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. Lynn

    How about this simply put..Christmas Day is a fabricated holiday. ! It was created to wipe out the Pagan holiday of Yule because people are/were terrified of paganism. In Fact...in the Old Testament it states clearly that it is SIN to decorate trees from the FOREST...hmmm....No one in this world knows when "Christ" was born...if he was born.....

    December 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Lincoln

      Lynn, like most internet educated agnostics or atheists, you have much to learn about learning how to read the Bible. Chew on this. The verse you site has NOTHING to do with the main point which is IDOLATRY. For all intensive purposes a rock couldn't been picked or a solid block of chocolate or any other inanimate object. Devoid of Faith and Reason, you simply will not be able to understand the word of God. See below.

      First, there is the immediate context of the passage. The very next verse, 10:5, goes on to say, "Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good." This passage and the passages that follow make it crystal clear that the "decorated tree" that Jeremiah was talking about in 10:3-4, was a tree that was cut down and made into an idol, a very common custom in the ancient world. 10:8-10 also confirms this, where the wooden idols are contrasted with the LORD, who is the true and living God. Keil and Delitsch, the well-respected Old Testament commentary, confirms this interpretation that the trees in question were idols that were then worshiped (C. F. Keil and F. Delitsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, "Jeremiah, Lamentations," vol 8 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eeerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 196-199).

      December 13, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
      • John P. Tarver

        Cutting off all the limbs on a tree to make a phallic symbol was part of Ahseroth worship. Trees decorated with human hair weaved into hangings.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
      • Rbnlegend

        "All intensive purposes"? Really? It's hard to take you seriously when you type that out.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
      • Danielle

        SO you believe that the christmas tree was started by christians? Some of it was but there are parts of the christmas holiday that were absorbed by different religons along the way. You and Lynn are both kind of right.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      I just wish we could go back to burning the most popular person on our community each solstice. Soon all these politicians would be gone.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  2. Knucklehead

    Still gotta respect the way they tackle the tough, important issues.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  3. afrosheen

    mlk, mandela, jayz and obama are the black gods. Jesus cuts their lawn on saturday, thats why they love illegals.....

    December 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Tandy

      Idiot partisan moron. Go staple some tea bags to your little tricorne Tim foil hat. Go on, now. Shoo.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  4. Saraswati

    It kind of depends on the story you want to tell. if going classic and historical, he's Greek. At the north pole it doesn't much matter as that's fantasy. If he comes from a people who evolved there, I'd pull from various far northern races for a look. All of this will be easily solved with just a few Christmas specials that create new characters of different races. Look how fast Rudolf and Frosty became staples of our culture. You can introduce new cultural icons pretty easily.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  5. sly

    Proven that all humans are at minimum 5% black race. ALL.

    (I'll give y'all some time to get your minds around that one).

    And all Easter Bunnies are furry, not white, not black, furry.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  6. Common Sense

    Geographically speaking its highly unlikely he was fair skinned, blue eyed or blonde haired. Use intellegence.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      bible says Jesus was black.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  7. sss

    I thought Jesus was Chinese..

    December 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  8. Patricia

    It's all imaginary arguing but for the sake of argument Santa would be white by now as living in the North Pole would require as much sun on the skin as possible, thus he would be light. Jesus, on the other hand would be darker toned because of his access to sun. It's genetics and environment, not the economy, stupid. Duh.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  9. DC

    Slow day around the world CNN? Hope the writer doesn't get paid much. He has no creativity or is bored. Pick one.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  10. dennis

    Revelation 4:3 KJV
    And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  11. Alvin M. Fitzgerald

    It's very easy to say it does not matter what skin color Jesus was and the message is the important thing and it is.However if Jesus was white living in that area for any length of time he would most likely be dark it's a hell of sun over there,but thats proven in summers and tanning beds around the US right? I know that at this stage of the game in America if Jesus was to be any other color what that would mean to economics of the church and the sprituality of the church as well. "I'm all in when Christ looks like Me" and it must mean that I'm better than my neighbors they are non-white. When mankind thinks they are better than someone else it makes it easier to invade enslave mis-treat not advance on the job etc. However the last I checked there was only one creation and so whatever skins colores we have today was created then. We need to start acting like humans for the sake of the world. There is only one truth and it is we all come from God in that same one-time creation "Love your Neighbor they are non-white,women,not your religion,etc.etc you know the list. Let's hate all that does allow us to love one another my man Les Mccann. Thanks

    December 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  12. afrosheen

    i do agree that liberals diefy blacks.....

