An Icon of Mormon Christianity

An Icon of Mormon Christianity August 2, 2012

The north visitor’s center at Salt Lake City’s Temple Squarehouses an eleven-foot statue of the resurrected Jesus. Known as Christus, the statue is a replica of an 1821 sculptor by Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen. Now beloved by many Mormons, replicas of Christus adorn a large number of Latter-day Saint visitor centers around the world.

In a recent Newsweek / Daily Beast interview, my friend Ed Blum termed the Mormon Christus an “icon of white supremacy.”

I’ve been reading Ed and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ, a major examination of race and religion inAmerica due out fromNorth Carolina this October. I’m a great admirer. The book is analytically sharp, eminently readable, and provocative (in the sense that we should spend time thinking about how we think about and depict Jesus). I also admire the way that Ed and Paul rather seamlessly integrate so many strands of American Christianity into their narrative.

In his Newsweek interview, Ed contrasts silence about Mormon depictions of a white Jesus with past (and current) outrage over Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric about a black Jesus. “Why did Wright’s jeremiads and visions of a black Jesus so terrify Americans in 2008, and why does the powerful white, blue-eyed imagery of the Jesus of Romney’s Mormon faith arouse no interest?” asks Blum. “Neither one is accurate, but only one has generated outrage or gotten much media attention.” Blum’s is a very fair question.

The Christus statue arrived onTemple Squareat a racially tense moment in Mormon history. As I’ve recently learned from Max Mueller, in the mid-1960s civil rights protesters targeted the church and Temple Square because of the church’s denial of full membership to African Americans (i.e., for men, access to the priesthood; for men and women, participation in the church’s most sacred rituals) and because of the prevalence of “black codes” and other forms of discrimination in Utah.

In the midst of this tension, the very white and very large statue of Jesus appeared on Temple Square. From the interview: “The statue was and remains an icon of white supremacy,” says Blum. From the book: “Blacks were technically welcome, but first they had to pass by the powerful white Christus.” (254)

Blum also mentions John Scott’s 1969 Jesus Christ Visits the Americas (accessible here, along with other images of Jesus) which shows a very white Jesus, this time appearing in the New World to rather white-looking Native Americans.

What did it mean for the LDS Churchto depict Jesus as white in the mid-to-late 1960s? Was it a reassertion of Jesus’s whiteness, now being called into question by African Americans and others tired of a Jesus being made to look like their oppressors?

Perhaps, at least on an unconscious level. At the very least, I think Ed is correct that these instances of a “white Christ” should receive as much attention as contemporaneous (and allegedly more controversial) depictions of a “black Christ.”

Still, I primarily see Christus as an assertion of Mormon Christianness, not as an “icon of white supremacy.”  My knowledge of Mormonism diminishes greatly after August 1877; still, I understand Christus (and especially its placement in visitor centers) as akin to adding “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” as the Book of Mormon’s subtitle and enlarging “Jesus Christ” in the church’s logo. They are attempts to emphasize to skeptical non-Mormons (and especially to American Protestants) that the LDS Church is Christian.

Chris Jones tells me that Latter-day Saints have become more comfortable with non-white representations of Jesus in recent years. One can find an occasional black Jesus or Latino Jesus in Mormon artwork today, though the white Jesus predominates in a rather overwhelming manner.

Blum suggests that if asked about Jesus’s skin color, Barack Obama would have no trouble with the question while Mitt Romney would stumble over it. From the interview: “The problem with this question would be intense for Romney because God has a body in Mormon theology, just as humans do,” Blum says. “God and his son Jesus are described as white by the Mormon prophets and in the paintings.”

Maybe. Romney is not exactly a dimwit, and I don’t think he would stumble over the question because of Mormon theology or artwork. Instead, I think he might trip over the question because it inches closer to the topic of the priesthood ban, which Romney has discussed with great hesitation and testiness in the past.

[I loved the fact that Ed linked to an image of a 2008 pin with the Christus Jesus apparently blessing Romney’s candidacy. If Christus looks nothing like what Jesus probably looked like, the Romney here doesn’t look too much like Mitt either (race is correct, of course).]

I have more to say on Mormonism and race, but will save it for another day.

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