Dreaming of a White Jesus (and a Real Santa): Reflections on Conservative Derangement

To be perfectly honest, I find it quite shocking that anyone would be, well, shocked, by Megyn Kelly’s recent insistence on her FOX show that Santa Claus and Jesus are both white men, or even — and perhaps this is the bigger point — that Santa Claus is real. After all, when one works for a news outlet devoted to the daily propagation of fiction, fabricating such nonsensical details as these can’t exactly be seen as a deviation from an otherwise reality-based norm. These are people for whom man-made climate change isn’t happening but the “War on Christmas” is. People who will no doubt soon proclaim said war to be clear evidence of growing anti-white hatred, given the “verifiable” whiteness of the holiday’s two primary figures, as Kelly put it late last week.

Oh, and yes, I know, she has tried to rationalize her comments, to explain them away as a joke, a mere stab at open mic night perhaps, presuming for herself the mantle of a comedian — a profession for which she is no more qualified than the one she currently inhabits. She was just kidding, and oh yeah (as even she admits), she spoke too soon when demanding that “Jesus was white,” so, ya know, sorry about that one! It is at this point that dear Ms. Kelly should probably be reminded that one cannot, in moments like this, have it both ways: it cannot be both a joke, and at the same time, something you meant so literally as to then necessitate a retraction on the Jesus part. It’s like a criminal suspect saying they didn’t shoot the other guy, and anyway, it was self-defense.

No indeed, humor doesn’t require correction when the subject matter turns out to be absurd, because absurdity was the point. Retraction is for self-professed news people when they get the facts wrong, as she did. She was just supposing that none of her audience would notice, or care, as none of her guests did that day: people who sat there smiling all around, and raising nary a syllable of objection when she said that Santa “just is white.” One wonders if such silence would likewise have obtained had she chosen to proclaim equally rational positions, such as the “verifiable fact” that the Easter Bunny just is fluffy, or that the Tooth Fairy, just is the most beautiful winged creature in the known Universe.

Now don’t get me wrong, if there were a Santa Claus, there is very little doubt that he would have to be white. After all, no black man could manage to work only one day out of the year and not be called lazy; and surely no black man could get away with breaking into millions of homes, even if he was bearing presents. Some cop or neighborhood watch captain would surely have taken him down long ago, convinced that the red suit he was wearing signified gang colors. So, and let me be the first to admit it: in a world where Santa actually existed, along with unicorns, pixie dust and the Lorax, Megyn Kelly would have a damned good point. Note, this is how one can make a joke about Santa being white, without reinforcing white racial normalcy: but of course no FOX personality would choose to make the joke this way, because such a joke would require, first, an acknowledgment of the reality of racial profiling and anti-black racism, neither of which conservatives can afford to countenance. This is why conservative race humor isn’t funny, just racist; please take note of it. Thank you.

Some of course might proclaim that even her half-hearted backpedaling was too much: after all, St. Nicholas, on whom Santa Claus is based, was white, they insist, and that’s all Megyn needed to say. But such an objection strays so far from the rational mark as to be almost laughable. To begin, and let us be clear on this point though it should hardly need saying, there are literally no children who will go to bed on the night of December 24th, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the actual Bishop of ancient Myra. The Santa they believe in — and the one Kelly took such pains to assure them is white — is not believed to actually be the 4th century Bishop, nor a resurrection of said holy man. Rather, he is thought to live at the North Pole, surrounded by elves, among them Hermey, who desperately wishes to be a dentist, and once set out with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to the Island of Misfit toys, during which journey — beautifully narrated as it was by a talking snowman whose voice strangely resembled that of Burl Ives — they encountered other historically verifiable figures like Yukon Cornelius and the Abominable Snowman.

And in any event, the actual Saint Nicholas was not white, or at least would not be thought of as such in modern terms. Though part of Greece at the time, Myra is on the Mediterranean coast of what is modern day Turkey. And according to forensic anthropologists, whose reconstruction of what St Nick is believed to have looked like is endorsed by none other than the St. Nicholas Center, the Bishop would have been decidedly darker than anything Megyn Kelly would be comfortable with, and actually would have looked quite a bit like the kind of person who might manage to coincidentally (and randomly, of course) be stopped by the TSA every time he tried to fly commercial.

Which brings us to Jesus.

In some ways, one can’t blame Megyn Kelly for so quickly having insisted that Jesus was white. That is, to be certain, the image to which most of us have been exposed, and the blue-eyed, blondish Christ is the one reproduced over half a billion times, literally, in Warner Sallman’s famous “Head of Christ” painting. So if Megyn Kelly and the FOX faithful have come to believe that “A Child is Born in Bethlehem” was a reference to modern-day central Pennsylvania, we ought not be surprised I guess.

