YES THEY DID: Supporters of President Barack Obama celebrated his election night victory at the McCormick Place rally in Chicago on Nov. 7, 2012. Obama defeated his Republican challenger Mitt Romney to win a second term in the White House. (Photo: Zhang Jun/Newscom)
Even more than the election that made Barack Obama the first black president, the one that returned him to office for a second term sent an unmistakable signal that the hegemony of the white male in America is over.
The long drive for broader social participation by all Americans reached a turning point in the 2012 election, which is likely to go down as a watershed in the nation’s social and political evolution, and not just because in some states voters approved of same-sex marriage for the first time.
On Tuesday, Obama received the votes of barely one in three white males. That, too, was historic. It almost certainly was an all-time low for the winner of a presidential election that did not include a major third-party candidate.
“We’re not in the ’50s any more,” said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer. “This election makes it clear that a single focus directed at white males, or at the white population in general, is not going to do it. And it’s not going to do it when the other party is focusing on energizing everybody else.”
How Obama Won
Exit-poll data, gathered from interviews with voters as they left their polling places, showed that Obama’s support from whites was four percentage points lower than 2008. But he won by drawing on a minority-voter base that was two percentage points larger, as a share of the overall electorate, than four years ago.
The president built his winning coalition on a series of election-year initiatives and issue differences with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In the months leading up to the election, Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, unilaterally granted a form of limited legalization to young, undocumented immigrants and put abortion rights and contraception at the heart of a brutally effective anti-Romney attack ad campaign.
The result turned out to be an unbeatable combination: virtually universal support from black voters, who turned out as strongly as in 2008, plus decisive backing from members of the younger and fast-growing Latino and Asian-American communities, who chose Obama over Romney by ratios of roughly three-to-one. All of those groups contributed to Obama’s majority among women. (Although a far smaller group, gay voters went for Obama by a 54-point margin.)
“Obama lost a lot of votes among whites,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist. “It was only because of high black turnout and the highest Latino turnout ever for a Democratic president that he won.”
Obama planted his base in an America that is inexorably becoming more diverse. Unchecked by Republicans, these demographic trends would give the Democrats a significant edge in future presidential elections.
But, despite opposition from conservative religious movements, President Obama captured the votes of 30 percent of white evangelicals. What’s more, he once again won the Catholic vote — which some attribute to his strong support among Hispanic Catholics.
The Latino Effect
GOP SAVIOR: The Republican Party is counting on emerging superstars like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to broaden its base. Rubio is a Latino conservative who supports immigration reform.
Latinos were an essential element of Obama’s victories in the battlegrounds of Nevada and Colorado. States once considered reliably Republican in presidential elections will likely become highly competitive because of burgeoning Latino populations, sometimes in combination with large black populations. North Carolina, where Obama won narrowly in 2008 and came close this time, is one. The Deep South state of Georgia is another. Texas and Arizona in the Southwest are future swing states, by 2020, if not sooner.
Besides demography, Obama had another edge: the superiority of the voter-tracking operation that his campaign built over the last six years, which generated increased turnout on Tuesday among young people and unmarried women.
“That was pure machinery. Hats off to them,” said Republican strategist Sara Fagen, a former Bush White House political aide. “Our party has a lot to learn and needs to invest very serious resources in improving our own machinery.”
But Democrats Have a White Problem
The election was not an unblemished success for Democrats, who face a potentially serious threat from the loss of white votes. “I don’t think you can be a major party and get down to support approaching only a third of the white population,” said demographer Frey. “In some ways, maybe, Obama dodged a bullet here. If the Republicans had made a little bit of an effort toward minorities and kept their focus on whites, they might have won.
Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster, said that with Obama having run his last race, “we’ll have demographics working for us, but it is not going to be so easy to keep it patched tight. It’s going to fray.”
Without Obama on the ticket, socially conservative black voters might have been more inclined to follow the urgings of their ministers, who asked them to stay home to protest the Democrats’ endorsement of gay marriage.
But the Republican Party’s problems are more immediate, and much tougher to solve. Some GOP strategists have been warning for years about the risks of hitching the party’s fortunes to a shrinking share of the electorate.
What Should Republicans Do?
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who combines a tea-party pedigree with Latino heritage, said in a post-election statement that “the conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.”
Al Cardenas, a leading Republican fundraiser, said his party is “out of step with the demographic challenges of today.” Like Rubio, the Cuban-born Cardenas is close to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has long sought to broaden the party’s appeal to Latino voters and will be a prominent voice in the debate over the party’s future.
Romney’s chances ultimately depended on his ability to turn out a bigger white vote against Obama than Republican nominees received in earlier races. Eight years ago, Bush’s brother, President George W. Bush, defeated Democrat John Kerry by 17 percentage points among white voters and won re-election. Romney took the white vote by 20 percentage points and lost.
The difference: despite an aggressive voter-mobilization effort, the white share of the electorate has fallen to 72 percent, from 74 percent in 2008 and 77 percent in 2004.
What It Means
Viewed narrowly, this week’s election essentially left Washington untouched. A Democratic president will continue to battle a divided Congress. Within the halls of the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate, the balance of partisan power scarcely budged at all.
But pull back and a very different picture emerges. The civil rights, women’s and gay rights movements, designed to allow others to reach for power previously grasped only by white men, have made a real difference, and the outlines of 21st century America have emerged.
For more on how shifting demographics are changing the church, check out “The Culture Clasher,” our earlier interview with author Soong-Chan Rah, and “The Future Is Mestizo” by Duke Divinity School scholar Chris Rice.
