BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. And this week, we put Christianity under the microscope. We examine the role of the religious right in U.S. politics.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD Evangelicals want the power and the privilege that comes with Christian nationalism. And who delivers that to them? They don't care as much.
BOB GARFIELD And how the religious left is harder to define.
JACK JENKINS I mean Native American spirituality is not the same thing as covering an Episcopal priest, which is not the same thing as covering on the Muslim community.
BOB GARFIELD Also, the myth of Christian martyrdom.
CANDIDA MOSS Uh, no. Christians never cowered in the catacombs. That's actually a tourist myth.
BOB GARFIELD And what race is Jesus anyway?
MBIYU CHUI It was kind of like a revelation, I said. Oh, wow. I never even considered the idea that Jesus could have possibly been black. Who could have thought of this?
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. You know, you wake up on a Friday morning to wrap up your show after a long night of tweaks, edits and reconsiderations, and now there's no time left except a mix the show and send it out. And then you see stories broken so fast moving it can't be addressed in any way. That would last more than 15 minutes. So you throw up your hands. It's not for us, you say. Thank God, you think. Now if you're a believer in God, these days you might think that despite Einstein's dictum, God really does seem to be playing dice with us. Maybe you would consult the holy books for some insight into God's mysterious ways with regard to the diagnosis of Donald J. Trump with COVID 19. The Quran says that if a plague victim is patient and trusts in Allah's decree, he will be rewarded as a martyr. The New Testament says that the prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise them up. And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. The Old Testament says God is teaching you a lesson when he whacks you, one you'll never forget. Now, Trump's family pastor was Norman Vincent Peale, who preached the prosperity gospel, that if you have health and wealth, you deserve it. And if not, well... In this hour, we probe American Christianity as a political force right, left and center and look into the face of Jesus.
President Trump, despite a strong evangelical following, doesn't exert much effort on displays of personal piety. It's not really part of his brand.
[CLIP] REPORTER I'm wondering why one or two of your most favorite Bible verses are.
TRUMP I wouldn't want to get into it, because to me, that's very personal. You don't want to talk about the Bible is very personal. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And he's often caught off guard by questions about his faith.
[CLIP] INTERVIEWER You used the word Christian. Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?
TRUMP That's a tough question. I don't think in terms that I have I'm a religious person. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nevertheless, Trump's strategy as defender of the faith has been a political win, at least among his base. He spoke about that on Thursday in a virtual address at the annual Al Smith dinner.
[CLIP] TRUMP One of my top priorities is to defend religious liberty and the cherished role of faith and faith based organizations in our national life. To protect your God given rights, I was recently honored to nominate one of our most brilliant legal minds, Judge Amy Coney Berrett. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE A Catholic judge popular with the religious right to the Supreme Court. Fox News was quick to call out the Democrats for bias.
[CLIP] TUCKER CARLSON So it's bad when she takes her faith seriously, but good when Joe Biden does it. But to my original question, is any other faith at risk of being mocked the way Christianity is by our media? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Trump's base often is characterized as largely white evangelicals, but that's misleading. According to sociologist Andrew Whitehead, author of Taking America Back for God, Christian Nationalism in the United States, there's a crucial distinction between evangelicals and Christian nationalists.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD Christian nationalism is a collection of myths and narratives like the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. But it also includes symbols and value systems that come along as a package deal. A bunch of assumptions about nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, authoritarianism and militarism.
True Christian nationalists mostly are white evangelicals. Take V.P. Mike Pence, who subbed out the word Jesus for the red, white and blue at the Republican National Convention.
[CLIP] MIKE PENCE Let's fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. [END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD But roughly a quarter of white evangelicals either reject or resist Christian nationalism. Those who do subscribe to it have much more in common with each other, regardless of their faith or even lack thereof than with the dissenting evangelicals in Christian nationalism. The Christian part seems to be negotiable. What draws the movement together is not devotion to God or religiosity, but rather to quote "people like us", usually white and American born.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD They want the power and the privilege that comes with Christian nationalism for them in the public sphere. And who delivers that to them? They don't care as much.
BOB GARFIELD But no matter what you personally believe, you do have to contend with Christianity in America because Christian nationalists make up more than half of the electorate. Of those, according to Whitehead's study, 20 percent fiercely endorse Christian nationalism.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD When Americans are able to create symbolic boundaries about what it means to be an American, and if they're able to say that to be a citizen of the U.S. is to be Christian like us. And again, in quotes, then those symbolic boundaries get translated into social boundaries. Where others don't have the same access to political parties or office or social services or even identifying who is a real citizen or who can vote in when groups legitimate their political positions and policies with the sacred. Then really all bets are off, because if God has willed it, they should be willing to do whatever they need to by any means necessary to ensure that it comes to pass.
