This past week I read with interest the article by Gilbert Guerra, “The Dangers of the Swat Bubble,” and his critique of Tariq al-Jamil’s upcoming religion course, “Is God a White Supremacist?” Mr. Guerra argues that the class is likely a liberal groupthink course in which the professor will teach trendy race-theory to already-formed progressive students. It will not serve the interests of “moderate and open-minded” students, he writes, but instead “ensure that Swarthmore becomes more akin to a pricey echo chamber” in which naive and partisan students are inculcated into the “Swat Bubble.”
Likewise, I am teaching a class this Spring called “Radical Jesus” in which I ask the question, how did Jesus, a two-thousand-year-old Semite from the Palestine/Israel area, become a blond-haired white man of European ancestry in North America today? Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2012) will be a central text in the course’s historical analysis of how Jesus was re-imagined as a Nordic symbol in order to serve the interests of white nationalism.
So my question in relation to Mr. Guerra’s criticism, is it pedagogically useful, or merely fashionable, to raise questions of race and ethnicity when teaching courses about religion?
In response, let me suggest that to ask whether God is a white supremacist is not to say that God is a cosmic bigot who acts out of racial animus towards God’s human subjects. Rather, such a question asks instead, What are the religious beliefs and social conditions that lead many Americans to assume that white Eurocentric Christianity is God’s chosen religion to lead people here and abroad to equality and freedom? In this vein, most of us would agree that whatever God is – and who knows whether God does or does not exist? – God is not a lightly pigmented person or person-like being who is ethnically “Caucasian.” Thus to ask, as Professor al-Jamil and I do, whether God or Jesus is “white” is not to make a claim, so to speak, about divine skin color.
So what does this question mean? It means that in the Western psyche, whiteness is the religious and cultural norm many Americans assume is both the color of God, as it were, and the rationale for much of America’s foreign policy and domestic relations. For example, in 1903, the idea of the “White Man’s Burden,” to quote the poet Rudyard Kipling, propelled President William McKinley to annex the Philippines in order to “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” The benighted Filipinos were “our little brown brothers,” as future president William Howard Taft said at the time, who required America’s paternalistic oversight in order “to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills.”
Today, the religion of whiteness continues to hold sway in the public square. Last year, during another round of the Christmas culture wars, Fox News television anchor Megyn Kelly opined that African-American churches and families should not render Santa as a black man in holiday cards and decorations because, as everyone knows, Santa is white. And not only that, Kelly averred, but Jesus was also a white man. These are simple facts, she insisted, so accept them and stop trying to change mainstream American (read: white) Christian society. “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable [namely, that Santa is white] 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?”
So here we have it: Santa, like Jesus, is white. Kelly’s point is that the established, time-honored model of Santa Claus and Jesus of Nazareth as white men is fixed and irrevocable – whatever one’s ethnic heritage or cultural orientation might be. Of course, the inconvenient facts that the monk St. Nicholas, Santa’s historical precursor, was originally from Turkey, and that Jesus, as we have seen, was a Semitic man from Palestine/Israel makes it highly unlikely, if not impossible, that both figures were white men of European heritage. But these bothersome details that undermine white religious supremacy do not stop Kelly’s declarations to the contrary.
Whatever the otherworldly status of the world’s religions may or may not be, scholars consider religion and race to be social constructs that need to be thoughtfully interrogated in order to be better understood. Such is the mission of all liberal arts inquiry, including the Religion Department at Swarthmore College. Mr. Guerra’s spirited critique of the use of critical race theory within the academic study of religion raises timely and important issues. I hope he will take classes such as Professor al-Jamil’s and mine in the future, and that together we can question what role whiteness plays in shaping America’s understanding of God (or the gods) and religion today.
Featured image courtesy of Hotel-R.