AND IT COMES TO THIS: After a long, acrimonious presidential campaign, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, American voters will decide whether Barack Obama earned another four years in the White House, or whether Mitt Romney gets a chance to lead the nation. (Photo: Newscom)
During a seemingly endless 2012 election season, at times we’ve felt like the “Bronco Bama” girl in this viral video. When will it end? Presumably, on Tuesday — we hope.
Until then, we’ll continue to endure the attack ads, the conflicting polls, and the toxic bickering in the social media realm. According to various surveys, this year’s electorate is one of the most polarized in years. This forum will not solve that problem, but we thought we’d invite a few UrbanFaith contributors to share their perspectives on what to expect if President Obama is re-elected, as well as what to expect if Mitt Romney should win the presidency. Check out their opinions (which, we should say, belong to them and not necessarily UrbanFaith), then take a moment to give us your response in the comments section below.
Short Memories, Shorter Patience
By William Pannell
Ah, another opportunity to play at being sagacious. If Mr. Obama is re-elected, I would expect that he will face another four years of deadlock on key issues. Since Congress seems stuck on ideology and not the good of the people, I would expect the Republican Party, now in the firm grip of Tea Party ideologues, will continue to play games all the while having no real alternatives to offer in place of the ones they oppose. And of course, Obama will be a lame duck President in the last two years anyhow, so there goes the neighborhood.
I suspect that Mr. Romney will be elected. White, working-class Americans have very short memories. They have already forgotten that it was Romney’s party that got the country in the mess it is in. And we Americans are terribly short on patience, so if the poor man couldn’t solve real problems (which by their nature are now global problems) in four years, throw him out. Mercy, I hope I’m wrong. But I also suspect that white Americans, or many of them, have never felt comfortable with a black man in the White House. They, of course, are not racists; they are merely pro-white and Romney is all that. By the way, I voted for Mr. Romney’s father when he was governor of Michigan. He probably would have made a good President.
President Obama’s re-election will renew the now undercurrent spirit of genuine concern for the poor. The civic emphasis will shift from the middle-class to reveal the President’s implicit and visceral aim to center the country’s energies and resources toward those in America who need help the most. We will see a resurgence of the middle-class, not as an end in itself, but as the primary avenue toward uplifting the masses of the country’s poor. The President will challenge the rich and the middle-class to open their hearts to make room for those people who find themselves locked out, left behind, and languishing in economic and social sectors. President Obama’s re-election will lift the spirit of the poor across the country. They will greatly benefit from the good news of his return to the leadership of the country and the free world, and from the significant changes that his policies engender for the lives of millions across a wide socio-economic spectrum.
An election of Mitt Romney to the nation’s highest elected office will cause a rise in social unrest in urban areas across the country, and growing acts of terrorism aimed at the U.S. in the world. Simply, millions will release their pent-up anger and frustrations. Many disillusioned souls will act-out their sense of hopelessness, and their angst against a prejudiced and racist America who once again failed to do the moral and political right thing. African Americans will entrench and push back in their activism. A refreshing commitment of the masses to the historic struggles of African-descended people will refocus on the self-determination and empowerment of black people and communities. In reaction to the military-type solutions of Romney for resolving national conflicts on the world front, a radical Islam will thrust itself to the forefront and make as many terror-laden statements as possible. World de-stabilization will grow.
Finally, whomever the country elects as President, the current Christian theological debate will focus on the true meaning or workability of what is genuine “Evangelicalism.” The 2012 electoral politics will thrust into the forefront of the discussion those who are “Evangelicals” of African-descent. The historical and cultural context of believers and churches in the black experience — in both the U.S. and the African Diaspora — will give rise to the most potent definition of historic and genuinely contextualized Christ-centered orthodox or “Evangelical” faith, and to true expressions of its social, economic, and political way of life. Jesus the Gospelizer — the bearer of Good News for the poor — will center this authentic definition. Electoral politics in the U.S. will be the impetus for Black Evangelicalism to come of age and offer leadership in these theologically troubling times.
Rev. Dr. Walter A. McCray is a Chicago-based writer, a leader in Black evangelicalism, and president of the National Black Evangelical Association. His latest book is Pro-Black, Pro-Christ, Pro-Cross: African-descended Evangelical Identity (Black Light Fellowship, 2012). He defines Black Evangelical identity along cultural and theological lines. His statement above reflects his personal views.
Education Is the Key
By Valerie Elverton Dixon
I believe that President Obama will be re-elected. I believe that he will follow through on his plan to strengthen public education and to open doors of opportunity for more people to have access to higher education and/or job training. When I was a girl, I was taught: “Education is the key.” In my life, that has proved to be true.
Education is the key, not only to a good job, but also to self-knowledge. Education is the key to human moral evolution and to human freedom. I think that President Obama will continue to encourage schools to experiment with curriculum, different pedagogical models and teacher and parental training that will inspire students to love learning. Once students understand that the ultimate subject of their education is their own lives, their own questions, their own striving to identify and to perfect the unique gift they have to give to the world, they will have a made up mind to study. And nothing is more powerful in any field of endeavor than a made up mind.
I expect President Obama to keep his promise to rebuild America. He has said that he will use half the savings from the wars we are no longer fighting to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, including building schools. I hope that he will expand this to enter into public/ private partnerships to rebuild the waste cities, towns and villages in America. This can provide jobs and be the opportunity to exercise an ethics of aesthetics that will make communities beautiful.
