To start with the obvious, Jesus wasn’t white. He was a Semite. He was of the same race as Mohammed, Albert Einstein, Osama Bin Laden and all those Muslims we’re trying to keep out. The only white people Jesus ever met were the Italians who executed him. He never heard a word of English in his life. In fact, anything we would recognize as English didn’t exist during his time. By the time Christianity came to America, in this case the thirteen original British colonies, it was twice removed from its Palestinian origins.
Christianity started out as a small Jewish sect centered around Judea and Galilee, but very quickly took off as an international religion of the poor, who were, even more than now, the vast majority of mankind. It was the first religion to jump tribal/national boundaries. As Christianity spread through the Greco-Roman world, it took on many of the mythological and philosophic underpinnings of the existing cultures. The most significant of these underpinnings was the idea of Jesus as divine. In the Greco-Roman religious world, demigods were plentiful. In the Jewish religious world such an idea would have been incomprehensible. God was one, an invisible spirit, who could not even be depicted artistically - remember the commandment against “graven images”. The idea that he would impregnate a physical woman would have been blasphemy. The apostle Paul, a Jewish Roman citizen who never actually met Jesus in the flesh, is credited with fusing these two traditions into the “pregnancy by the holy spirit” that became the core of the Christian tradition.
The destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 AD effectively put an end to the original Jewish version of Christianity. Alexandria and Rome became the centers of Influence among the numerous Gentile-driven sects that replaced it. In 325 AD or thereabouts, the Roman emperor Constantine, recognizing that the spread of this new religion was a threat to the State/Church union that supported his empire, made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. But in return for that, he insisted that the various local sects organize their divergent regional beliefs into a consistent body of dogma. The resulting Council of Nicea effectively created the Catholic Church, with Rome as its center of influence.
For the next 1,200 years, the Catholic Church for all practical purposes was Christianity, with the Popes, the vast majority of whom were, unsurprisingly, Italian, exercising a high level of international influence that both supported and competed with the existing secular Governments. The fact that the Church outlasted the Roman Empire might be seen as Jesus’ revenge, but the fact of the matter is that the wealthy and dogma-driven Church that emerged had little in common with a penniless Jewish carpenter executed for stirring up the common people.
In 1517, Martin Luther, the real father of American Christianity, wrote his “95 Theses” in Latin, protesting what he saw as abuses in the Catholic Church. The printing press, which had been invented less than 100 years before, allowed his objections, after being translated from Latin to German, to be widely distributed among the newly literate populations of Germany and Austria. The resulting Protestant Reformation was centered in Northern Europe, in opposition to the Italy-based Catholic Church. Luther’s most transformative idea was that the individual rather than the Church was chiefly responsible for his own relationship with God and had the right to both read and interpret the scriptures as he (or she) saw fit. Perhaps Luther’s most important contribution was a translation of the entire Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into German so that everybody could read it.
Luther’s bible influenced William Tyndale, who lived in Catholic England, to translate the New Testament into English from the Latin version used by Church clerics. His translation was too much influenced by Luther’s ideas for the Catholic Authorities, and he was arrested in Brussels and put to death for heresy. But the damage was done. Henry the Eighth of England was influenced by Tyndale’s earlier writing in his decision to break with the Catholic Church and create the Church of England. Tyndale’s translations became the basis for subsequent English translations culminating with the King James Version in 1611.
The impact of the fact that these events in the religious sphere were occurring just as America was being opened to European colonization cannot be overstated. The thirteen colonies that became the foundation of the United States of America were populated by English Protestants, with a small Catholic population in Maryland (the non-white, non-Christian indigenous population either fled west or were decimated by smallpox).
Luther’s principal of the individual’s right to read, think and choose for himself took fertile soil in the White Americas and culminated in a revolution against English rule that swept aside the very concept of a State religion. When the colonists threw out the King of England they also threw out the Church of England. For the next couple of hundred years, America was a white, Protestant country, the Civil War notwithstanding. Other religions were allowed to practice, but certainly not to run things. As recently as the 1960’s, the biggest obstacle to John F Kennedy’s bid for the presidency was that he was a Catholic. The black population, who had been forcibly converted to Protestant Christianity at the time they were imported for slavery, were kept for the most part illiterate, just as the Church had done with its people before the printing press, and were definitely kept out of the centers of influence.
Since the 1960’s, this “White Christian Culture” has taken some serious hits, with the election of a Catholic President, the insistence on equal civil rights and education for minorities, and culminating with the election of a half white, half black president. Although Barak Obama was a Protestant, the same push back that kept trying to prove he wasn’t an American also kept insisting he was secretly a Muslim.
So Here We Are:
Those who are trying to cling to a “White Christian” national identity are clinging to a Christianity that the Carpenter of Nazareth could not have imagined, far less endorsed. Those who think that the true American ideal is an acceptance of all races and religions on every level of society also look to statements attributed to Jesus for their moral underpinnings.
The question of our national identity is one we will have to answer for ourselves. Jesus, who never once in his life heard himself called by that name, has nothing to do with it.
Anyone wishing to fact check any of the above has only to boot up their Google.
We’re on our own.