Review: The Color of Christ
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey. The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. 281 pp. ISBN 978-0-8078-3572-2.
With The Color of Christ, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey provide a fascinating history of Jesus as a racial powerbroker in America. It is certainly not the first critical biography of an Americanized Son of God. But it is the first to consider—in as comprehensive a way as possible—why Jesus became the “holy face” of whiteness by the mid-nineteenth century, a status routinely challenged since then but not fully overturned today.
The authors convincingly argue that the making of the white Christ was intertwined with the making of the nation itself. For nearly two centuries after Jesus first crossed the Atlantic, the raceless, disembodied Jesus of European colonists and African slaves stood alongside or in conflict with the blood-soaked suffering servant who became “a symbol of [Native American] experiences” since “[i]f the sacred bled, then their bleeding could be meaningful as well”(66). After the revolution and into the early nineteenth century, this pre-white Christ gave way to a powerfully white Christ who called the nation to war over the status and substance of enslaved black souls, many of whom were themselves recasting the white Jesus as “a suffering white man who undermined white authority” and backed what the authors see as the earliest version of black liberation theology (93). The newborn white Christ, then, was not “a stable or completely unifying symbol of white power,” as his whiteness simultaneously defined the politics of slaves, secessionists, abolitionists, and unionists before and during the Civil War (8). Moreover, while white and black soldiers used the race of Christ to fight over the meaning of slavery and freedom, Latter-Day Saints unabashedly worshipped a white Christ and European immigrants reworked his whiteness to suit their own religious needs or political aspirations.
Into the twentieth century, Jesus continued his ascent as a conflicted, white messiah, at once a champion of racial order, an advocate for racial imperialism, and a catalyst for racial and political disturbance. Fundamentalists and liberals, socialists and capitalists, saber-rattlers and pacifists, New Dealers and Cold Warriors, segregationists and civil rights workers, folk artists and race-conscious writers crafted a Christ “for every crusade,” generally casting him racially in their own image (224). Because of the resilience of the white Christ and the proliferation of his non-white counterparts, by the end of the twentieth century, Jesus’s appearance and identity had become a fitting religious example of what Daniel Rodgers has recently termed “the age of fracture” (2011). Despite Barack Obama’s entering the White House as a victorious black Christ figure, tragedy, dressed as comedy, remained as well. The target of Hollywood satire and butt of late-night jokes, Jesus was no triumphant national savior. Because of his racial past, the American Jesus was “unable to resolve racial tensions of hundreds of years of discrimination, of civil rights victories half-won and half-avoided, and of dynamic changes to the demography of the nation” (265).
Blum and Harvey’s story is at once a case study and synthesis. They travel many roads familiar to most historians of American religion, albeit with a fresh set of questions. How did millions of Americans come to believe in the outright falsehood, namely that a Galilean Jew (which Popular Mechanics in 2000 concluded probably looked like this) was somehow white? And why did others reject this white Christ for the sake of revering a—similarly inaccurate—black or Indian Jesus more suitable to their personal and political purposes? In addressing both questions, Blum and Harvey delve into the processes of religious production, consumption, inclusion, exclusion, negotiation, normalization, enforcement, and resistance. The racial history of the American Jesus shows how “the sacred has been racialized and how the spiritualization of race has given notions of human difference not only a life beyond scientific studies or anthropological insights but also a sense of eternal worth” (15). There is a hint of convention to this conceptual focus that some readers may find unsatisfactory. To study religion’s public and private power, Blum and Harvey focus on what most scholars would deem an obviously religious figure. This is not a radical reinterpretation of what constitutes “the religious” and will probably not impress those who seek to expand “the religious”—or, to use that squishier term “the spiritual”—to subjects and sites such as those generally detailed in the recent Frequencies project. (Full disclosure: I contributed an entry for this project.) But by relating the religious to more than individualistic experience or the scholar’s definitional delight, The Color of Christ also does a service—like the work of Tisa Wenger and David Sehat—in reminding scholars that the process of religious construction often comes with high stakes: for free exercise, for citizenship, for even life or death. Indeed, religious terms and conditions matter for defining “acceptable” persons and for determining the legal, political, or national limits of human value.
Blum and Harvey, however, find some saviors as more worthy of study than others. This is not the case for their treatment of the colonial era and nineteenth century. The sheer number of Jesuses covered and analyzed is impressive, as is their careful explanation of the white Christ’s origins and his public empowerment and proliferation. It is when the authors reach the twentieth century, however, that gaps in coverage appear and chances to explain historical change and continuity go by inexplicably. For instance, there is little discussion of the crusading Christ of Prohibition and an odd silence regarding the militaristic and often racist Christ of World War II. Franklin D. Roosevelt, arguably the most important messianic figure of the 1930s and 1940s, is barely mentioned. This seems like a missed opportunity to explore the nature of those whom Americans deem political messiahs and how conceptions of “white saviors” fit into that construction. The authors do a fine job of elucidating the multiple uses of Jesus during the civil rights struggle among a wide range of activists, but one wonders how a Christ of civil rights connects to contemporary black religious communities and practices. Recent reflections on masculinity and femininity in African American churches and among black televangelists have drawn attention to a Jesus who seemingly sides with complementarian gender roles and entrepreneurial values. Is this a new Jesus or an old one?
