Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Memes and Prosumption: Religion and the 2012 Presidential Election

The notion of a “meme” is derived from the word, “enthymeme,” a type of Aristotelian argument that leaves out one of more of the premises, or comes to an incomplete conclusion. As such, in a meme, one or more parts of the argument are suppressed, requiring that the reader infer the completed argument for him or herself. In 2012, memes became a huge part of internet discourse regarding the election, especially after the presidential debates when Romney’s “binders full of women” gaffe went viral. Given the interesting role of religion in the 2012 presidential election (Romney was the first serious Mormon candidate and Obama was the first Democrat to engage the subject of religion since Jimmy Carter), attending to memes that feature both the candidate and the subject of religion can help us to better understand the unique context of the 2012 election. This, by extension, can also help us to see how members of the public responded the way that each candidate invoked his religious perspective.

To that end, the memes I have chosen to study concern the intersection of politics, religion, and identity during the 2012 presidential election. In particular, I looked at memes that were posted between June and December 2012 that featured one or more of the major presidential candidates (Barack Obama and Mitt Romney). The memes varied in theme, but those featuring Obama seem to stem from two major categories: Obama as Jesus and Obama as Muslim. The memes featuring Obama as Jesus tended to be critical, positing that either Obama’s fans or Obama himself viewed Obama as Jesus. The memes featuring Obama as Muslim are also critical, assuming that the reader will “fill in” the idea that a Muslim president is inherently a bad idea.
 The memes featuring Romney also fell into one of two categories: Romney’s Mormon belief as illogical, or Romney’s Mormonism in conflict with his (alleged) classist/racist/sexist beliefs. For the purposes of this discussion, I will provide an example and analysis of one meme from each candidate. The memes that characterized Romney as illogical based on his Mormon beliefs tended to poke fun at specific aspects of the Mormon religion, such as sacred undergarments, Joseph Smith’s golden plates, and the more extraterrestrial aspects of Mormonism.

In the first meme, Obama is pictured as Jesus of Nazareth. The image into which Obama’s face has been photoshopped is strongly reminiscent of “Ecce homo,” a famous Spanish fresco painted by Elias Garcia Martinez. Underneath the image, the phrase “Obama the messiah?” is posited as a problematic statement or question. The smaller text underneath says, “He’s more like Moses! Wandering around aimlessly, blaming everything on the Bush.”

The comparison between Obama and Jesus is not unique, as several Christian media outlets accused Obama of having a “messiah complex” during the election cycle. John Stewart of the “Daily Show” even addressed the issue, albeit from a humorous, sarcastic perspective. The fact that the creator of the meme chose “Homo ecce” may be even more telling, as the original fresco was restored unsuccessfully, resulting in a marred image. From this perspective, it is possible to view the meme creator’s view of the Obama/Messiah concept as essentially flawed, incapable of being compared to the original. In addition, the comparison of Obama to Moses invokes the Biblical account of the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years. In this case, though, the American people are thought to be aimlessly wandering under Obama’s leadership. Finally, the meme states that Obama is “blaming everything on the Bush,” clearly referencing George W. Bush. This statement is interesting, because for the reader to accept this statement as critical of Obama requires that the reader be uncritical of Bush (or to at least deny Bush’s culpability in the economic collapse). In summary, then, the pairing of Obama’s face in a messianic image is meant to be ironic, as the central message of the meme is that Obama is decidedly un-messianic. Further, the meme posits Obama as the source of the nation’s ills at the time (the meme was posted in June 2012) and pokes fun at those who would look at Obama as a source of hope.

The next meme features Mitt Romney as he appeared in his official gubernatorial photo for Massachusetts. Superimposed over the top of the picture is the question, “People evolved from apes?” followed by, “Don’t be stupid. Everyone knows we come from spirit orbs created by God who lives on the planet Kolub.” This meme is interesting for a number of reasons, but primarily for its irony. 

First, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney is perceived to have some level of credibility, established in part through using his official gubernatorial photo. However, the meme creator attempts to debunk Romney’s credibility by pointing out inconsistencies between the Mormon faith and the popularly accepted theory of evolution. However, in attempting to do so, the author of the meme essentializes and misrepresents aspects of the Mormon faith that make the meme as a piece of criticism less credible. For example, “the planet Kolub” referenced in the meme is not said by Mormons to be the residence of God, but the star closest to God and is spelled “Kolob” (, 2012). While these may not seem like very significant errors, the lack of knowledge regarding the Mormon religion that is conveyed significantly decreases the impact of the meme (at least to those who have a moderate level of religious literacy). In effect, then, while the Romney meme attempts to make Romney seem less credible or logical because of his faith, further investigation reveals that the more telling lack of knowledge is that of the meme’s creator.

While each of these memes could be seen as problematic for one reason or another, what is more interesting about the memes is what they reveal about Jenkins’ notion of participatory culture. According to Jenkins in Convergence Culture, participatory culture occurs in part when people become information hunters and gatherers, collecting information for the purpose of creating new and multiple texts. As Jenkins states, “Each of us constructs our own personal mythology from bits and fragments of information extracted from the media flow and transformed into resources through which we make sense of our everyday lives” (Jenkins, 2006, pp. 3-4). These memes can thus be seen as the “bits and fragments” Jenkins mentions that have been cobbled together in order to reinforce the ideology of the meme’s creator. This unique process of production creates “prosumers,” individuals who are both consumers and producers of the digital media they collaboratively create (Jenkins, 2006). This collaborative, multimedia process uniquely shapes religious internet memes in the case of presidential elections precisely because bits of information from different media—speeches, images, religious doctrine, etc—can be combined in unique ways to create new texts that challenge or reinforce our existing beliefs. What we must be careful of, as explained in the analysis of these memes, is the tendency to be reductionist about a religious perspective in our attempts to construct public criticism.


Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. (2012, February 21). Kolob. Retrieved from

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