If Mitt Romney is elected president, it is hard to know exactly what he will do since he is very often on all sides of all issues. However, I think we can count on him to appoint right-wing Supreme Court justices, to put public education on a glide-path to privatization, and cut taxes for the rich, leaving nothing for community revitalization.
So, I am hopeful that President Obama will win because, in my opinion, this will be the best thing for the nation and for the world.
Valerie Elverton Dixon, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and founder of JustPeaceTheory.com. She is a regular contributor to God’s Politics, The Washington Post On Faith, and Tikkun Daily. Her forthcoming book is Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love and the Public Conversation.
The Rise of Jim Crow Jr.
By Randy Woodley
Since the election of President Barack Obama, we have seen a new wave of racism rise across our nation. The kind of racism expressed over the past four years is different than the more overt, socialized Jim Crow era racism. Today, it is unpopular to be called a racist so racism has become more polite, being couched in political jargon, “dog whistles,” voter suppression and public policy aimed at the least of these in society. Meet Jim Crow Jr. The most overt hatred over the past four years has been directed at President Obama himself. Regardless of which candidate is elected, what I think we can clearly see is that there is a desire on the part of some, to “go back,” ushering in another era of racism that could become socialized and institutionalized in America. Jim Crow Jr. is knocking on America’s door.
An election favoring Mitt Romney is inextricably intertwined in this rising form of racism. I believe a Romney presidency will open wide the door to a new form of Jim Crow directed at non-White citizens of the United States. Regardless of whether or not Governor Romney were to return to a more moderate form of politics, or even disassociates himself with the radical right he aligned himself with to get this far, he is their candidate. They have used him as much as he used them. With the re-election of President Obama we do not know whether or not Jim Crow Jr. will subside but it is likely, especially if there is more democratic control in the House and Senate, that it will take the “wind out of the sails” of socialized racism. Obama is one of the most intelligent Presidents in American history. His story is truly an American story in which all Americans should take pride. If the racist rhetoric and proposed policies should subside during the President’s second term, perhaps more Americans will be able to see him in a better light. There will always be racist among us, but in the past four years they have captured many who would not normally fall in their line. If Obama is elected, perhaps more of those White Americans who have been swept away in the “flurry” will be able to claim President Obama as their President
Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley is Distinguished Associate Professor of Faith and Culture, and Director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at George Fox Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee and author of the new book Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Eerdmans). Randy blogs at The Huffington Post, Ethnic Space and Faith, Emergent Village Voice and Sojourners.
Our Politics Are Soulless
By Larycia A. Hawkins
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can expect the worst angels of our nature if Barack Obama reclaims the White House. And rather ruefully, I must inform you that you can expect a similar result if Mitt Romney wins. Presidential politics are a soulless affair.
Here’s what you can expect if you believe President Obama’s experiences of four years past can usher in “an economy built to last”:You should brace yourself for intensified partisan rancor as Congress doubles down on its intransigence given the loss of the presidency in a closely divided race where voter nullification may very well be the feeling people are left with if the popular vote winner in the national election loses in the electoral college. The debt ceiling debate will seem like a piece of cake compared to the looming deficit reduction debate in the next Congress. The middle class Obama purports to champion will be lost in the vitriolic mayhem of civilized debate.
You should prepare yourself for more insidious symbolic racism in the form of racialized rhetoric and images, including, but not limited to “shuck and jive” metaphors of the Commander in Chief, monkey cartoons and evolutionary caricatures of the obviously black President, an unambiguous noose lynching the hope and change President of a country where lynching signified that citizenship and hope and democracy were reserved for whites only, and the racialization of ostensibly race-neutral policies via claims that healthcare is merely reparations from the welfare president.
Here’s what you can expect if you believe Mitt Romney’s the man to “restore America” with his five-point plan:You should reread 1984 to refresh your memory as to the meaning of doublespeak, since the (presumptive) Democratic minority in Congress will strenuously and unanimously oppose all the policies of the newly minted Presidential agenda — even those policies that they agree with — in the name of representation and e pluribus unum. Never mind that a few short years ago, they castigated Republicans for denying a recently enthroned President Obama the same presidential courtesy.
You should prepare yourself for religious wars. While the first freedom of the Bill of Rights is religious freedom — the free exercise clause enabling individuals to choose religion and the establishment clause barring the state from imposition of an official religion, there will be a resurgence of religious intolerance surrounding Romney’s Mormonism. If you think that Romney’s nomination as the Republican candidate for the general election signifies that we are past all that Mormon-bashing, think again. Just as Obama has been characterized by the right as Muslim and foreign-born, expect the left to frame Romney in a similarly disdainful fashion on the basis of his faith. One need only recall recent caricatures of the Christian Right as seeking to engender an American theocracy or the prevalence of media stereotypes which wrongfully equate evangelicals with fundamentalists and which equate both evangelicals and fundamentalists with what are often depicted as solipsist and reactionary cultural practices — homeschooling and having thousands of children. Musicals, movies, and musicians that ostensibly normalize Mormons must be held in tandem with reality shows that portray Mormon men as misogynists and polygamists and Mormon women as oppressed and helpless. Religious intolerance will rear its ugly head if Mitt is the man.
Why, you may ask, is a political science professor avoiding a discussion of the issues that will emerge under an Obama or Romney regime? For one simple reason — the soulless politics of our day incentivizes hateful race baiting and religious bashing rather than substantive policymaking. Yes, bills do get passed under divided government — even landmark policies like the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. But partisan rancor persists amid a seemingly soulless brood of politicians who, on the surface, have more in common than in difference. Rancor proliferates and policymaking is a casualty of the political battle.