BOB GARFIELD But then there are what Whitehead calls accommodators. Fully 32 percent of us not so strident, but not unsympathetic.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD I think many of those Americans, they want to see Christianity play a role in American public life, but not to the extent that others are excluded completely. And so I feel as though the more that they're exposed to different voices on the margins or different news sources that highlight the dissonance between perhaps teachings of Jesus that they might begin to see, we need to start to move away from that.
BOB GARFIELD One of the principal tactics of Christian nationalism ambassadors in recent years is to testify endlessly about their religious persecution, which is baseless.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD This is a more recent turn using that rhetoric of religious freedom to support their views of how social societies should work. It isn't as though Muslim Americans or Jewish Americans or non-religious Americans should have equal say. It's that religious freedom means I should be able to live out my faith and see my country reflect my views at the Center of American Life.
BOB GARFIELD Andrew Whitehead is a professor of sociology at Indiana University, Purdue University, Indianapolis, and author of Taking America Back for God. Christian Nationalism in the United States.
To Trump, anyone who isn't Christian nationalist is anti Christian or anti religious. That's how he describes Joe Biden, who has talked often and openly about his Catholic faith. He says Biden will...
[CLIP] TRUMP Take away guns, destroy your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything. Hurt the Bible. He is against God. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD In a Trump campaign ad titled: Meet Joe Biden Supporters, the closing shot is a photo of Biden kneeling in a black church with black church leaders behind it.
[CLIP] AD You won't be save in Joe Biden's America. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD While Christianity has dominated America since its founding. The notion of Christianity under siege persists. Candida Moss, professor of theology and religion at the University of Birmingham in the UK, says the persecution trope dates to the early church.
CANDIDA MOSS Well, the story that we're told in Sunday school is that from the death of Jesus onwards, his followers were constantly hounded by a hostile Roman government. There were Christians who died under Roman rule, but there were really only very brief periods in the very late 3rd and around the turn of the fourth century that Roman emperors actually turned their focus to Christians and said, you either sacrificed to the emperor or you die. So when the emperor of the Larin decided in 256 that he was going to target Christians, one of his first steps involve exiling Christian members of his own imperial household and sending them off to country estates. And another one was to remove Christians from high ranking positions in public office. This tells us the Christians were in high ranking positions. They can't have been cowering in secret if he takes these kinds of steps.
BOB GARFIELD Look, I'm Jewish, but I remember that I learned in school or somewhere of early Christians cowering in the catacombs of Rome for fear of the Romans who were going to kill them.
CANDIDA MOSS Uh, no. Christians never cowered in the catacombs. That's actually a tourist myth that goes back to the 18th and 19th centuries when Americans and Brits were touring continental Europe and they were told that Christians used to shelter here. But there's actually no evidence that they did that. They used to be big, sort of, church like structures built on top of the catacombs. And that was where Christians would assemble. And the reason why that matters is, of course, everyone knew where they were and where to find them. They certainly weren't hiding.
BOB GARFIELD So there were any other examples, false stories of martyrdom.
CANDIDA MOSS First of all, our narratives about the deaths of the apostles, the most famous being, perhaps the death of Peter, which was immortalized in the movie Quo Vadis. This in which he's crucified upside down because he doesn't feel worthy to die like Jesus.
[CLIP] ST PETER Die as our Lord died. It's more than I deserve.
CENTURION We can change that. [END CLIP]
CANDIDA MOSS That story comes from the fourth century church historian, Eusebius. If you go back to the earliest reference to the death of St. Peter, we're told that Peter died as a result of jealousy and the Greek word that actually refers to ingroup jealousy, almost as if other Christians did things that led to his death. So this is just one very famous martyr who probably was executed by Roman authorities for being a trouble maker, but we don't know that much about what happened because the stories are from so much later.
BOB GARFIELD I want to ask you about the marketing of a new religion. 2000 years ago, you write, that persecution was seen as a sign that your God or gods were weak. And along comes Christianity which had a different selling proposition. How so?
