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. Topher

    What color does everyone think I am?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • KnockYouInTheMouth

      you are white

      December 13, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • Gav

      Obviously blue.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • omarthebarber

      On a white background.
      At least, that's how it appears on MY computer screen.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
  2. onmedea

    Religious researchers have determined that this is the exact color of Jesus – and the color code is F9FFD1 (for graphic designers).

    December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  3. RichardLB

    Jesus is not equal to the concept of "Santa". How in the world did someone manage to mash the two together? This silly story is just being made up in the news for shock value and really isn't news worthy. Mucking with tradition is always a nice hot button that news outlets love to play with.

    Regardless, the concept of the tale of "Santa" traces its roots to Europe, primarily in the Nordic region which, frankly speaking, was and is a predominantly white area.

    Looking at the region the story of Jesus has him in, it is a bit presumptuous to assume he was "white" or "Caucasion" (as in, from the Caucus region). He likely had more Mediterranean features.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • AverageJoe76

      Well... Jesus and Santa are fictional characters. Santa is a lie parents tell their kids to keep them in line around the holidays, and Jesus is the one 'manipulator-humans' use to keep civilizations in line.

      As a kid, once you realize that society will rally around a lie, and support it (Santa) – you begin to wonder what other things are lied about and supported.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
      • Opposing View

        Well thank you for letting us know you are unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Most grade schoolers have that ability. So why is it you do not…

        December 13, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
        • Ernest T Bass

          You are the one confusing reality with mythology if you believe that of which there is zero evidence = god

          December 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  4. Matthew Kilburn

    St. Nick was Greek, but Santa is rooted at least as much in Germanic / Nordic traditions. Which are white. In fact, even if you brought a Greek man to this country today, he would be considered (by all races) more White than anything else.

    Jesus is a bit harder to place....Being middle eastern, his skin color would have been darker than the Northwestern European tone that we use as the standard for "white" today. That said, like the appearance of most Greeks that I just mentioned, if you brought Jesus back to this country today, you'd be able to classify him as "white" at least as much as "black"

    December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  5. olivejesus

    Whoever wins the war picks the color. Signed racist white guy.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • FrankinSD

      No need to get "cross" about it.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  6. Xecutiv

    Have you you ever been to Israel? If so you would know that thre Hebrew Isralites that been in that part of the world when whites were in the caves and hillside of Europe. And yes the Hebrew Isralites are Black. The Jews that are in Israel now are not born there originally, but placed there. Study your history.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Opposing View

      There is no such thing as a Black Hebrew. All Israelis are of Hebrewic descent. All black people are of Ethiopian descent. A black person might go to Israel and call himself a Jew but that does not make him one...

      December 13, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  7. JohnC

    Such topics as this or interracial marriage are so odd. There are many subtle variations in skin color, bone structure, etc. throughout the world and it's literally not a back and white sort of thing. As you travel the world you see one 'race' slowly morph into the next realizing there's no place to draw the dividing lines. So Jesus was way less white than a red-headed Irish or a blonde Swede but clearly lighter skinned than someone from Uganda. Does it really matter?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Only to racists.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • Phil

      Race issues in America get simplified down to white vs black. Because of the American history and general ideology, this is all most people can comprehend.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  8. Russ

    I have studied art history and can tell you this. Artists throughout the ages depicted Jesus as either they imagined him or the their patrons wished to see him portrayed. There is no description of Jesus appearance, which is for the best. Because he was not described, everyone can imagine him they way they want, making him more universal. If there were photography in those days, and it turned out Jesus was a short, skinny, dark complexioned, balding man, who looked old for his age, who would follow him today? Today, we want our super heros to look like Hollywood actors, look the part, and conform to our racial biases.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  9. spence

    I love it when majorities feel they're oppressed. They don't know the meaning of that word.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  10. mike

    Well, Jesus probably WAS white, in more literal terms. People of that region tend to be light skinned.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Russ

      Say what?

      December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • FrankinSD

      They were only light-skinned when compared to subsaharan africans. But no worries. Fox should be congratulated for its program of hiring the handicapped.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:59 am |
  11. PattyCake

    Since Jesus and Santa are both made up people, they can be any color you want them to be. Seriously people, this is the 21st century. Stop with all the hocus pocus nonsense!

    December 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • mike

      Jesus as a man isn't fictional. Many of the stories of him are, obviously.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:55 am |
      • PattyCake

        Which part of the fictional story do you think is true?