While I regrettably expect little of the political context to change come January 2013, I submit that knowing is half the battle. To be shrewd as snakes, we should expect more of the same old politics. To be innocent as doves, we should both demand and expect change from politicians and pundits, especially those who claim to be cross-bearers. Rather than engaging in soulless rhetoric and tasteless tactics, rather than applauding and patronizing the ideologues and elites who propagate misinformation about Mormons and make racist remarks about the first black President, we should demand enemy-loving politics that produces justice-laden policies.
If soulless politics continues, you should look in the mirror. If substantive politics fail to protect the weak and vulnerable, the rocks will cry out.
Dr. Larycia A. Hawkins is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College. She is a co-editor of the book Religion and American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. Her research includes projects exploring black theology and its relationship to political rhetoric and black political agendas, like those of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP. Prior to academia, she worked in state government administering federal programs, including the Social Security Disability program and the Community Development Block Grant.
The Church Must Step Up
By Wil LaVeist
If President Obama is re-elected, but the split Congress (Republicans controlling the House, Democrats controlling the Senate) remains, we can count on more of the same gridlock. Republicans will focus on winning seats in the 2014 mid-term election and holding out to win the presidency in 2016. Democrats will do the same. If Mitt Romney wins, but has a split Congress, he’ll face a similar challenge for similar reasons. If either winner gets a Congress that is on their side, they will have a better chance of pushing their agendas. But wait — “the filibuster” looms. Only a drastic threat (war, economic collapse, etc.) would likely shake either party to compromise.
Either way, churches in predominantly black communities should step into the moral gap to inspire people to pursue righteousness, fairness and grace towards others in their own lives — to get their own houses in moral order. We should spark a “moral civic revival” — rallying people to shine their lights on the deepening tragic immoral disparities (health, economics, housing, education, incarceration rates) that exist in predominantly black communities across the nation. Leading by example with solutions, we should urge fellow Christians and Americans of all persuasions to see these growing disparities (rooted in the sin or racism) as a national crisis that endangers all of us. We should demand accountability from elected officials, regardless of party affiliation. Perhaps in this new climate, more public servants will emerge in the spirit of Joseph — willing to serve not their own narrow self-interests, but all of the nation’s people regardless of race, ethnicity or faith. We know the God who lives in us maintains control no matter who lives in the White House. We must act on what we know.
CULT OR CULTURE?: Is the growing tolerance of Mitt Romney’s faith among evangelical Christians a sign of theological maturity or political desperation? (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
“We’re electing him to be our Commander-in-Chief, not Pastor-in-Chief.” That’s how one Christian woman recently defended her support of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a Facebook comment.
It has been curious to observe the about-face that many formerly doctrinaire evangelicals have taken when it comes to the subject of Governor Romney’s religion. For most evangelical Christians, the Mormon faith has commonly been viewed as an unorthodox, non-Christian religion. Even the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which once characterized the Mormon religion as cultic, recently deleted that wording from its website. This has got me to thinking more about the relationship between politics and faith.
In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl F.H. Henry, one of the principal architects of the modern evangelical movement, called conservative Protestant Christians to abandon their otherworldly stance encouraged by the liberal-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s and to actively engage society from an orthodox Christian worldview in order to redeem our culture from the chaos of the times. Though his message initially was met with stiff resistance from older evangelicals, Henry’s message was warmly received by the younger ones who went on to positively impact society from a distinctively Christian worldview.
Since 1947, when Henry’s influential book was first published, until now, evangelicals have increased their sophistication in articulating the gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ and in their analysis of social problems and corresponding solutions. Evangelicals subscribe to a high view of Scripture and have always maintained that all true knowledge is divine in origin and is complementary to the Word of God. As a result of this conviction, they have boldly and confidently entered into all the realms of social engagement that previous generations affected by the impact of fundamentalism were reticent to enter. One of these areas has been the political arena.
The engagement of the political arena by orthodox Protestant believers is not new; from colonial times until the present, Christians have been at the center of much of the contested issues in American life. What evangelicals brought to the table was a clear commitment to the Bible, personal conversion, and social engagement. Evangelicalism sought to bridge the chasm opened by the focus of fundamentalists on evangelism to the exclusion of social witness and the focus on social justice by liberals to the exclusion of personal conversion. While evangelicals have always leaned towards the right politically, they have always done so with a theological articulation for that leaning. Plainly put, most evangelicals are convinced that the Republican Party is more compatible with the Christian faith than the Democratic Party.
While I am not surprised that most evangelicals heartily endorse the Republican Party given its explicit commitment to religious liberty and its stated support for certain moral positions congenial to conservative social ethics, I must admit that I am a bit disturbed by the implications of the current evangelical support for Mitt Romney. While aspects of my own sociology tempt me to critique this support for his candidacy, my main contention is theological.
I am concerned about the theological implications of Christians committed to a certain view of Scripture and of orthodoxy wholeheartedly endorsing a candidate who is a member of a religious tradition whose doctrine compromises both. I am not saying that it is inherently wrong for a Christian to vote for a secular candidate or a member of another religious tradition; after all, we do live in a post-Christian, secular, pluralistic democracy. What I am saying is that Christians have an inherent responsibility to wrestle with the implications of the teachings of Scripture, the witness of the Christian tradition, and sober theological reflection when doing so.