Tradition is, after all, the conservative guidepost; it is their very raison d’être. So once the image of a white Jesus has become established — as with Santa — that, and only that (rather than other niceties like historical accuracy) is what matters. This is why Rush Limbaugh’s defense of Megyn Kelly, which rested upon the simple exhortation that Santa (and presumably Jesus too) has “always been” white, strikes most right-wingers as perfectly sufficient. Facts are irrelevant. Tradition and the way things have always been are what matter. Tradition is what gives conservatives meaning. They are rudderless without it. And so to change (or even challenge) religious iconography, or even that of secular symbols like Santa takes on much grander psychological meaning for a bunch such as this. They long for the past, and fear change, so much so that it becomes the harbinger of their own doom. Tradition trumps fairness: so because heterosexual and monogamous marriage has been the norm for so long — though not nearly so long as they would have us believe — any attempt to “redefine marriage” is seen as a threat to their entire way of life. If Christianity has been the dominant and “normal” faith in the U.S., religious diversity becomes not a social good but a tainted and monstrous evil, the growth of which suggests that the oppression of Christians lies just around the corner. A greeting of “Happy Holidays” at the Wal-Mart, rather than one that prioritizes and presumes the supremacy of the Christian particular, becomes tantamount to the Nazis inviting Jews into the showers: a set-up, said with a smile, all the while hiding the pernicious intent of these peddlers of pluralism. This, and it really must be said, is derangement of a most disturbing kind.

What this means for most white people is simple enough. Even though no anthropologist or historian of first century Galilean Jews — which is to say Palestinians — would believe that Jesus could have been white, if that’s the image in the stained glass of one’s church, or on the Christmas card sent to you by your great-aunt Millie, well then, what do anthropologists know anyway? What is science compared to what makes us feel better? Indeed, this is the irony of Megyn Kelly’s rant last week: while she was lambasting an African American essayist who had argued that a white Santa was insufficiently inclusive — by telling her that “just because something makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change” — the fact is, it is Megyn Kelly and white conservatives the world over who apparently need Jesus to be white. Which is why they changed him so as to make him such, even though many of the earliest depictions of him hewed more closely to the logical and historical truth. This truth is one that, it should be noted, has been explicated clearly by forensic anthropologists based on the available period-specific evidence, in their reconstructions of the face of Jesus. Suffice it to say that their scientifically more compelling image is one that would not only be rejected by most whites (and surely most who rely on FOX for their news), but would likely provoke them to deep and abiding anger.

Which brings us to the far more important point: namely, why do white people apparently require white heroes, icons and saviors? Because we quite obviously do. Surely one cannot think it coincidence that Jesus has been so rendered ever since Christianity came to be used in the service of European supremacy? Surely one cannot find it a capricious and fanciful whim — or mere artistic contrivance — that would cause Michelangelo, Mel Gibson and thousands more between to envision Jesus as essentially one of ours? Likewise, and on a far less serious note, do we really believe that Santa has “always been white” as Limbaugh put it — or as Kelly herself did in her defense, when referencing films like “Miracle on 34th Street” — because there were no darker actors capable of chortling “ho ho ho,” and rubbing their prodigious bellies?

No indeed, there are no coincidences here, and however much Megyn Kelly now wishes to play victim, proclaiming herself the unjust target of “race baiters,” such a conceit is rich and even precious coming from her: someone who spent several hours a few years back hyping an entirely nonsensical story about the New Black Panthers, and how they were intimidating white voters at a polling place in Philadelphia in 2008. And this she did, even though in all the hours of coverage she could produce not one actual voter at the precinct who claimed to have been intimidated (and indeed, there were none), and although even the leading conservative on the Civil Rights Commission, which investigated the charge called it much ado about nothing.

Megyn Kelly is not the victim. And it is not race-baiting to suggest that there might be something troubling about the racialization of Jesus as a white man, or that there might be something even more troubling about a grown and well-paid news figure insisting that Santa is anything. Whether one wishes to address it or not, there is a reason these icons have been rendered white, especially Jesus. It would hardly have done, one supposes, to allow the more historically accurate Jesus to predominate in the church paintings, as Europe branched out, seeking to conquer the globe in the name of money and power and land, proclaiming the inferiority of the darker types all the while (and most ironically, their spiritual inferiority). It would have been decidedly more difficult, one might imagine, to enslave and brutalize and rape and murder the black and brown, if those who did the deed had then to enter their churches on the Sabbath and pray to a savior whose visage bore an uncanny and haunting resemblance to the man they had just lynched the night before, as the Romans had done on a cross with another brother so many years before.

To make the savior of the universe (at least in Christian eyes) a white man is to make possible, literally, the enslavement of brown and black peoples, the evisceration of still others and the conquest of their land in the name of white superiority. These historic crimes are almost unthinkable in a society where truth and historical accuracy were valued more than white skin. Which is to say, when conservatives insist Megyn Kelly’s comments — and the beliefs of millions — that Jesus was white are only a matter of personal preference without consequence, they write and speak as if history didn’t happen. But it did, and it matters, however painful it might be for white people to face.

Because to admit that such a man as Jesus would have been brown — at least the color of, say, Osama bin Laden, if not darker — would be to admit that the very foundations of this country, and its normal operating procedures for most of its history were a sin not merely against our professed civic and political principles, but a sin against God and the very Christianity upon which conservatives, at least, insist, this country was begun. And given the tendency of conservatives to view their God as particularly vengeful and given to wrath, one can quite easily understand why they might prefer to ignore their own transgressions in his eyes, and to change the subject — or at least the object of their theological affections — as quickly as possible.

But know this. If there be a God, it is quite certain that such a being is not nearly so gullible as the typical FOX News viewer, and therein lies the eternal problem for Megyn Kelly and all others like her.

May she (and they) sleep well at night.

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