CANDIDA MOSS Well, as you say, prior to Christianity, if you were persecuted, it was either because you had sinned and your God was punishing you or because your God wasn't that powerful. So, with Christianity and the idea that God itself became incarnate and died for human beings, we see a radical new understanding of what suffering and death can mean. People had to contend with their own mortality all the time. And so having Christianity promise an afterlife, promise rewards and speak about social injustices. This was enormously compelling for people. But accompanying it is the idea that now suffering for God is a good thing. It was revolutionary at the time.
BOB GARFIELD If I understand what you're saying, the notion of persecuted Christians actually intensified as Christianity grew and became more powerful around the world.
CANDIDA MOSS That's right. I mean, what we call the cult of the Saints, which is the veneration of martyrs, really takes off after Christians take over the Roman Empire. And of course, there were places Christians could really die. But after the Roman Empire has been effectively Christianized, that Christians start using the history of persecution to justify their violence against those who are not members of their own religious groups. There was a fifth century Christian monk called Chanute here who once said that there is no crime for those who have Christ. To defend all kinds of violent things that he and his monks had been doing. And that's a very dangerous idea.
BOB GARFIELD Well, let's look at contemporary times. It's easy to understand from a purely political point of view why modern American Christians would describe themselves as persecuted. But how do they square the concentrated power of Christians throughout the entire history of the nation with the notion that they are somehow under siege.
CANDIDA MOSS They simply overlook it. So when I wrote my book, it was during the Obama years. And one of the things that I thought was if there was now a Republican president who actively identified himself as a defender of Christians, surely the persecution narrative should go away. If there were really persecuted. But it didn't. It actually intensified. And the reason for that is conservative evangelicals in particular feel that they are under attack by the forces of secularism, feminism, relativism. Christians always returned to the Jews as the source of their complaints for anything that is wrong, and this, too, is part of the martyrdom story. The first master named in the New Testament is Steven, who was stoned to death by a Jewish mob. And this kind of evolved into this idea that the Jews not only killed Jesus, but they also persecuted his followers. None of which is true.
BOB GARFIELD Is this American version of a persecution myth a thing of its own that's entirely untethered from Christianity's history? Is it perhaps just a modern expression of political conservatism?
CANDIDA MOSS As an outsider looking at it, one might say, how can one both be the most dominant religious group and also victims? But in a way, this is how christianity flourished. From the early church onwards when Christianity succeeded and converted the Roman emperor. That was a sign that they were protected by God. But when Christians were persecuted, which some really were, that was also a sign of their virtue. And that's really what's being invoked when someone like President Trump says that he is the greatest president ever, but also that he's a victim of conspiracies.
BOB GARFIELD Persecution is a real thing. We're not suggesting that it doesn't exist, are we?
CANDIDA MOSS There are, in fact, Christians who are truly persecuted in other parts of the world, just like Muslims are persecuted. And all of these groups, not only Christians, need the assistance of more powerful countries. I think the problem with the rhetoric of persecution is that it distracts from those very real instances of persecution.
BOB GARFIELD This simply has to be said nothing against Christians or Christianity, we're discussing a phenomenon of a persistent myth that tracks to the origin of the religion and other religions have them, too.
CANDIDA MOSS Absolutely. The deaths of one's heroes are highly regarded in Islam, in Judaism, in Hinduism, in Buddhism. And just as every religious group has its martyrs, every religious group has also acted as persecutors. And I should add, as problematic as I find this rhetoric, I'm a practicing Roman Catholic. So for me, these are really treasured stories that I learned from my youth. But just because I am very committed to that religion and to these stories doesn't mean that I shouldn't also acknowledge the problematic ways in which Christian history is deployed.
BOB GARFIELD Candida, thank you very much.
CANDIDA MOSS Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Candida Moss is the author of The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. She is professor of theology and religion at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, the hidden power of the Christian left.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In an era when Christianity seems to straddle our politics like a colossus. Attention is focused mostly on one leg, namely, the one on the right. It's much easier to see with a clear outline, single purpose. But the left leg is also in motion. First, on behalf of the abolitionist and suffrage movements and ever after. To really understand, though, the considerable, if less visible power of today's Christian left, Jack Jenkins, national reporter at Religion News Service, suggests we look back to the social gospel movement of a century ago.
Jenkins, author of American Prophets The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of Our Country, says the pastors behind the social gospel movement viewed the predation of the Industrial Revolution as a new kind of sin. Not individual, but structural, corporate.