Simply put, Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints matters. Maybe not enough to automatically invalidate him as a viable candidate, but it does matter. The reasons are obvious, almost all evangelicals have asserted that the the Mormon religion is not in fact a legitimate Christian denomination and is in fact a heretical sect. By contrast, as far as I know, no credible evangelical has ever stated that the United Church of Christ, the denomination in which President Barack Obama received his religious formation, is an illegitimate Christian tradition. (A bent for liberation theology and a progressive stance on certain social issues is not a disqualification for Christian orthodoxy.)
The groundswell of evangelical support for a Romney candidacy seems peculiar — not so much because of what evangelicals are saying, but because of what they have said about Barack Obama’s beliefs in the past, and what they are not saying about Mitt Romney’s now. Despite President Obama’s public confession of his Christianity on numerous occasions, many still question the veracity of his faith, calling him a “closet Muslim” or pointing to his support of same-sex marriage. But do they practice the same degree of scrutiny when it comes to Governor Romney’s beliefs? As a friend of mine recently said, “What’s worse, altering the definition of marriage, or redefining the nature of God?”
STAINED GLASS FALLACIES: Since the early 1800s, European-flavored Jesus imagery has been mass-produced in the United States. After the Civil War, the notion of a ‘white’ Jesus became widely promulgated. (Image: Thinkstock Photos)
In their groundbreaking new book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, historians Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey embark on a sweeping examination of how Americans came to believe in the whiteness of Jesus. Having grown up white in Oklahoma and New Jersey respectively, Blum and Harvey say they had to “unlearn a lot of white privilege over the years.” Chief among the ideas they sought to reverse in their thinking was the assumption that God is somehow attached to whiteness and white authority.
“We decided to write about how God has been presented as white in the form of Jesus in order to expose how insidious racism has been throughout American history — that it even wraps itself in the flesh of God,” says Blum. He adds that another motivation for the book was their concern about the false concepts that children learn about faith and race before they even have the intellectual or social wherewithal to challenge them. “Children often see the ‘race’ of Jesus before they know how to say grace in his name. We wanted Americans to confront the reality that the images we have created and continue to display influence how our children come to understand God, themselves, and others.”
In the process of their research, Blum and Harvey also gained a high esteem for “the women and men who have stood against racism and have imagined Jesus and God beyond whiteness.” White privilege benefits white people, Blum says, “but it also blinds them from many beautiful and brilliant expressions of others, especially when it comes to religious life.”
Blum spoke to UrbanFaith about his book, the origins of “white Jesus,” and how confronting the philosophies behind those misleading American images of Christ can lead to a more authentic view of God and his church.
URBAN FAITH: When we see the traditional images of Jesus as a blondish, blue-eyed European, where do those depictions stem from historically?
DISPELLING THE MYTHS: In ‘The Color of Christ,’ San Diego State University history professor Edward Blum (along with coauthor Paul Harvey) examines the ways that race and racism have shaped America’s images of Jesus. (Photo: Courtesy of Iris Salgado)
EDWARD J. BLUM: The first few centuries of Christianity had no visual imagery of Jesus. Then various icons were created and Catholic Europeans made them in abundance during the Middle Ages. Oftentimes, they were created by Europeans with a sense of what the “ideal” human would look like – and for Europeans, that was often European.
But these images were not present in British America. The first British settlers were radical iconoclasts who not only destroyed images of Jesus, but also opposed any displays of the Son of God. There were no dominant images of Jesus in the early America that became the United States.
Only after the United States became a new nation did Americans begin producing images of Jesus. He was not blue eyed at first, and his hair was brown. He was made white in this form at exactly the moment Americans were buying and selling more slaves and justifying the expropriation of Native American lands in the Southwest. In many ways, making Jesus white was an effort to sanctify these goals for land, power, and authority.
What about the first “American Jesus”? What did he look like, and when was it decided that he was white?
Jesus was first mass-produced in the United States in the early 1800s, but it was not until after the Civil War that his being white became an object of widespread discussion. When emancipation cut the legal ties between blackness and enslavement, it left open the question of how could whites claim to be superior. Moreover, as millions of immigrants from Asia and central and southern Europe flocked to the United States, questions of who was actually white began to animate the United States in a new way. In response, a group of white Americans started creating images of Jesus as blue-eyed and blonde haired. They knew he probably did not look this way but wanted him to be a WASP so that they could justify closing immigration doors, segregating and lynching African Americans, and viewing themselves as the most Christian and virtuous nation on earth.
Many say God transcends color and ethnicity, so why does it matter what color we make Jesus in religious and popular culture?
As much as we would all like to see God or experience God beyond color and ethnicity, we grow up in and live within a society that focuses intensely on race. For instance, Barack Obama is not known as the first president from Hawaii. He’s known as the first “black president” — even though his mother was considered “white.” Everything from legal codes to children’s shows to cultural jokes are filled with notions of biological differences and presentations of them. We learn to see and experience race at extraordinarily early ages.
This is true of thinking about God as well. Most studies show that when groups of people are asked to imagine what Jesus looked like, they see a white man. Even taught that that is not the case; even shown other images; and even knowing that Jesus lived 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, most Americans still see a white Jesus when they close their eyes. We have to work through those preconceived assumptions before getting to a God that transcends color or ethnicity. Only by first acknowledging how our society has — and does — “color” God and Jesus can we then move forward to seeing beyond that.
What does the Bible tell us about Jesus’ physical appearance?