    December 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • Tandy

      I do agree you don't know what you're talking about.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Liberals bought a few black preachers and put blacks back on the plantation, just like Malcolm X said they would.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
      • My moron detector is going off on this one

        Dixiecrats were anything but liberals. The only reason that they were Democrat for so long was because Lincoln was Republican. They now are properly Republican, TVs tuned to Fox, radios on Rush.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          Those Southern Democratic Senators who repented segregation and voted with LBJ on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were forced out of the Democratic Party by the Ku Klux Klan.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
        • Emma Goldman

          Look at the bright side: At least he is distancing himself from racism.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
      • Tandy

        Revisionist history? Yes. You would be crapping your Depends if you found out conclusively that Jesus was black.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          Jesus is black, that is why great uncle Benjamin Franklin Tarver freed the slaves.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
      • sly

        ... I think there are millions of unemployed (and not interested) blacks who would love a job on a plantation.

        Where do they apply? Sure beats dropping out of school – a little hard work goes a long way!

        December 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  13. southernwonder

    christianity is totally about putting words in jesus' mouth.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • dennis


      December 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
      • Emma Goldman

        LET'S KILL HIM!

        December 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Paul of Tarsus claimed those who took money for their works are not Christians, but that did not stop the love of money from making the Church evil.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • BrownGuy

      Hey, that's a good one! I'll have to remember it!
      Only sane comment I've seen so far!!

      December 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  14. Theodore Hyczko

    Jesus Christ was Jewish

    Jesus Christ is the risen messiah promised to us in Isaiah 53

    December 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Christ the Messiah redeemer from Hosea and Ezekiel, black as an Ephraimite would be.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  15. Gary Simpson

    More Political Correctness run amok!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  16. regal80

    Hello- white person here...yeah, a white Jesus is pretty freaking racist, and a middle easterner is defined as caucasian? Tell that to one of them the next time they try and board a plane, I'm sure you'll notice a difference then. Santa Claus, kind of like the easter bunny....why can't he be purple of it suits your child's hopes and desires? Why does anyone even pay attention to Fox news anymore? Why haven't they just been shut down?? They're either willfully ignorant, hate mongering bigots or they're the biggest trolls in the news industry.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Derek Massey

      Jesus was a Jew from the Middle East, he was probably blacker in colour than Obama. However, the Iraqis consider themselves as Caucasian and not Arabs. Caucasian race is the general physical type of some or all of the populations of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western, Central and South Asia.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
      • John P. Tarver

        The Gaul are from Iraq.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  17. afrosheen

    LOL if Jesus was in fact black, all liberals would be the most devout Chistians on earth.....

    December 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Tandy

      Stupid comment from an intellectual midget.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • My moron detector is going off on this one

      Original Poster is obviously someone who thinks Fox is enlightening.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Wes

      that is the most stupid comment i have ever seen on internet..period!

      December 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  18. asdfasdf

    Assuming he existed, jesus is likely quite brown. Neither black nor white. Just take anyone from the middle east today, his skin tone would have been similiar.

    As for santa... Depends if you are talking about the retail santa, or the people retail santa was based off of. If you mean the retail fat man, he can be any color you want, because he is fictional.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • dennis

      Have you heard of Wikipedia???
      Just do a search on human history, and you will find many people existed 1000s of years ago.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • melchior37

      Sure Jesus was Middle Eastern and likely swarthy but in case you didn't know most Middle Easterners are still Caucasians because of their facial features. There is more to race than just skin color.

      Also all Blacks or all Asians do not have to all share the same skin tone or color, why should a different rule be applied to Caucasians?

      December 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  19. Danny

    Hm, a black guy climbing down my chimney at 4 am. Ok.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  20. Bernhard

    All of you are wrong....Jesus was a Gorn

    December 13, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Captain Kirk

      Then I can easily kick his ass with three different kinds of dirt and a coconut tube (it was as if the professor from Gilligan's Island came up with that one).

      December 13, 2013 at 1:25 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.