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White Jesus and Black Liberation Theology in American Politics

Religion and politics are strange partners, especially in an election year. The faith of the Republican candidate (Mitt Romney) seemed like an issue in the early nomination process but has since been less questioned. The relationships between a candidate and the teaching of his church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, similarly called Mormonism) have not been scrutinized on a national level at the same vigor seen of John F. Kennedy and his membership to the Catholic Church in 1960 or of Barack Obama in 2012.

Paul Harvey and Edward Blum have an article titled Why No One Cares About the White Jesus of Romney’s Mormonism. They trace the iconography of white personification of Jesus and the LDS church’s history, with obvious ramifications to the identity of Christ that other churches consciously or unconsciously propagate.

In 2008, Jeremiah Wright’s sermons about a black Jesus killed by white Romans (and its obvious analogues to present-day politics) nearly derailed his former parishioner Barack Obama’s candidacy. The white Jesus of Mitt Romney’s Mormon culture, by contrast, has raised no cultural firestorm. It is hardly even noticed.

Simply put: the black Jesus of American history historically has been threatening, while white Jesus imagery, at least since about the 1830s, has been so normative and dominant that it is assumed to be accurate. Historically, America’s Jesus has been white without words, because whiteness needs no description. It is blackness, of the kind so prominently displayed by Jeremiah Wright’s sermons replayed in 2008, that anger and trouble people, and thus need explanation.

During the initial years of the 19th century, Americans for the first time mass-produced images of Jesus and sent them throughout the young and expanding nation. A robust industry of Jesus imagery emerged. The pictures stamped onto American minds the notion of an embodied, white Jesus. It was in these years that Jesus was first born as a sacred symbol within the United States.

From those years through the 20th century, Mormons and most white Americans depicted Jesus as white. Even after the Civil Rights Movement and globalization have forced Americans to recognize that Jesus was not white, it has not stopped the Son of God from being depicted as white on books, posters, air balloons, T-shirts and movies. In the decades since the 1960s, white Christians have been able to divorce word from image. In essence, they could sanctify whiteness with their white Jesus without saying a word.

Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey are the authors of ‘The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America’ (2012)

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