him, be willing to follow Him as He leads you, and ask God's forgiveness through faith in Christ and you will have eternal life. God Bless

    December 14, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • KellyP

      Except that Jesus wasn't that saviour. He did not fulfill all the messianic prophecies.

      December 14, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
      • Ron

        Kelly, it is clear from Messianic prophecies in Tanakh (Old Testament), that Messiah comes to the earth twice. The first time as suffering servant: Isaiah 52, 53, Psalm 22...etc. Then to Reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Indeed He fulfilled everything written concerning His coming to suffer and die and rise again to atone for our sins. It is true there are prophecies yet to be fulfilled concerning His Reign here on earth. Those He will fulfill upon His return when all the kingdoms of this world will be given to Jesus, the Son of the Most High. He is The Promised One. There is NO OTHER, and will be NO OTHER!! Jesus/Yeshua is the only provision that God the Father has given us. If you reject Messiah Jesus then you will die in your sins. I hope you do not make that mistake. God bless.

        December 14, 2013 at 10:44 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.