JACK JENKINS There are these systems that are actually hurting and oppressing people. And around this same time, there is this critique of, quote unquote, liberal Christianity coming from a group of Christians who would eventually call themselves the fundamentalists. And they saw the social gospel and other movements within the broker C.A.T. as incompatible with the gospel that they abided by. And so there is this major schism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Then white Christian fundamentalists became an ascendant political force.
JACK JENKINS Yes, the religious right was a response to the success of liberal Christianity of the early 20th century. And the new religious left of today is in many ways their response to the success of the religious right in the 1990s and early 2000s. And it's worth noting that when these fundamentalists of the 1930s who eventually rebranded themselves as evangelicals, when they kept losing in the public square, what they did is they kind of went back and formed their own counter revolution in terms of their own media. So by the time you got to the ascendant religious right of the 1980s and 1990s, they had their own media apparatus ready to go. To be able to help influence American politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But even though the religious left and the religious right counter each other, they're not mirror images. For one thing, the religious right is largely white and Christian, whereas at least now the religious left comprises multiple faiths.
JACK JENKINS Yes. And so to do things together often requires quite a bit of coalition building and community building and relationship building that you don't find on the religious right, because there's been this sort of contract established that they're going to work with a uniform message. One of the things that I've traced as a reporter is those moments in which the religious left is able to push in the same direction and make big change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Show me where it was as powerful in pushing a policy as the Christian right has been.
JACK JENKINS The passage of the Affordable Care Act, one of the landmark pieces of liberal legislation of the past century. Barack Obama stood before a group of Catholics and said that the Affordable Care Act only got passed because of the influence of Catholic nuns and progressive religious people. The reason Barack Obama said that is that right around that, you know, the very end of the Affordable Care Act fight, the head of the Catholic Health Association, Sister Carol Keehan, a Catholic nun published in her own little magazine of the Catholic Health Association, which isn't widely read this letter, saying that she believed that it was time for a universal health care and she had actually been deeply involved in the crafting of the bill, and then in conversation with major liberal voices such as John Podesta for quite some time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, but she didn't have a constituency of millions that the religious right can rely on.
JACK JENKINS Well, it actually depends on your interpretation of that. So what was interesting about her coming out and endorsing the bill when she did is that she was doing so in direct defiance of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who, you know, exhibited broad sway over American politics. But as it turns out, Catholic nuns have higher approval ratings with the American public than Catholic bishops do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oh [LAUGHS]
JACK JENKINS And not only did she come out, but when this sort of tension emerged between her and the bishops, this whole slate of other Catholic nuns who lead other order as you're in the United States also collectively came out and endorsed the Affordable Care Act to back her up. And then those nuns were then pushed by a group of progressive faith organizations that stood at the ready to really help push this bill across the finish line. And the end result was that the day that the bill was being passed in the House, Sister Carol Keehan. She was sitting in a hotel bar in Vatican City with John Podesta on her phone the entire time, calling Catholic members of Congress, pressuring them to vote for the bill. That is why when they ended up getting it passed, Barack Obama actually saved one of the pens that he signed the bill into law with for Sister Carol Keehan. The religious left can be very effective in precise moments. That's a moment of legislation, but they're also often very influential when it comes to broader protest movements.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Give me an example of that.
JACK JENKINS Well, I mean, you know, one of the bigger demonstrations of the last few years for liberals in general was the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. That was led by Reverend William Barber. He's a recurring figure in your book. Yes. They were reacting to this Republican legislator that had swept into power in North Carolina. And this collective outcry over the course of years. I mean, there were hundreds of people arrested as part of these demonstrations that William Barber helped lead, you know, by the time you got to 2016 on election night. But one bright spot for Democrats was that the governor of North Carolina was unseated that night. And many political analysts actually cited the Moral Mondays movement led by William Barber, as the chief reason. And since then, William Barber has proven to be not just one of the most influential figures in the religious left. William Barber has gone on to become one of the most influential activists in progressivism in general.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Cornell West, you said, described him as the closest person we have to Martin Luther King today. But what does his approach to organizing tell us about the religious left that supposedly has Jews and Hindus and Muslims as well as Christians in it? I'm sure I'm leaving some very important religions out.
JACK JENKINS Fusion politics, as he calls it, ultimately is his ability to get a diverse group of voices to show up and represent. And it's an interesting development within the religious left. They are one of the ones who can help get things started, but they don't pretend that they are the only voices in the room. In fact, they need all those other religious voices who may not be like them. And all those voices of people who definitely don't pray at all to show up to their initiatives as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I don't think anybody would argue that people of faith play a big role in the progressive movement, despite its depiction as completely atheistic. Where I remain unpersuaded by the argument is that the religious left is a block equal to white evangelicals in getting people elected.
