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. Stephen Kelly

    On behalf of all colours, creeds and orientations, kiss my a** CNN, you tedious rabble-rousing mediocrities.
    As for the Rules of Conduct, how about asking your "journalists" to follow it?

    December 15, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • Barney comes out


      December 15, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • Akira

      You know thus is an opinion piece, right?
      Just like Megyn Kelly's segment was an opinion piece.

      December 15, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  2. m

    I am not sure that it matters if Jesus was white, yellow, brown or black.

    December 15, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • Sue

      If you follow the argument that people make gods in their own image, and not the other way around, it does matter, doesn't it?

      December 15, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  3. TheZombie

    Arguing about the race of a couple fictional characters hardly seems worth the time.

    December 15, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  4. Jim Rome

    If this article tiptoed any more delicately around the truth that Jesus was black, it would need ballet pointe shoes.

    December 15, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • Dkbellis

      Jesus was a dark skinned Caucasian like his fellow middle-eastern Jews of the day. If that qualifies as "black" then yes he was. Most Americans today think of "black" as meaning of African descent, which Jesus was not. But in the long run, why should it matter?

      December 15, 2013 at 11:09 am |
      • igaftr

        ALL humans are of African descent. That's where we started. Everything else is moot.

        December 15, 2013 at 11:14 am |
      • EST

        I agree, Jesus was middle – eastern so his skin was most likely on the darker side. The point is it doesn't matter what color his skin was it is what he did for us.

        I am so sick of people making race an issue. I don't just mean in our time, but always.

        Two people in the beginning – Adam and Eve had the DNA to make every color of skin. White, black, olive, oriental, Indian [not from India], etc. We all have the same parentage. Even if you believe in evolution – same thing we all came from one source.

        Why can't mankind embrace its variety instead of hating what is different to the detriment of others?

        December 15, 2013 at 11:39 am |
        • igaftr

          Genetics has already shown we did not come from one set of DNA and an altered set from the first set.
          Adam and eve are myth.

          December 15, 2013 at 11:42 am |
  5. mxx

    What nobody seems to want to mention when talking about "verifiable facts" that Megyn Kelly supposedly falls back on, is who historical Jesus actually was. Very little non-biblical history agrees upon who he was other than "he existed". But everything attributed to him is in constant conflict, even contradictory, and most legends attributed to him were taken from other mythologies that pre-date the Bible. So when someone says Jesus being white is a "verifiable fact", I'd like to see these facts and how she's verifying them at all.

    December 15, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  6. Republicans Are The American Taliban

    CNN loves to create controversy by touting the Fox News Megyn Kelly racist rant. Feel better now CNN??

    December 15, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  7. Joe

    Jesus was Jewish, Jewish people are considered white so yes he is white.

    December 15, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • igaftr

      Aubrey "Drake" Graham
      Lenny Kravits
      Sammy Davis jr.
      Rashida Jones
      Amar'e Stoudemire
      Jamal Michael Barrow ( AKA Shyne)
      Lauren London
      Tracee Ellis Ross
      Lisa Bonet
      Craig David
      Maya Rudolph

      Wait, which one of them is white again?

      December 15, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • Christopher

      Today's Jewish people are largely white because of European mixing, but in Jesus's day they would have been of Middle Eastern complexion.

      December 15, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Winston5

      "Jews are considered white"? Did u just type that? HaaaaaaaaaHHHHHHAaaaaaaaaaaaa. Do you live in a small box?!

      December 15, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Sue

      Try telling Hitler that they were white.

      December 15, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  8. Harry Cline

    In New York city Jesus comes in all shades and usually drunk like Santa.
    With a little nutmeg sprinkled among them.
    Nothing like running it for the kids.

    In 2013 anything goes.
    Traditions are shattered, the Pope accepts Gays and you can pretend marijuana was sent by the Gods.

    (beam me up Scotty)

    December 15, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • Sue

      Moses inhaled something coming off of the burning bush, so who knows about the MJ, right?

      December 15, 2013 at 11:46 am |
      • Harry Cline

        Maybe it was the Holy Spirit who knows right.
        One thing we do know though Jesus was a real person who really lived, the only real question should be was he truly the son of God or merely a very good teacher ???

        December 15, 2013 at 11:51 am |
        • Sue

          It's still just possible to argue that he's completely fictional.

          December 15, 2013 at 11:57 am |
        • Harry Cline

          Not among the learned.
          Far to many historical figures mentioning him way back then. What they don't really say is if he truly the son of God.