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John say nothing about the race or physical appearance of Jesus. They discuss Jesus having a body; they narrate how he touched and healed bodies; they tell the story of how his body was harmed, killed, and then resurrected (with the holy holes still in his hands). But the Gospels say nothing about his hair, his eye color, or his skin tone. In Isaiah and in the book of Revelation, however, there are passages that some Christians have taken to indicate what Jesus looked like. Isaiah 52 and 53 mention how the “servant” of God will be raised and lifted up. In appearance, he will be “disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” This servant will have “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Some Christian thinkers have taken these passages to apply to Jesus and to mean that he must have been ugly for his times. Then in Revelation, the author reports seeing one “like a Son of Man” whose head and hair were “white like wool” and whose “eyes were like blazing fire.” His feet “were like bronze glowing in a furnace.” For some African Americans, this has meant that his skin and hair looked more like a black person than a white person.
Evangelical theologian Thomas C. Oden has written a series of much-discussed volumes on Christianity’s African roots. How do you respond to this new evangelical awareness of Christianity’s African connection, and what might it mean for depictions of Christ?
Separating the “Middle East” from “Africa” is a certainly a western geographical fiction that hurts our understandings of the world now and in the past. The Palestine of Christ’s age was the crossroads of the world, and northern Africa was a huge player in that political, social, and cultural exchange. It is crucial for American Christians today to recognize the African roots of the faith in order to unlearn their assumptions about Africa as a monolith, as a place that is supposedly backward or uncivilized, and as a place that fails to matter.
Even more, American Christians need to begin seeing the “body of Christ” in a new way. Rather than think about what Jesus actually looked like, they could consider that other believers are the “body of Christ” and to fail to listen to them, heed their insights, or interact with them as equals, does harm to the overall kingdom of God. Oden’s work is supremely helpful in pushing all of us in that direction.
But geography should not overwhelm faith. Native Americans have no geographical tie to the biblical age, but their insights about faith, about Jesus, and about how to live in a sin-sick world should be taken seriously as well, even though there are no Native American roots of biblical Christianity.
In the 1940s, African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark performed famous experiments using dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. When given a choice between white and black dolls, they found that African American children typically favored the white dolls. Did you find any similar phenomena happening with children and their perceptions of Jesus?
At the same moment that the Clarks were asking about dolls, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier was asking African American teenagers about God and Jesus. What he found was amazing. He found that these teenagers during the Great Depression knew that something was up about how Jesus was presented. Although most acknowledged that Jesus was somehow white, they answered with claims that “the pictures showed he was white” or that “whites would not accept him to not be white.” These African American teenagers seemed to know that Christ’s color was complicated, that the creators of the images mattered and that those who had power in society influenced what images were made. Basically, these black teenagers in the midst of the Great Depression seemed to know something that many others have been unwilling to acknowledge: our visual depictions of God and Christ are made by particular people and for particular people.
This is why even when African Americans placed white Jesus imagery in their churches, it did not necessarily mean they had some kind of group-hating pathology. It was far more complicated. Rendering Jesus as a white man who acted unlike other white men took the power off skin and placed it onto action. Moreover, it provided a rebuke of other whites — that they were not acting like Jesus by segregating African Americans. It also served as hope that perhaps one day all the various people of the world could come together as sisters, brothers, and friends, as Jesus had called his disciples at the end — his friends.
There are two artists who represent two very different ideas about what Jesus looked like. One is Warner Sallman, whose famous Jesus painting appears on your book’s cover. Who was Sallman and what was his impact on Jesus imagery?
Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” from the early 1940s is the most reproduced painting of Jesus in world history. The son of European immigrants, Sallman painted for a small group of evangelical Christians around Chicago. His “Head of Christ” exploded onto the national and international scene. It is a profile of Jesus with nothing in the background. He has long, wavy blonde hair and blue eyes. For many, many Christians, this became the face of Jesus. It became the model for television and movie casting, and it went everywhere.
This calming image of Jesus was important to many Americans during the turbulence of the 1940s and 1950s. World War II was horrific; atomic bombs made it possible for the world to be destroyed. The emerging Cold War was terrifying. And then many Americans worried that their children were out of control (as shown in the film Rebel Without a Cause). Many Americans placed this Jesus in their homes and in their Sunday school classrooms to provide comfort. Somehow, a white Jesus would save them from nuclear holocaust or Communist secret agents.
The second artist is Fred Carter, who isn’t mentioned in your book yet whose work may be very recognizable for many African American Christians. Could you tell us about Carter and how you appraise his significance in this universe of Jesus imagery?
Fred Carter’s art should have been discussed in The Color of Christ. Since art historian David Morgan did such a nice job analyzing Fred Carter’s works in Visual Piety, we somewhat forgot to make a point to include Carter’s pieces. By neglecting them, however, we missed the opportunity to point out some huge changes since the 1960s in African American organizational creations and growth and how Mr. Carter’s art and its popularity were built on new organizations. If we had included Mr. Carter’s work, we would have been able to show how new art worked with new publishing houses to create a new visual culture for African American churches.
JESUS IN COLOR: An example of Fred Carter’s biblical art for Urban Ministries, Inc. Carter’s work helped create a more authentic visual culture for African American churches.
In particular, Mr. Carter’s images of Jesus reveal what scholar Anthony Pinn calls a “nitty-gritty” theology. Carter’s Christ is a full person who sweats, bleeds, and pleads. His dark skin is only one part of the reality of his embodiment. Carter shows Jesus experiencing all of the pains that we do as humans. They are poignant and fascinating portrayals. [Editor’s Note: Fred Carter’s artwork is also prominently featured in the Christian education publications of UrbanFaith’s parent company, Urban Ministries, Inc.]