JACK JENKINS It's a lot easier to point to white evangelicals in polling and say these folks voted, you know, X way. And it's harder to do that when you have this menagerie of different faith voices and having to poll extensively on their affiliations and seeing how they voted on Election Day, although there have been moments in which they have made a profound impact. I mean, for instance, you know, black Protestants are one of those important constituencies within the Democratic Party. One big moment in the last few years was the election of Doug Jones, the Democratic senator from Alabama. Know he was up against Roy Moore, who was a uniquely flawed candidate. But it's important that one of the key reasons he was able to become one of the first Democratic senators from the state of Alabama in some time was that black Protestants showed up in a huge way. And in fact, Joe Biden can probably attribute his success primarily to that community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I totally get that. I see that as the most identifiable, the most politically hefty subset of the religious left.
JACK JENKINS One big frustration for religion journalists for several years now has been that there is just wildly uneven polling regarding any group other than white evangelical Protestants and Catholics. So it requires a lot of reporting about what we see on the ground without being able to verify necessarily with the data.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So why is it harder for journalists to cover the religious left?
JACK JENKINS They're covering the religious right because the religious right has proven to be very powerful, but I think another big part of this is that the religious right cast the left as something that is an adequately religious. And it is true that one of the largest groups within the Democratic Party are the quote unquote, religiously unaffiliated and religiously unaffiliated, are not necessarily atheists and agnostics, although they are also within that group. You know, the religious right can point to that statistic and say, oh, you know, this is a godless party. That narrative has influenced the way a lot of political journalists have covered religion and politics. And I do think the religious left is really hard.
I mean, you're having to cover of a wide variety of faith groups that often have different theological structures or have various different forms of infighting within them in Native American spirituality is not the same thing as covering an Episcopal priest, which is not the same thing as covering a Muslim community. And like that sort of stuff can be really intimidating to the average political journalists who just wants to see who's going to win on Election Day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does it matter? Does it matter how the religious left is covered?
JACK JENKINS It always matters to not be misled by simplistic narratives. It always behooves us to, you know, get out what's truly going on. If the religious right won the argument to say that they are, you know, this authentic form of faith that can have repercussions for smaller religious communities that might get left out, their religious liberty won't necessarily be protected. If a Muslim American's faith isn't deemed to be as credible as a white evangelicals, if a Native Americans faith isn't deemed as credible as a white Catholic's, that can have dire repercussions in the courts, at the ballot box and just in society. You know, one of the reasons that I became fascinated with this topic is because I do think that it's an important thing to cover and that if we don't, we miss these important moments of influence. If the exact same things were happening on the right, you would see any number of think pieces, but we don't talk about it on the left. And I think that's just missing a really interesting story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jack, thank you so much.
JACK JENKINS Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jack Jenkins is a national reporter at Religion News Service and author of American Prophets The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, America's unique, ubiquitous image of Jesus. You know it, blond Blue-Eyed, certain resemblance to Errol Flynn. Soon you'll know why.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. As our national monuments are toppled and our institutions and icons reconsidered. We turn now to a portrait encountered by every American, regardless of religion, many times throughout our lives, white Jesus. You know, the guy with the flowing blond locks and baby blues focused on the middle distance. For On the Media, Eloise Blondiau, our resident graduate of Harvard Divinity School, traces how the historically dubious image became American canon and its consequences.
ELOISE BLONDIAU The first picture of Jesus, that Detroit pastor Mbiyu Chui remember's seeing belonged to his grandmother. It hung in her bedroom.
MBIYU CHUI And of course, it was the image of a blond haired, blue-eyed guy. That picture bothered me, but I never would say anything. You know, I dare not tell my grandmother "would you please take that picture off the wall?" [LAUGHS] The eyes moved like it was following you around the room, and at night, in the dark, it glowed. In the 60s and 70s, we had a lot of stuff that glowed in the dark.
ELOISE BLONDIAU And when you say the eyes were moving it, the eyes, what weren't actually moving. [MBIYU LAUGHS] You just kind of felt like they were, right?
MBIYU CHUI No, they they weren't actually moving, but, you know, as a child, you have an imagination.