More distressingly, there is no clear Christ of conservatism presented in The Color of Christ, nor a clear indication that the authors have worked out how race related to whatever “rightward turn” has or has not happened in postwar American politics and Christology. Presumably, upstart conservatives defended the white Christ of the Cold War, the civil rights era, and early and late culture wars. This we can deduce or assume from the research provided by a slew of recent political and cultural histories of American conservatism. But without a Christ of the right in sight, it is unclear how Christ operated in conservative popular culture, especially in terms of what their Jesus reveals about how racial politics intersected with consumerism or gender in the conservative movement. Why were FDR and the New Deal, the political white Christ and gospel of liberalism, imagined as both anti-Christ and anti-Christian among those on the right, as Matthew Sutton has recently documented? Why do conservative women warm to their vision of Christ, and why is a white Christ necessary for their romance? Why is there so much literature in conservative evangelical circles about spiritual polyandry, as seen in the common practice of “inviting” a white Christ into a heterosexual marriage? And how would a non-white Christ upset the marital arrangements that conservatives promote, especially in terms of their advocacy of “male headship” at church and in the home? In a different context, why do Relevant-reading white hipster conservatives and middle-aged conservative whites such devotees of the long-haired, womanly “rebel” Christ, as the authors seem to suggest? Or, put a different way, why do conservatives advocate strongly against homosexual unions or public displays of homosexual affection—especially between men—while at the same time trumpeting “Real Men” as those who enjoy a deep, committed, and public intimacy with a muscular, white god-man (and not, presumably, a god-man of another race)? In what ways do these conceptions of a white Christ overlap with pro-gun lobbies or tax cuts or deregulation or AM radio fandom, as the cartoon satirized here? How might they overlap with the various “white saviors” of the conservative movement, clearly denoted by political deference to promise-filled leaders from Jerry Falwell to Anita Bryant to George W. Bush to Rick Warren to Sarah Palin? How might a non-white Jesus muck with the outright worship of Ronald Reagan among conservatives and, nowadays, among many other Americans? These are no mere academic questions, but something that strikes to the heart of Blum and Harvey’s understanding of the white Christ’s prevalence in contemporary public life. In many ways, the white Christ has ascended and keeps ascending not just in the conservative movement but because of the conservative movement. To be sure, the authors adequately laid the groundwork for understanding the rise of the right’s Christ, but as with much of their treatment of the twentieth century, they suggest connections rather than necessarily argue for them.
Another odd privileging of certain Christs occurs with two other groups: Mormons and Latinos. To be honest, it is not quite clear why the Mormon Christ receives several sections of artful and attentive analysis while the many Christs of American Latinos (after about 1750) get little more than brief interludes on Gustavo Gutiérrez, Cesar Chavez, and gang tattoos. True, we may be in a “Mormon moment.” And Blum and Harvey offer their own perspective by linking the construction of the white Christ to the Mormon Christ. But it is arguable that the Latino Christ has been vastly more important in terms of public culture, economic history, and racial politics in American history. Moreover, regardless of whether Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney can become the first Mormon President, the fate of his party and much of the course of the twenty-first century will be decided by a Latino population whose Christs have been in dialogue with and even dominant in creating, curtailing, commanding, and killing the white Christ. The Mormon experience with Jesus is a necessary and instructive part of the book; the Latino experience, however, remains a relatively unexamined story, at least in Blum and Harvey’s otherwise fine treatment of Jesus’s American faces.
Such a sweeping reevaluation of Jesus and American religious history like The Color of Christ will have its gaps and missed opportunities. And, at the end of the day, this book is memorable for what it achieves, not for its unevenness. Blum and Harvey’s book should be in the running for several awards, if nothing else for documenting a central dynamic in American religious experience—the construction and use of an iconic religious figure—as a way of traversing what they aptly term “the saga of race in America.” The Color of Christ also serves as a good model for future research into messianism and American culture and politics. It is certain to arrest or anger readers who worship the white Christ or revere those politicians and public figures who assume this is the “normal” face of “their America.” So too will its relatively dour conclusion disturb those who hope for clear paths to racial reconciliation. But then again, this book is not fatalist. It merely questions whether some wounds can ever heal, especially those caused by Jesus himself.