Belief in white Jesus linked to racism

March 11, 2021

Is the concept of white Jesus linked to racism? A study says so. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

People who think Jesus Christ was white are more likely to endorse anti-Black attitudes, a new study found, suggesting that belief in white deities works to uphold white supremacy.

For the study, published March 1 in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, researchers conducted a survey of 179 mostly Christian college students at a midsize private university in the Midwest. The students, over 70% of whom were white, were asked whether, based on their personal understanding of Jesus, they thought of him as white, Black, something else or unknown. 

Using established scales, the survey then measured students' explicit racism, subtle racism, implicit bias, their preferences for hierarchies and their endorsement of colorblind racial ideology — the set of beliefs that deny the effects of racism.

The researchers argued that a Jesus who has the same race as the dominant group helps that dominant group maintain power and legitimacy. 

"It's associating godliness with whiteness," lead author Simon Howard, an assistant professor of psychology at Marquette University, told The Academic Times. He said that some white people may cling to an image of white Jesus because a God who is not white undermines racist ideologies, and thus, "It threatens white supremacy."

Compared with the 95 students who believed Jesus was not white, the 84 students who believed Jesus was white had more negative explicit ideas about Black people; more subtle prejudices; more feelings of warmth toward white people; greater preference for group-based hierarchy; and more insistence that they, essentially, do not see race. 

The most statistically significant differences were in both explicit and subtle racism, and in minimizing or denying that race plays a role in everyday interactions. On the colorblind racial ideology scale, the group believing Jesus was white had a mean score of 2.94, while those who believe he was not white had a mean score of 2.48. The two groups had no significant difference in their implicit biases.

Howard embarked on the research after writing a review paper on psychology studies examining the link between religiosity and racial prejudice. 

"I was like, 'Hm, what about religious deities and how people conceptualize God or Jesus?' I felt that that, too, might be a route for racial prejudice," he said. "But it was virtually absent from the psychology literature. It just wasn't there." 

That religiosity and racial prejudice can go hand in hand "is kind of counterintuitive for some," Howard said. "People often think there's positive aspects of religion, yet there's evidence that it's correlated with racial prejudice." He pointed out that "Christianity, in particular, was used as a way to justify the enslavement and dehumanization of Black and Native American people."

Howard's study was just the first step toward better understanding how racism, white supremacy and a white perception of Jesus interact. While the link has been discussed by scholars in other fields — and notably by the writer and civil rights activist Malcolm X — as Howard said, there's been minimal research on the topic by psychology scholars. But even before that research happens, Howard said Americans should be thinking more critically about the images they worship. 

"People don't know what Jesus specifically looked like, but the most widely disseminated images of him are white," he said. "We think about how often Jesus is mass-produced with a white image, and that's spread not just all over the U.S., but all over the world. What impact does that have?"

The study, "'Jesus was a White man too!': The relationship between beliefs about Jesus's race, racial attitudes, and ideologies that maintain racial hierarchies," published March 1 in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, was authored by Simon Howard, Kaylen T. Vine and Kalen C. Kennedy, Marquette University.                                                     

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