During the middle of the Civil Rights movement, Mormons placed an 11-foot-tall white Jesus with an exposed powerful chest at the center of Salt Lake City. Christus, as he was originally called, was raised in 1966, but he was based upon an old Danish statue from 1821. Since ‘66, Christus has become a staple of Mormon iconography placed primarily in “welcome centers” all throughout the nation. He became even more poignant of a symbol after 1978, the year Mormon leadership lifted its bans on people of color from the priesthood. Blacks, Pacific Islanders and others were technically welcome in the church, but they first had to pass by the powerful white Christus.
In 2008, Jeremiah Wright’s sermons about a black Jesus killed by white Romans (and its obvious analogues to present-day politics) nearly derailed his former parishioner Barack Obama’s candidacy. The white Jesus of Mitt Romney’s Mormon culture, by contrast, has raised no cultural firestorm. It is hardly even noticed.
So why doesn’t the history of Mormonism’s white Jesus spark controversy as Wright’s claims about Jesus being black? Why aren’t there reporters scoping about trying to understand the particular looks of Mormon Christ figures. Why did Jeremiah Wright’s jeremiads and visions of a black Jesus so terrify Americans in 2008, and denunciations of black liberation theology and Obama’s supposed connection to it continue to be a staple of conservative talk radio to the present day, while the powerful white imagery of the Jesus of Romney’s Mormon faith arouse no interest?
Simply put: the black Jesus of American history historically has been threatening, while white Jesus imagery, at least since about the 1830s, has been so normative and dominant that it is assumed to be accurate. Historically, America’s Jesus has been white without words, because whiteness needs no description. It is blackness, of the kind so prominently displayed by Jeremiah Wright’s sermons replayed in 2008, that anger and trouble people, and thus need explanation.