Fox News host Megyn Kelly recently felt so aggrieved by a black woman’s tongue-in-cheek essay suggesting Santa could just as easily be a penguin as be a bearded white man that she used her massive prime-time platform to provide a public service announcement. “For all you kids watching at home,” Kelly said, “Santa just is white.” So was Jesus, she said.
Exasperated by what she saw as the opening of another front in the “war on Christmas,” Kelly simply declared Santa’s and Jesus’ whiteness as historical fact. But there’s a reason Christians from the lands where Jesus was from don’t depict him with blond hair, blue eyes and white skin, and it has more to do with history and geography than with contemporary American culture wars.
By no means is Kelly’s apparent discomfort with acknowledging the Middle Eastern roots of Christianity the exclusive preserve of conservatives in America; it is shared by many Muslim radicals and not so radicals who proclaim themselves jihadists. Christianity’s origins — and the Arab Christians who still populate the region — are inconvenient to a narrative that places Christianity and its adherents in the West rather than the East.
In recent weeks, a fatal sectarian clash in Egypt led to long prison sentences for three Christians convicted in the death of a Muslim, even though no one was prosecuted for the deaths of five Christians in the same clash. In Syria the Al-Qaeda-aligned fighters who control Raqqah, a provincial capital in the northeast, have turned churches into Islamist training centers, and Syrian Christians (like Iraqi Christians, many thousands of whom had sought refuge in Syria) have been targeted by extremists — often foreigners — who accuse Christian Arabs of being intruders in their own lands even though they are indigenous.
For the all-white panel Kelly assembled to discuss the matter, asserting America’s Christian “nature” raises a challenge: reconciling Christianity’s origins in the Middle East with the narrative of a civilizational clash. This investment in imagining Christianity without its Middle Eastern roots is not new to American shores.
In another nativist era, the early 20th century, the federal government began stricter enforcement of the law that regulated who could become U.S. citizens. The relevant but long-ignored statute had been on the books since 1790 and required those applying for naturalization to prove they were “free white persons.” (Though it was amended after the Civil War to include “aliens of African nativity and … persons of African descent,” there was no significant immigration of Africans, and given the restrictions placed on blacks in the U.S. at the time, no darker-skinned immigrants voluntarily asserted blackness.)
Courts in different parts of the country, from Massachusetts to Oregon to Georgia, struggled with whether early Arab immigrants (Syrians as they then were called) were white.
Some courts decided that Syrians, according to “science,” were Caucasian or were too light to be deemed black. Other courts held that the Founding Fathers did not mean “white” in a scientific sense and Syrians were too dark to be white. But the federal government had no such struggle; in each case, it opposed Syrians’ being naturalized on the grounds they were not white for the purposes of naturalization.
The insistence by a particular South Carolina judge that Syrians were not white and therefore not qualified for citizenship prompted Syrian-Americans from more established communities like New York City and Boston to petition the court on the matter. As people of the lands where Christianity arose, they pointed out, it was “inconceivable” that they could be excluded, since the law would have to exclude Jesus Christ himself.
The South Carolina judge was apoplectic: “The apostrophic utterance that He cannot be supposed to have clothed His divinity in the body of one of a race that an American Congress would not admit to citizenship is purely emotional and without logical consequence.” Like Kelly, the South Carolina judge found geography and history merely coincidence (or inconvenience).
For those seeking to include and exclude people from the United States on the basis of a slippery, societally constructed and U.S.-specific concept of whiteness, the problem of Jesus’ roots in the Middle East — where sectarian hierarchies trump racial ones — will not fade.
St. Nicholas (a.k.a. Santa Claus) — not as central as Christ to Christianity — has been relocated from his true home in what is now Turkey to the great white wastes of the North Pole. Erasing the actual Jesus and the lineage of his first adherents has, so far, proved more challenging.