Jesus became white precisely at the time when the contours of American citizenship were being defined. A white nation required a white God.
This racialized notion of inclusion has also left its mark on immigration policies. The rise of the image of the "Nordic Christ," for example, happened precisely at a time when restrictions on immigration needed a sacred symbol. So a white "Nordic" Jesus became "the sacred face" of immigration restriction. How God "looked" determined whose God He really was, and whose He was not. So that by the 20th century it was clear: "American," "white" and "Protestant" were co-equivalents. Non-white had been rendered at the most basic level "un-American."
And on this point there is astounding relevance for contemporary debates about race and belonging. No one now should be confused about "birther" ideology. A black American President disrupts a certain historically confirmed way of understanding national identity. Obama, therefore, must be from Kenya. And post-2012 election responses from the right, having seen the voting power of non-whites, have declared that "America just doesn't seem like America anymore." Bill O'Reilly of Irish Catholic heritage bemoaned the "end of Traditional (read: white) America." What I can only hope he knows -- as he obviously places himself in the category of "traditional American" -- is that the Irish have a history of "becoming" white too, and it wasn't all that long ago.
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