In your introduction, you state that, “The white Jesus promised a white past, a white present, and a future of white glory.” What do you mean by that?
Basically, as race has been made in modern America, it presents itself as omnipresent in the past, in the present, and in the future. We are taught that there have always been “white” people, “black” people, etc. But we know that different people at different times divide themselves differently. One thousand years ago, hardly anyone would call themselves “white” and the category “African American” did not exist.
So how did race make itself seem to transcend time? We think Jesus is a key to this answer. By focusing on the body of Christ and by making him white, Americans subtly mapped racial concepts onto a person who has existed before the creation of the world and will be there at its end. If Jesus was white, then he is white. And if Jesus is the alpha and the omega, then somehow his whiteness was at the beginning and will be at the end. Of course, no one (except maybe some Klansmen) would ever say this, but the lesson is one taught without words.
Toward the end of the book, you explore a bit of the Jeremiah Wright controversy that gave his famous parishioner, Barack Obama, so much grief during his 2008 presidential campaign. You note that though white America was shocked by Wright’s “God Damn America” sermon, which in passing mentioned that “Jesus was black,” Wright’s brand of liberation theology was not that unusual or unsettling for African American audiences. Could you talk about liberation theology’s role in pushing back against many of America’s popular depictions of Jesus?
Beginning actively in the late 1960s, black liberation theologians like James Cone explicitly challenged the whitening of European and American theology and Christianity. They were reacting, in part, to how white ideologies had warped American Christianity to accept segregation, economic exploitation, and violence. The liberation theologians were also reacting to black power advocates who wanted to dismiss Christianity as purely a tool of the oppressors. Cornel West, for instance, found himself at odds with Black Panthers in California — not because of their economic program, but because of their opposition to Christianity. Cone, West, and many others set out to reconcile the faith of their mothers and fathers with their political opposition to white supremacy and class disenfranchisement.
These theologians saw Jesus as “black” in an ontological sense, meaning that regardless of what Christ actually looked like, his actions, attitudes, and sense of being aligned him with the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the hurting. In America, this means he was not only affiliated with “blackness,” but was “black” this way as well.
Black liberation theologians made crucial inroads into white universities and colleges. Cone and West obtained prestigious positions at Union Theological Seminary, Princeton, and Harvard. They then mentored dozens (if not hundreds) of scholars to continue the attack upon the whitening of the gospel.
Liberation theologians also participated in new black arts movements that visualized Jesus beyond whiteness. The theological momentum was part of broader changes in African American church life and beyond. Many whites, including myself, were first directed to challenging the white Jesus through the works of writers like Cone and West.
What are the primary myths surrounding Christ that you hope to dispel with your book?
The first and most important myth we want to dispel is that people necessarily and simply make Jesus look like themselves. This myth transforms religious imagery into little more than ethnic or cultural chauvinism. This myth also ignores so many other factors, such as the ability to create images and to distribute them widely. Technology, capital, and time matter significantly in what images can be made and which images can be widely displayed.
The second myth we want to counter is that black liberation theology is somehow new (or at least was born in the 1960s). By giving liberation theology a short history, we have ignored a much longer history where many everyday people — white, black, and Native American, women and men, young and old — have participated in challenging the whiteness of Jesus and the whitening of Christianity. Moreover, the longer history shows that the efforts to find liberation through Christian faith have touched on music and art, poetry and protest movements, and all other kinds of expressions. Black liberation theology was never simply defined by or for theologians and ministers, but it was a movement of everyday people that began almost two centuries ago.
Editor’s Note: For more information, visit the official website for The Color of Christ book at www.colorofchrist.com. At the site, readers can follow along with the images, videos, and texts described in the book and check out additional interviews with scholars, artists, and everyday people about why the color of Christ matters. Visitors also can share their personal stories about encountering Jesus in various visual forms.
HOLY HIP-HOP CONTROVERSY: Rapper Propaganda’s blistering critique of Puritanism’s racist history has some Reformed listeners crying foul.
Rapper Propaganda created a tornado of criticism with the recent release of “Precious Puritans” on his new album Excellent (available here). In the song, Propaganda reminds his audience to increase their cultural intelligence by caring about the black experience in America and to recognize the fact that, like the Puritans, we all have blind spots and need to have our minds constantly renewed (Rom. 12:2) by God’s word. The song also challenges those who uncritically treat the Puritans as a protected class that stands outside of the Bible’s command to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21).
For those who may be unfamiliar, Puritanism was a Christian reform movement that arose within the Church of England in the late 16th century. The movement spilled over into New England well into the 17th century and had a significant influence on the mores of America’s founding. Theologically speaking, the Puritans were committed to the doctrines of grace that emerged from the Protestant Reformation, with their particular emphasis on the intersection of sound doctrine and personal piety. In recent years, many young white Baptists and non-denominational evangelicals have been looking for substantive, theologically driven, analytic approaches to personal piety rooted in a tradition they found lacking in their own backgrounds. Thirsting for depth and history, these “new-Calvinists,” with the help of well-known pastors like John Piper, have found spiritual enrichment by studying the Puritans.
“Precious Puritans” simply raises a caution about loving the Puritans too much because, although they had sound doctrine on issues like personal piety, that tradition was complicit in perpetrating injustice against Africans and African Americans during the slavery. The song opens with these words:
Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.
They looked my onyx and bronze skinned forefathers in they face,
Their polytheistic, god-hating face.
Shackled, diseased, imprisoned face.
And taught a gospel that says God had multiple images in mind when he created us in it.