ELOISE BLONDIAU He saw that image of Jesus, pale skin, long beachy waves everywhere growing up in Detroit.
MBIYU CHUI I couldn't explain why, but I just didn't feel comfortable with that picture. Of course, you see the same images when Jesus is portrayed anywhere in popular culture.
ELOISE BLONDIAU He was 12 years old in 1967 when his city turned into a war zone.
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT Snipers were all the same. Gunfire flickered from neighborhood to neighborhood. Whole blocks smoldered. The smell was everywhere. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU For five days, the so-called Detroit riots were credited with sparking the black power movement, over 40 people died. In the aftermath, Chui drove down Linwood Street with his parents like he did every weekend. As usual, they passed the statue of Jesus that loomed over the intersection. Seven foot tall, arms outstretched, long hair, white stone. But on this day, Jesus looked different.
MBIYU CHUI They painted the statue black. So, of course, the news spread all over the city. Everybody was woah.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Decades later, a house painter named Joe Nelson would claim credit. He said he didn't want to pray to a white man. Before he covered Jesus's his toes with black enamel paint. He wondered if some people would still stop and kneel at his feet, and apparently not. Soon some white counter protesters got involved.
MBIYU CHUI And then about a week later, they had painted white again. And then a couple of days later, it was black again. This happened at least three times. And then I guess after the third time, they said, OK, forget it, we're not going to keep going back and forth. And they just left it black and it's still black to this day. [LAUGHS]
ELOISE BLONDIAU Sacred Heart, the Catholic seminary that owns the statue, said it intended to keep the statue black to commemorate the 67 riots. Sure enough, they repaint Jesus black skin every few years. Mbiyu Chui, who ministers at a church a mile down the road, still sees it every weekend. In 60s Detroit, the black Jesus signified a victory and a thriving theological debate, but the question is far from settled. Whenever this country reckons with its ongoing legacy of white supremacy, Jesus comes up. This summer included.
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT An activist called Shaun King, issued the following demand on Twitter, quote, All murals in stained glass windows of white Jesus and his European mother and their white friends should also come down. They're a gross form of white supremacy created as tools of oppression. So don't be surprised when they come for your church. Why wouldn't they? No one is stopping them. [END CLIP]
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT There is no widespread reports of activist tearing down statues of Jesus. [END CLIP]
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT Well, President Trump says unnamed forces want to tear down statues of Jesus.
TRUMP Now they're looking at Jesus Christ. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU The white Jesus image isn't going anywhere. But where and how did it become the reigning image? Suddenly, actors cast as Jesus have almost always been fair skinned guys with blue eyes. In a long list of cinematic Jesus's, we have, for instance, Willem Dafoe.
[CLIP] DAFOE I'm sorry for being a bad son. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU And Christian Bale,.
[CLIP] BALE Who are my kinsman?But those who hear the word of God and accept it. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU In a striking break from precedent, White Blue-Eyed actor Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, had brown eyes on screen. And in an apparent nod to history, he also spoke Aramaic.
ELOISE BLONDIAU When people of color have played Jesus, it's more often in more light hearted portrayals like John Legend and Jesus Christ Superstar or on Family Guy.
[CLIP] FAMILY GUY I rode into town on [BLEEP], your mama's [BLEEP] [END CLIP]
Or the TV sitcom Black Jesus.
[CLIP] CONGREGANT All right, Jesus. Whatcha got for me today. I've been good!
JESUS Whatever you want, man.
CONGREGANT I need the numbers to the lotto. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU When black actors play Jesus, it's not seen as, you know, realistic.
[CLIP] MEGYN KELLY Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU That's Megan Kelly on Fox News back in 2013, and she's wrong. Most historians, Christian or not, agree that a guy called Jesus existed 2000 years ago and had a following. There's some contention over whether, you know, he rose from the dead and was the son of God, but scholarly consensus is that he would not have resembled the fair haired surfer we all know. He probably had darker skin, hair and eyes. In fact, every few years, a new allegedly more scientific rendering of Jesus makes the rounds.
[CLIP] NARRATOR So what then does science say is the true face of the son of God? [END CLIP]
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT British scientists drew this portrait of what they believe Jesus really looked like. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU Whatever the tech, none of these educated guesses suggest the real man looks like an Aryan hippie. So why does America cleave to that image?
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT The most familiar Jesus appeared during the Renaissance when artists started to show Jesus's human side like Rembrandt. And that's how we see him today.