          December 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  9. mark scott ducharme

    So many history books. So many theories. Face it. People lie and believe their own lies. Our president and his steadfast supporters the latest and greatest examples. So let us look back 2013 years and somehow "know" the truth. If anyone "knew" the truth they were long dead and buried. FACT

    December 15, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  10. Wee Willie Keeler

    You can make your imaginary friends any color you like.

    December 15, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • SciGuy

      Yes, you can Wee Willie, but what are you gonna do with Jesus, the sovereign Lord and Ruler of this world, and your Judge?

      December 15, 2013 at 10:39 am |
      • igaftr

        Jesus? Nogomain created everything....and isn't it lovely.

        December 15, 2013 at 10:41 am |
      • Matthew Grant

        lol Jesus can play with my other imaginary friends

        December 15, 2013 at 10:46 am |
        • SciGuy

          In your make-believe world he can Matthew. But in the real world where he was crucified, dead, buried, and raised from the dead, you will deal with him, whether you want to or not. This is the world where Peter cowered before young maidens and denied that he even knew him, but then days later was boldly proclaiming him at risk of his life. Did you ever wonder what emboldened him so. Also the world where Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had raised from the dead, but then was convinced when he saw the scars on his hands and side. And the world where the resurrected Jesus was seen by over 500 eyewitnesses at one place and time. Not to mention the same world where Saul of Tarsus was busy persecuting and putting to death followers of this Jesus, and then suddenly transformed into one who preached the same Jesus fervently and ultimately paid for this preaching with his life. The change? He met the resurrected Jesus! You must face these historical evidences, Matthew. They are not imaginary. Any more than Nero or Pilate are imaginary.

          December 15, 2013 at 11:09 am |
        • igaftr

          Yes...and everyone at Hogwarts saw Harry Potter play quidiche, so that is true as well, right?

          December 15, 2013 at 11:16 am |
        • SciGuy

          You'll have to draw your own conclusions, igaftr. But you ignore the substantial historical evidence of the risen Jesus at your own risk.

          December 15, 2013 at 11:23 am |
        • igaftr

          Ahhh, the old threat by proxy.
          Since your Jesus character is just a metaphor for all the potential "good" a person can do, and Satan is the metaphoric embodiment of al the "evil" It is unlikely that if Jesus was a real man, that he was supernatural in any way. Also, your Jesus teaches an overwhelming amount of the Buddha's teaching, but never gives him any credit.
          Your Jesus AND the bible is nothing more than a creation of man, like ALL other religious texts.

          My won't you be sorry when you stand before Quetzlcoatl who is very angry at you for worshipping the wrong god all these years.

          December 15, 2013 at 11:28 am |
        • SciGuy

          You use the wrong word. A warning is different than a threat. If, in spite of the evidence that smoking is dangerous for your health, you continued to smoke and proclaim that all the evidence is bogus, I would say that you ignore that evidence at your own risk. That's no threat, and not born of ill will on my part. It is a warning and would spring from true concern for your health.

          December 15, 2013 at 11:43 am |
        • igaftr

          I used the wrong word? Threat vs. warning?

          A school yard bully WARNS you that if you don't give him your lunch money, your fist will end up being forced into your face with the force of a punch. He doesn't WANT to make you punch yourself, you just didn't heed the WARNING.

          SInce the bully not only created the threat, but has the only way for you to avoid it....yours is a distinction without a difference.

          How is that any different than god creating hell to torture you for eternity if you don't comply with his WARNING. He doesn't WANT to send you to hell, but you won't heed the warning. If the warning pertains to some negative consequnce that is created by the one doing the warning, it is a threat.

          warning or threat...no differnce in the god example nor the bully example.

          December 15, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  11. ThisIsNot4U2

    Article says "Comedian Jon Stewart accused Kelly of "going full Christmas nog." Once again with his colorful words, Mr. Stewart has captured the true "essence" of Faux "News" and their IDIOTIC followers. KUDOS JON! KUDOS!

    December 15, 2013 at 10:27 am |
  12. MaryM

    Ahh the Fox news anchor(most of them), making even the most ignorant feel smart

    December 15, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  13. Steve Schaefer

    I’m retired, which implies I’ve lived the better part of my life, and yet remain amazed at our ability to totally corrupt anything we are able to perceive. What moved me to write this article is the latest forty into intelligent intrigue – Santa Claus.

    Santa, like Jesus, was born out of our imagination to create a fictional character who was all loving and forgiving. However, over the years, the idea has been twisted to serve many diverse portions of the world’s population – like coal in our stocking (for a bad year) or burning in Hell (for a bad life).

    Many authors (e.g. Dr Sauss’ Sneetches) have tried to show us the folly of our ways, but we seem unable to see the forest for the trees.
    I believe people are more like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates or Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. I base this belief on knowledge gained while working on a ambulance crew which revealed that we are all pink on the inside. Of course, even that remark could be twisted to imply that we are all a little too in touch with our feminine side, but this is the current state of human thought.