Their fore-destined salvation contains a contentment in the stage for which they were given which is to be owned by your forefathers’ superior image-bearing face. Says your precious Puritans.
The song continues to highlight ways in which the black experience in the Puritan tradition is mishandled within white conservative evangelicalism. However, instead of leaving it simply at critique and dismissal, like we might find among some black liberation theologians, Propaganda ends the song by confessing that he is no less flawed than the Puritans, as his wife can attest, and offers praise to God because “God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.” That is, Propaganda is calling for humility in recognizing that, in the end the noetic effects of sin are present in the Puritans, in himself, and the rest of us. As such, what is to be praised is not any class of men but the providence and sovereignty of God that He fulfills his mission through messed up people. (Check out the video for “Precious Puritans” below.)
What’s been so odd to me is the tribalist attacks from those who fear that Propaganda is in some way throwing the Puritans under the bus to never be read again. A lamentable example of this is a blog post by Professor Owen Strachan, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College. In his post, Strachan suggests that the song might be dangerous because he wonders “if Propaganda isn’t inclining us to distrust the Puritans. He states his case against them so forcefully, and without any historical nuance, that I wonder if listeners will be inclined to dislike and even hate them.”
Is this a slippery slope? Does testing and critiquing leads to this? Did Martin Luther’s comments about Jews incline people to hate him and reject him? Or John Calvin’s execution of Michael Servetus? Or Abraham Kuyper’s racism? Or Jonathan Edwards slave owning? I could go on.
The answer, of course, is “yes” and “no.” Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.
Propaganda’s point is that if white evangelicals do not talk about the bones of their heroes they run the risk of doing great harm to people of color. Many of us are beginning to wonder why white evangelicals do not seem to care much about this and seem willing to trade off “honoring” their forefathers for their own comfort over doing what is necessary to build racial solidarity. Some of my liberation theology friends, in the end, would see Strachan’s critique as a dismissal of acknowledging the importance of caring about how the Puritans are presented to African Americans and would constitute a racial microaggression or a micro-invalidation.
The largest concern is the seemingly tribal nature of many of Propaganda’s Puritan-loving critics. Could this be an example of confirmation bias? As Jonathan Haidt explains in the book The Righteous Mind, confirmation bias is “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think” (80). In general, according to Haidt, we are good at challenging statements made by other people but when it comes to one’s own presuppositions facing opposition the tendency is to protect it and keep it. Therefore, “if thinking is confirmatory rather than explanatory … what chances is there that people will think in an open-minded, explanatory way when self-interest, social identity, and strong emotions make them want or even need to reach a preordained conclusion?” (81). In this sense, Propaganda broke a tribal code: never critique anyone within the tribe.
Strachan considers the Puritans “forefathers” and in a tribalist way, some would argue, seeks to protect their legacy. Had Propaganda dropped a track critiquing Roman Catholics, Jeremiah Wright, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, or preachers of the prosperity gospel, he’d be called a hero. During my seminary years I was rebuked once for mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. in a sermon because of his sins. Why? Because King, like the others, are outside the tribe and are fair game to be critiqued in any form. Since they are not “one of us” there is no expectation of extending grace. Grace is reserved for those with whom we agree.
RHYTHM AND POETRY: Propaganda’s latest album, ‘Excellent.’
I experienced this tribal protectionism when I challenged Doug Wilson’s poor historiography of the antebellum South. Theologians Carl Trueman and Scott Clark experienced this recently when stating that complementarianism is not a “gospel issue.” The bottom line is that the Bible provides a model for the importance of confessing the sins of our fathers (Neh. 9:2) and testing everything (1 Thess. 5:21). Why? Because if we do not hold those in the past accountable to God’s Word we will repeat their sins. “Precious Puritans” is the iron that sharpens us. It keeps us from making the Puritans a golden calf. Racism and white supremacy is the other Reformed tradition so we need regular reminders to hold God and his Word in high esteem over the works of mere men.
After reading Strachan’s post I was left wondering if he had ever read Joseph Washington’s books on Puritans and race (Puritan Race Virtue, Vice and Values, 1620-1820: Original Calvinist True Believers’ Enduring Faith and Ethics Race Claims, Anti-Blackness in English Religion 1500-1800, and Race and Religion in Early Nineteenth Century America, 1800-1850: Constitution, Conscience, and Calvinist Compromise). In light of Washington’s research, what Propaganda did in this song is minimal. Candidly, it is difficult for me to see why Propaganda’s song stands out in light of the thousands of pages of published writings of Puritan white supremacy that seems to have had no effect on people treating them as a protected class. In the new Calvinist world, there seems to be a growing trend that you can have “hard-hitting exhortation” as long as it is directed at those who are not beloved within the new-Calvinist tribe. The best critique of Strachan’s tribalism comes from Pastor Steve McCoy, so I will not repeat his excellent points here but McCoy concludes that Strachan completely misses the point of Propaganda’s song.
Lastly, it seems that as a rapper himself, Strachan would not expect much “nuance” in a genre that normally uses hyperbole as a rhetorical device. After all, it is a rap song. Since when does anyone expect “rhythm and poetry” (a.k.a. RAP) to have nuances and qualifications? I wonder why Strachan is not treating the song according to its genre.
Strachan’s defensiveness of his forefathers, who get it right, demonstrates exactly why Propaganda needed to produce this song. In fact, perhaps we need more rhythm and poetry to help us test and confess. If artists like Propaganda are not given freedom to call us to critique our theology and culture, we cannot achieve true racial solidarity in the kingdom. Songs like “Precious Puritans” keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.