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. Brenda Curtright

    The bible states his skin was the color of bronze and his hair was like sheeps wool. That just doesn't seem to be the DNA of a white male. Personally, it does not matter to me, I love the LORD & all mankind because this is what he has asked of us and if all of mankind would honor him & his request, we would not have the strife and hate we have in our world today.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
    • Winter

      That description was from a dream and was allegorical. Like, it described a double-edged sword coming from his mouth. Jesus isn't walking around with a sword for a tongue. That refers to Him defeating His enemies with truth (His words).

      December 13, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • ryanwin

      Silly girl.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  2. Diane Gervais

    Only in the US would this be news worthy or debated...The rest of the world doesn't care or think it matters what the color of someones skin is .. the story in itself is racist!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
    • Artie Aardvark

      Unfortunately, news all over the world is not much better. Good luck trying to find a serious thoughtful source of news. I seriously tried, and could not come up with any.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  3. BrofromtheO

    I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt. 'Cause it says like, I wanna be formal but I'm here to party too. I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
    • : D

      And a b!tchin' mullet that says 'all business in the front, all party in the back'.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  4. Cattlelight

    Jesus is a slandered name, I am Christ and my name is Michael.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • .


      December 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  5. pierce

    “And who are you actually talking to?" Stewart said to Kelly 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?”

    Well she was talking to FOX viewers, who are like children. Bratty, stingy, bitter children.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  6. adrifter

    Dear Christians, don't you understand what this 'debate' looks like? You're arguing over the race of a cartoonish character which was mostly created by Coca Cola advertising and a wandering Jewish preacher from 2,000 years ago in the Middle East. It makes you look petty, foolish and slightly crazy. Atheists like me are laughing at you. But keep on debating, you're helping to make our case against religion.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • niknak

      We laugh and how at you believers.
      Your various places of myth are just like McDonalds and Coke, they are just corporations complete with their own corporate logos.
      So eat up that filth that they serve you like the dumb sheep you are.
      The CEOs of your beliefs need to make their quarterly bonuses.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • durf

      Atheism is almost as silly as christianity.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • lol??

      Like you?? You're unique.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • Lew

      Dear Adrifter,

      Open your Trailer Home door and have a look outside. Breathe the air, look at the trees, comprehend the design and ask yourself; Could a human have made this all possible? Or was it some explosion from outer space that just happened to make perfection of a solar system that we humans could never comprehend fully. There is most certainly something more powerful than us. You live your life how you see fit, but keep in mind that judgment day comes for all of us. God wont punish you for not believing, but you will have to explain why you persecuted the ones who do. Put down the Bong and read a book. Maybe you will lighten up a bit.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
      • adrifter

        Wow, Lew. You tell me to lighten up, but you do nothing but toss insults. Fascinating. As for your suggestion that I read a book, no need to fear. I am halfway through The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I dare you to read it, too. But I fear your mind is not open to anything other than myths. But you might learn that your concept of 'design' is just an illusion. Try to see the reality of this world. Cheers. (See, no insults.)

        December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  7. berticode

    Megan Kelly the dumb blonde needs to learn geography: Jesus was born in ancient Israel (modern palestine), so a brown skinned, big nosed jew. Jesus was no more white than George W Bush is Chinese.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      So not ancient Palestine and modern Israel then?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  8. mal

    OK folks: Jesus was born into a Jewish family...as a member of the Jewish race. He was not white on Earth. Now He is in Heaven...back where He came from...as the Son of God. He now has NO race. I repeat: The Judeo-Christian God has NO race.

    As for Santa...pick your legend as to what race he might be. There are many legends of how Santa, or whatever he is called, came into being. Santa...as a person...or an elf...does not exist. If white people want to see him as white...fine! Same goes for any other race or ethnicity.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  9. Cattlelight

    I am Christ, believe in me and you shall not perish but have eternal life.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • pbernasc

      jerk jerk jerk .. ejaculate

      December 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  10. Big Bad Bob

    I remember as a kid seeing a picture of Jesus in our church. He was a handsome tall white guy with flowing blond hair and blue eyes with a lovely golden halo over his head. And then I grew up and learned about the real world.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  11. houstoniscougarcountry

    That's the danger with the anthropomorphism of God...one people making self idolizing images of themselves of a human God vis-à-vis Jesus , making graven images of themselves, blonde hair blue eyed Jesus'...then elevating themselves above all other men, a self reinforcing feedback to oneselfs, as if they are Gods, which is blasphemy. The Muslim have it right in this respect, no images...period.“You shall not make for yourself an idol or any graven images before me, for I am your God"...said God. .

    December 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  12. zeeeero

    Fear of the repressed any body? God as we know it was definitely black but not in any physical human sense God was Zero the absence of ligh(Hence black) matter and self. A pure ground state of potential. God Mathematically divided itself into different infinite selfs or infinite Gods to contrast and begin to know itself.

    So yes the universe itself starts as one for example on earth Africans. Divides itself into others but they are in essence no different. It's only part of a process to know ourselves as evolving into Gods. So you can argue who or what Jesus was but It will get you nowhere if you look for truth outside yourself.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  13. emintey

    Only on FOX news would this even be an issue.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  14. Dan

    Jesus Christ was a Jew. Jewish people come in all colors. He was also from an area where the skin has more olive colored than Norwegian white. Northern Africa has a lot of "white" people too. But that skin color would be defined as white by the census bureau. So I guess it depends on what your definition of "white" is. Syrians, Jordanians, and Lebanese are more white than black. Sheesh. Not that big a controversy unless you're focused on racism

    December 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  15. Andrew

    Considering that Santa Claus is of dutch origin, Santa's white folks, end of story.

    Jesus however wasn't white. He was the same skin tone of anyone else who lived in the Middle East, likely a "bronze" skin tone. But the Bible never says.

    Probably because it doesn't matter because his message was tolerance and love for all people.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • .

      St. Nicholas was a Greek from what us now modern day Turkey.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • niknak

      The Bable never says because he did not actually exist.
      Jeebus was made up from other gods and myths from previous religions that existed before.
      Sorry to break the bad news to you.
      Santa doesn't exist either, so don't feel too bad about it.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  16. michaelgranse

    I am not a religious person, but historically Jesus is characterized as having been patient, kind, forgiving, and wise. If we were to ask him, he would probably think that people who are worried about the color of his skin had completely missed the point.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • emintey

      Well said.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
    • niknak

      But he would still want all his followers to own guns, and really high powered ones designed to kill other human beings as fast as possible.

      Or at least all the fundie xtians I work with who own them and also wear the WWJD tie pin all say.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
      • lol??

        You authorize yer servants, the DHS, to do yer killin'. That's an upper management trick.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  17. jimmyboston

    Santa Claus was a real historical figure also known as St. Nicholas. He was a Greek by descent and lived in Anatolia, now called Turkey.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  18. pierce

    Well, Jesus was a semite and the Pope is Hispanic. I hope Megyn will admit to that.
    But don't tell Megyn that santa and Jesus were NOT Irish.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  19. FOX: Unfair and Unbalanced

    FOX has the most wonderful talent for putting people on the air who act like they are on the third day of a raging meth binge.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  20. Lew

    Really Stupid Argument. Jesus was born in the middle east. So ethnically, he cant be considered white. However, His father created all life and all colors and ethnic backgrounds. I don't think labeling him to a specific race makes any sense here. Jesus was a Jew. His skin tone really doesn't matter. But this I do know for certain, He wasn't black or white. Argument over!!!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:43 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.