    We have divided black and white issues into fifty shades of grey (Oops can I actually still say that?) each of which appeals to a different segment of the population and becomes a rallying point. Over the years we have banned pledges, commandments, symbols, and words from forums, facilities, and general speech. It has gotten to the point that most of us can’t even open our mouths without running a thought through a social filter before expressing an idea.

    The problem has become so pervasive, that only our computer generated avatars are free to act out what we are actually feeling. So it isn’t surprising that every once in a while an avatar escapes back into its human and goes on a killing spree.

    Now you are probably asking what all this has to do with Santa? Do you really think that Santa or Jesus cares about how he/she is perceived? They are not: short or tall; black or white; good or bad. They are Love and Forgiveness.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • nancheska

      How true....we are all the same on the inside. There's too much emphasis on how we look, rather than what we do. I agree that the modern St. Nick was dreamed up by merchants about a century ago, to look like the Classic Coke commercial Santa. But the real St. Nicolas was Turkic. Jesus was from Nazareth/Palestine/Bethlem, and Jewish. Both were Middle-Eastern, far as I can tell (likley meaning multi-racial). And guess what? So are the lot of us, when it comes down to our DNA. Not sure why people trip out on this simple fact, but it is what it is.

      December 15, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • Scott

      Well well there is always one waiting to spew his "Chris is an imaginary being" and I guess you're it. You try to hard to sound intelligent and how long did it take for you to come up with your dribble? Imagine if the internet didn't exist, you wouldn't have anyone to read your tripe.

      December 15, 2013 at 10:23 am |
      • MaryM

        Such an angry person you are Scott. You should try some of that love Steve was talking about

        December 15, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • Bree57

      All craziness aside...I've always believed Jesus was olive skinned-and Santa was always shown as white, except for the different Santas that have been portrayed from different parts if the world as the man to signify their St. Nick. I tell you, I never gave any of it a thought. Santa is Santa, no matter what color he is or what he is wearing. Christ is Christ and I've always seen him portrayed as olived skin or a mix of all, if you wish to call it that. Why argue over something that doesn't matter?

      December 15, 2013 at 10:32 am |

    One has to consider Megyn Kelly's audience. She's speaking to a bunch of old white guys, the good ol' boys, the future old white guys. It's easy for her to say this because that audience already agrees with her and doesn't think it's controversial. Have her take the subway uptown 100 blocks and see how loudly she says it.

    Racial acceptance takes a lot of exposure. When the peace and harmony in your own life requires racial tolerance, you will find that's the right way quickly. Too many of rural and wealthy Americans, though, are insulated from racial diversity so that they can get away with saying bigoted things without consequence.

    Furthermore, when bigoted statements are perpetuated on major news networks, we have to ask if the Supreme Court made a mistake in disallowing federal oversight on election politics in the Civil Rights Act. If a New York news anchor is screaming about race, you can bet that rural Alabamans are working to limit non-white voting.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • lol??

      That's a leap.

      December 15, 2013 at 10:01 am |
  15. kvinson

    Revelation 1:15 ESV / 79 helpful votes

    His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.

    Helpful Not Helpful
    Revelation 1:13-14 ESV / 70 helpful votes

    And in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire,

    Isaiah 53:2 ESV / 51 helpful votes

    For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  16. lol??

    Colin sayz,
    "Ya gotta love it when a Christian scorns you with the admonishment that you will "go to hell"............." God aims to please. Maybe you shouldn't take it as scorn. Look at how the A&A's like to use, " go F yasef". How's that work for a married man, when the two are one flesh?? It's hard to believe a socie A&A is pro patriarchal marriage, so you must be lyin' when you say that.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  17. Ken

    Jesus was from Galilee on the shores of the Mediterranean. He was born into the Jewish faith. Were Jews from Galilee at the time of Jesus, White? I don't think so. I believe they were more Arab in appearance. It really doesn't matter.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:44 am |
  18. ed dugan

    If that religious huckster billy graham said it then you know for sure it isn't true. Jesus was a jew, most jews are white, end of story. As for white or black santas, santa is whatever color the gift giver is.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:42 am |
  19. Fine have it your way

    Before 9/11, Mohammad Atta was just your average white guy.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:40 am |
    • Fine have it your way

      He looked like any other white racist from Mississippi.

      December 15, 2013 at 9:54 am |
      • Fine have it your way

        Kidding of course. He actually looked more like Jesus.

        December 15, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  20. KateMae

    Tempest in a teapot.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:34 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.