ELOISE BLONDIAU But that overlooks an abundance of Jesus depictions from the Ally Chuch onwards as dark skinned or racially ambiguous. It also disregards the great rupture between Europe and the not yet United States, driven by the Protestant Reformation.
EDWARD BLUM Many Protestants hated the visual arts around them and destroyed images of Jesus because they saw these images as violations of the Ten Commandments.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Edward Blum, author of The Color of Christ, The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, says that for many years, residents of the colonies and later the U.S. had no images of Jesus.
EDWARD BLUM And when they would have dreams, where they would see Jesus, they would see him kind of behind a spider web or some kind of veil. So then when Americans create imagery of Jesus in the 19th century, they do borrow somewhat from European artwork, but they also borrow from other myths and and fabrications about what Jesus would look like.
ELOISE BLONDIAU So assuming the American white Jesus is entirely homegrown, from whence did it spring?
EDWARD BLUM The Warner Solman, head of Christ, has become the lightning rod for the white Jesus because it's so ubiquitous, because it became so abundant.
ELOISE BLONDIAU In 1940, Warner solman made the picture. I guarantee you've seen it has been reproduced by some counts over 500 million times. Solman himself became somewhat of a celebrity as a result. He even went on TV to repaint the image accompanied by a full choir.
[CLIP] WARNER SOLMAN I would like to begin the portrait. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU The portrait is called the Head of Christ. His blue eyes are cast upward. His hair gleams gold. A heavenly diffusion of light frames his head. Sulman was inspired in part, yes, by the romantic portrayals of Renaissance painters, but perhaps more so by the Hollywood headshot. Look at studio portraits of actors like Errol Flynn, and you'll see that gauzy light that gazed into the middle distance. Solman made Jesus a movie star.
EDWARD BLUM It became so recognizable and then any image created after it kind of had to deal with it or looks similar to it. There being one ridiculously recognizable Jesus that is new.
ELOISE BLONDIAU There's a misconception that people only embrace pictures of God or gods, what in their own image. That's not true. Solomon's image was and is loved by all Christians. But as Edward Blum notes, white supremacists embraced it because it gave them a kind of moral cover.
EDWARD BLUM The Ku Klux Klan actually had documents and pamphlets that presented Jesus as white and his disciples as Klansmen and Klansmen. Depicting themselves as followers of Jesus is really what enabled them to think they were doing the right things,.
[CLIP] KLANSMAN My name is Roy Whittle, and I'm not ashamed of being a klansman. [END CLIP].
EDWARD BLUM They saw Jesus and Jesus's disciples as white as trying to further a white racial agenda, a purity agenda.
ELOISE BLONDIAU The KKK wasn't the first group to enlist Jesus in support of white supremacy, even if Solomon's portrait made it easier. The argument for the God given superiority of the white race, backed by Bible quotations, was cited to defend slavery and the mass murder of indigenous people. It's not hard to see how white Jesus bridged the dissonance for white families who gathered to watch the lynching of black men before skipping off to church. In Europe, nazi theologians argued Jesus was not Jewish but actually Aryan, and in 50s America, white Jesus was used to support segregation.
EDWARD BLUM And they actually put images of white Jesus's on their pamphlets, you know, their calls for organizational meetings to oppose Brown versus the Board of Education. They made the claims that this white Jesus, who was in favor of racial purity, was strongly against interracial marriage, something that would happen if young people were brought together in schools. And so the ties between the white Jesus and these kind of white purity movements are there throughout the 20th century.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black Christians at a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, drew white Jesus in his prison journal. Marquette University's psychology professor Simon Howard recalls seeing white Jesus in his great grandmother's house.
SIMON HOWARD And I love going to her house just one, because she was an amazing individual in person. But also she had a lot of different figurines and things like on a dresser board, but she also had pictures of family members, and I remember seeing this one white man repeatedly. And I'm like who's this white guy in our family. And you know, learning later that this was Jesus.
ELOISE BLONDIAU But it wasn't until he watched the biopic of Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington that Howard realized why the white Jesus picture bothered him.
[CLIP] MALCOLM X History teaches us that Jesus was born in a region where the people had color. He has proven the very Bible that you ask us to read. [END CLIP]
SIMON HOWARD And so, yeah, how do we arrive at this physical representation and where did it come from?
ELOISE BLONDIAU As he got older, Howard read up on the Black Power movement. He had speeches by Malcolm X denouncing racism in evangelical churches.
