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. Sebastian

    Jesus was born in Jerusalem as a Jew in the Middle East so that does not make him white. As far as Santa goes he originated in Turkey shockingly enough not white.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is so gross

      So Jews are a race with a sole color? Good to know.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  2. Kevin

    Jesus is obvioulsy Asian

    December 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  3. Don Sprouse

    When I read this my first thought was, "Really?" This is someone who actually is educated? Educated in what because obviously they have not paid attention to those that live in that area of the world, but I am not surprised. There are individuals that look at me, I am Turkish, and automatically call me a white guy, despite my olive colored skin, they just think I have a tan, GRIN. Personally, I could care less, but it shows the ignorance of this society we live in and the stupid things that matter to people. I could care less if he is black, white, olive, tan, or whatever...it is who he is and what he stood for. Wouldn't it be nice if we started looking at society the same way, "Who are you and what you stand for rather than the shade you are." Recently I had my first child and I found it interesting how alike the newborns looked at the hospital before pigmentation kicks in. They are all the same.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  4. Christian

    I call them both fictional (tell my children so) and leave it at that!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • AC

      Santa Claus is absolutely the 21st Century Jesus Christ.
      Obesity is a problem.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Kenny Bania

      Ironic – an atheist named Christian. Thats GOLD!

      December 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • Jeff

      Since Jesus was an actual person he cant be fictional.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  5. boger

    That's SHlT

    December 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  6. KF

    To heck with this whiteness nonsense! I'd much rather get a visit from a St Nick who looks like John Stamos than a fat old lily-white man any day (no matter how jolly)!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  7. BeyondBelief

    Debating the skin colour of two fictional characters such as Jesus and Santa, seems a tad ridiculous. Yet again proving that man made God in his image, not the other way around. The fact that the marketing of both Jesus and Santa is trying to be more inclusive means that you will see them both depicted as representative of whatever demographic is being targeted. And make no mistake, both are being marketed to the general populace. So, let's get beyond the racist rhetoric and recognize the myth of both figures. Once you do that, skin colour becomes as irrelevant as the myth themselves.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Amanada

      NICELY SAID! 🙂

      December 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  8. Mark Causey

    Wow, I can't believe it, someone on Fox news was wrong? Not possible!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  9. duke

    guess what

    I just farted!!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  10. Rick

    Santa Claus is a verifiable fact?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • gary

      Is Jesus a verifiable historical person? Many think it was a myth started by the Romans. All we really have is centuries of hearsay changed myriad times over centuries.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
      • Rick

        And I wouldn't argue with you on that. But I didn't have the courage to "touch" Jesus if you know what I mean.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  11. Nazxul

    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,"...

    Nope, neither figure has any historical proof that they existed. There were plenty of historians around during Jesus's time and not one of them wrote about him even though he supposedly healed people. Josephus was the only person who wrote about him and he's has been proven without a doubt a fraud a long time ago.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  12. Cole

    They both may not be white...but they are both fictional!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  13. CLT

    Are there anything other than Blond Bimbo's on Fox? Are they really blond or are they bleached blonds?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  14. Martiy Ayala

    I'm confused about Barbie. For as long as I can remember she was white but lately I see balck Barbies....maybe soon there will be multi race Barbies.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  15. Richard

    Gee, calling Jesus or Santa white is like call Obama black.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  16. Mike

    I wonder if it was a black reporter saying he was black if we would be hearing about it like we are.
    Who cares, move on, so what.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  17. And FOX said

    If we can't find a smart women to make our point, we will just hire an air head blonde who looks cute saying stupid things that reflect our views.
    Get use to it America, we are white. LOL

    December 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  18. Luckyjuly

    St. Nicholas, or Santa Clause, was historically white although not depicted as fat in artwork/portraits. Jesus's skin color is unknown but I agree with MLK's statement that it does not matter.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  19. jasonsebring

    Santa and Jesus are the same. Their both white and make believe.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  20. Doris Lomack


    December 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
    • Luckyjuly

      St. Nicholas wasn't a made up story. Santa is the Dutch version of the real man who was known to put coins in children's shoes who would lay them out on their doorsteps for him. It's a myth based on a real man, who was indeed white. As far as Jesus, I agree with MLK's statement. It doesn't matter.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:26 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.