        December 13, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
        • Scuromondo

          For starters, I believe he was born and he was executed by the Romans.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Scuromondo

      I thought that both Jesus and Santa, as they appear in literature, were both based on real characters. And given that Jesus was native to ancient Palestine, it's not likely he would be white.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
      • mike

        Define "white".

        December 13, 2013 at 11:57 am |
        • crakkka

          White is anything that's not black.

          December 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
        • Scuromondo


          December 13, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
        • Scuromondo

          ...menat to say, NOT semitic.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  12. Hill

    What do you expect from Fox? They need ratings. On the other hand, Jon Stewart goes out of business without Fox.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
  13. Tiff S.

    Honestly Jesus was probably more middle eastern, look at where he was born its not like he was European! Also i think Jesus is whatever we need him to be! The simple fact that this is actually becoming a debate makes me realize everyone needs more Jesus in their lives!

    December 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Jesus is a real as Santa is! They both ride unicorns and carry leprechauns on their shoulders.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • mike

      Obviously he was Middle Eastern. But Middle Easterners tend to be pretty light-skinned.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • Ernest T Bass

      Jesus rode dinosaurs!,, true story!

      December 13, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  14. crakkka

    Kwanza has a black Santa.... not Christmas.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  15. Carols

    How can you call FOX a "news" provider when your "news" representatives say ridiculously ignorant things? Please tell Megyn that she should stick to talking about unicorns and other less controversial fluff.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • LOL

      Jews are white or brass colored.....
      St Nicklaus was a German Saint .....think he was white
      so crazy about what Meagan said?

      December 13, 2013 at 11:55 am |
      • Thinker...

        Actually he was a Greek in Turkey. Nicholas is a Greek name.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • LB

      1. Fox "News" is not a legitimate news organization. They are classified as an entertainment program due to a lawsuit they filed against the FCC on W's watch which was rubberstamped by Colin Powell's son, a Bush appointee. Therefore, they are exempt from the "fairness doctrine" and a host of other regulations real news organizations are subject to.
      2. Ms. Kelly is NOT a reporter at all. She is an entertainer and news presenter who only mouths and reads what Fox management prepares for her.
      3. Her racist comments are absolutely hideous and unacceptable. Who really cares what race Jesus and Santa are? Does it really matter? I think not. Except to those who want to stir up hatred and divisiveness, like Ms. Kelly. What message Jesus and Santa bring, whether you believe in them or not, is a message of hope and peace. We sorely need hope and peace in these times. Not hatred. Merry Christmas, everyone!

      December 13, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  16. Tim

    Really important jibberish!

    December 13, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  17. Shimmer

    Since Jesus is fake, why can't he be white? Only a dummy would argue otherwise.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • Peteyroo

      Since Santa doesn't exist, what difference does it make what color he is?

      December 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
  18. richunix

    Who really cares? With any made up belief or religion, you can have him being a she-male and colored half brown and half white. Just let it go.

    Stephen F Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    December 13, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  19. Acegirlshusband

    And I hate to tell you, but the Easter Bunny is white, too.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • crakkka

      So is the tooth fairy..

      December 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Russ

      Europe and the United States are both areas originally populated by light skinned people. Of course all their mythical super heros will be white. In Africa, they're black. In Asia, they're asian. The problem arises when people of one continent project their stereotypes onto people on another continent. It is highly unlikely that Jesus was "northern European white". However, he probably wasn't black either. He was "caucasian", which encompasses a wide range of skin color from brown to white. Since the eastern Mediterannean is an area that is dry, hot, with a lot of sun, it is likely that his skin color was brown, like others native to the area. You only need to look at paintings in the pyramids to ascertain the approximate color of people in that area at that time.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
      • therealzeitgeist

        I agree with general tenor of your comments. But Jesus lived nowhere close in time to the Pyramids getting built.

        Jesus is closer to us in years apart than the Pyramids are to him.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  20. aroomadazda

    The author in Slate was not arguing that Santa should also be black, she was saying that Santa should be a penguin.


    December 13, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • therealzeitgeist

      Pretty soon the likes of Einstein, Kepler, Maxwell, and Newton will have to be a fuzzy ambiguous creature of some sort so all the non-white non-Jewish kids who aren't Asian (i.e., the black kids) don't get any wrong ideas about ethnocentricity or Western cultural superiority producing such sheer conceptual and mathematical genius century after century.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:30 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.