[CLIP] MALCOLM X You go inside a white church, and what they preaching? White nationalism. They got Jesus white, Mary white, God white, everybody white - that's white nationalism. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU As a psychology student, Howard realized no one had ever studied how white portrayals of God and Jesus actually influence how people see the world. So eventually he did his own study assessing bias with a computerized test called RIAT, a race implicit association task, which measures attitudes towards race. He presented subjects with various images, white Jesus among them, and afterwards measured their bias again.
SIMON HOWARD And when people are exposed to images of a white Christ, it makes those implicit associations more pronounced, which means that they had a more pro-white bias after being exposed to an image of a white Jesus.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Exposure to white Jesus pictures actually intensifies the view that white people are better than black people.
SIMON HOWARD White supremacy is the ideology that is both conscious and unconscious. Don't mean that as a white supremacist in a white sheet running around terrorizing and burning crosses, but an ideology that associates whiteness with superiority and blackness with inferiority. And this image reinforces that ideology consciously and unconsciously.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Howard and every other critic of the image I spoke to are not calling for forced removal. They just want churches to think more deeply about the impact of these portrayals of Jesus. And they're especially concerned about depictions of white Jesus in black churches.
SIMON HOWARD When we have these images that we worship, right. And black people are the most religious group in the U.S. and have been for a long time and overwhelmingly Christian. What I always say for these black individuals is if you don't want to get rid of the white one, put a black one up there next to the white one. And this is primarily thinking about children, because now they're not just solely associating godliness with whiteness. There's a more complicated picture that's being painted.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Remember, Mbiyu Chui, the pastor in Detroit? His church displays no white Jesus. A mile down the street from the famous statue, which still bears it's painted black skin, is the shrine of the Black Madonna, which showcases a mural of Mary with deep brown skin holding a dark skinned baby Jesus. Chui that image for the first time when he visited the church at 15.
MBIYU CHUI It just felt right. It was kind of like a revelation. I said, oh, wow, I never even consider the idea that Jesus could have possibly been black. Wow. Who could have thought of this? Jesus was a man of color. We're just correcting the historical mistake.
ELOISE BLONDIAU The Shrine of the Black Madonna was founded in the 60s by a black Christian nationalist. Albert Klegg Genea, who asserted that historically Jesus was a black man with ties to Africa. Other thinkers like James Cone were more interested in how imagining Jesus hanging on the cross. As a black man being lynched could bring Christians closer to understanding God.
KELLY BROWN DOUGLAS To claim that Christ is white is indeed an anathema is a betrayal of this God who has created us all as sacred beings and as promised us all, a just future.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas, Episcopal priest and theologian and author of The Black Christ.
KELLY BROWN DOUGLAS Why is it a betrayal of that? Because whiteness reflects what it means to be a part of an oppressive culture and reality. And we would be suggesting that God is on the side of those who oppress that God is on the side of white supremacists.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Unlike Clag, Reverend Brown, Douglas doesn't think Jesus was literally a black man. The symbolism is what she's after.
KELLY BROWN DOUGLAS Where would the crucified Christ be today? You could see Christ in the face of a George Floyd right as he cried out. That said he couldn't breathe. That reminded me of Jesus from the cross crying out and saying I thirst.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Religious images, invite believers to draw closer to God. They can also represent a world view. So Jesus has been imagined as George Floyd, as a Native American, a man with AIDS. The list goes on. So why aren't there more churches like Chui's? His church has an outpost in Liberia where there was a lot of pushback when he brought them prayer cards featuring Mary and Jesus with dark skin. They had never seen images like that before. They, too, had grown up with images of Jesus as white.
MBIYU CHUI It's hard to go against what you've been conditioned to believe, especially as it relates to religion. It's hard, really hard. You can teach kids, but you can't teach adults what they think they already know.
ELOISE BLONDIAU And look, if every white Jesus picture disappeared overnight, America's white supremacy would remain. But we know from Dylann Roof back through all America's history and from a raft of psychological research. These pictures do matter. And if the first image Christian kids see of Jesus is a white one, it might take them their whole lives to unlearn it. If they ever do. For On the Media, I'm Eloise Blondiau.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show, which was produced mainly by Eloise Blondiau. Our other producers are Alana Casanova- Burgess, Michah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin, who leaves us this week and we will miss her, and we had more help from Ava Sasani, and our show was edited... By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer was Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Xandra you infuse the show with a rare and glorious, bizarre sensibility. Thank you, so much. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
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