Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Religious Memes in Election 2012: Mitt Romney and the Mormon Faith

The memes which circulated during the 2012 presidential cycle took on a variety of different forms, especially when religious issues were considered. As the challenging candidate from a religious background unfamiliar to a number of people, Mitt Romney faced a significant challenge. As a Mormon candidate, Romney was tasked with making his religion understandable and reasonable to the public. However, as we will see in the analysis of memes that focused on his faith, it seems as though he did not familiarize the public with his beliefs sufficiently. This post will focus on three memes regarding Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith that were posted on three blogs. I will briefly discuss the content of the blog in which each meme was posted, and then review the reader comments (when applicable) in order to explicate how the blog readers attempted to shape the meaning of the memes as well as  the messages the audiences took from the memes. I will conclude by discussing how the way religion was treated in these memes was either effective or problematic. Understanding how these memes are used to communicate and/or interrogate religious belief in a political context will further our knowledge of how politics and religious beliefs intersect in meaningful ways.

The first meme was posted on June 24, 2012 to the blog, “a voice from the rustbelt” in a post entitled, “Appraising presidential candidates.” The author of the blog is a Catholic individual who, while not intending his blog as a religious or political forum, nonetheless acknowledges the importance of these two issues and includes them among the topics of his “essays.” The blog in which this meme appeared criticizes Romney for his Mormon faith, calling Mormonism “a fraud . . . secretive and deceptive” (Rustbelt, 2012). He further states that while “one cannot blame one for being born into a religion,” is is important to note that Catholic theology “is open, and fully academic, and viewable,”
while Mormon theology is n

The author then goes on to evaluate the critical thinking capacity of LDS members, who he argues, “are taught not to answer direct questions on their beliefs . . . Romney lies . . . with nonchalance” (Rustbelt, 2012: Appraising presidential candidates). He later goes on to describe Obama’s church attending record (at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago), but fails to provide any evaluation of Obama’s faith or veracity.

The meme featured in this blog post seems to underscore the notion that Mormon theology does not encourage critical thinking, using as a case-in-point the fact that Romney has defended marriage as between one man and one woman, but had a great-grandfather who was a polygamist. In this context, then, the meme is intended to underscore the idea that Romney must be a poor choice as a president because his religious upbringing discouraged critical thinking. This lack of critical thinking becomes even more problematic when we consider the author’s assertion that LDS theology is “highly secretive.” Being brought up in a secretive theology, in the author’s explanation, also leads to being secretive and deceptive, both qualities that it are undesirable in a president. While there are no comments posted to the blog, it is interesting to consider the way in which this meme was used to reinforce a discussion of Mitt Romney’s faith in a political context.

The second meme entitled, “Mitt Romney is a Mormon,” was posted on the “Atheist Revolution” blog in July 2012. The goal of the blog, according to the author, is “breaking free from irrational belief and opposing Christian extremism” (Atheist Revolution, 2012: About). The author, as the title of the blog implies, is an Atheist who blogs about political and religious issues in order to promote Atheist thought and activism.

This blog post focuses not on evaluating Romney’s faith, but rather to discuss the strategies employed by the GOP to deal with the fact that “roughly 18% of Americans polled say they would not vote for a Mormon candidate” (Atheist Revolution, 2012: Romney is a Mormon). The author then goes on to surmise that in places where Obama is extremely unpopular (such as Mississippi), Romney will likely win. The author wonders why it is that the media have not more thoroughly covered the fact that Romney is a Mormon and contrasts Romney’s faith with Atheism and Scientology. The author closes by predicting that, in the event that an Atheist or Scientologist ran for the presidency, “everyone would accept the need to inform the public” (Atheist Revolution, 2012: Mitt Romney is a Mormon).

The meme used included in the blog post, as shown above, seems to challenge the reasonableness of LDS theology. However, the content of the meme does not appear in the blog post, leaving the reader to his or her own interpretation of how the meme should be read. This blog post had eighteen comments, a number of which reflect on the nature of religious belief in the political sphere, while a few mock Mitt Romney’s faith. Interestingly, none of the responses interact with the content of the meme, suggesting that in this case the actual content of the blog is more meaningful to the readers than the pithy meme. For this meme, then, the interpretation remains open: neither the blogger nor the readers attempt to negotiate its meaning, instead preferring to discuss how the role of religion in politics could change in the future.

The final meme was posted in a blog from “Religious poisons” entitled, “This is what Mitt Romney believes” during June 2012. The goal of the blog is “to show how religion poisons the mind,” characterizing religion as harmful and unnecessary, and “a direct threat to the survival of humankind (Religious Poisons, 2013: About). The post is brief, stating:

This man is close to becoming the most powerful man on the planet. He is the
Republican Party’s main contender to challenge Obama for the presidency of the USA. He is a man of faith and an active follower of the church of mormonism. Among other things, mormons believe in Kolub. They also believe in magic underwear. Are you feeling safer now (Religion Poisons, 2012: This is what Mitt Romney believes)?

Clearly, the point of this blog entry is to mock Romney’s faith, essentializing it down to two issues (Kolob and sacred undergarments) in order to discredit Romney as a candidate. The meme here reinforces the author’s interpretation of Mormon faith as irrational, further referencing Mormon belief in “Kolub.”

This blog had a number of responses that included the topics of correcting the blog’s author, and discussing the racism in the church’s past. The first commenter (Eldoon Feeb) corrects the blogger’s spelling of Kolob, provides the correct definition of Kolob as a star rather than a planet, and brings up the significance of skin color to Mormon theology. This Feeb is then corrected by another commenter (Christian) who refutes the importance of skin color, citing information from the LDS website as support that race is no longer a factor in LDS theology. Another commenter, (RP) criticizes Christian’s use of “pick-n-mix” theology, and Feeb jumps back into the conversation, arguing that by Christian’s logic, the founders of the LDS church could not be considered disciples of Christ. The comment thread ends with Feeb’s critique.

In this blog, the author’s comments, combined with the blog, served as a jumping-off point for discussion LDS beliefs. While the blog author and meme essentialized the Mormon faith, the commenters (some who appeared to be Mormon, or at least very familiar with Mormonism), were quick to jump in and make sure that the Mormon faith was being represented correctly. The meme content was thus described as correct by the blog author, but reshaped by the commenters to provide a fuller understanding of Romney’s faith (although Romney was not mentioned at all in the comments).

The memes highlighted here reveal a few important things: first, the way that the religious meaning is negotiated in memes is highly contextual. The nature of the outlet in many ways determines the readership, thus affecting what type of people will interact with the meme. In the case of the first meme, there were no readers, leaving the meaning supplied by the author unchallenged. In the second meme, the audience chose to address a different issue than that referenced by the meme, subordinating its meaning to the larger claims of the blog author. In the final meme, a number of people with religious knowledge were among the readership of the blog and provided their understanding as a means of reshaping our understanding of Mormonism by using the incorrect information of the meme as point of departure for a larger discussion. Memes, then, can be both problematic or effective depending on the audience that they reach. If the meme demonstrates an incorrect or incomplete understanding of a particular religious perspective it becomes the task of the audience to enhance or reshape that understanding. Where the audience is well informed and robust, memes can serve as a catalyst for effective dialogue; where the audience is absent or ill-informed, the meme will serve to reinforce the meme’s necessarily reductionist view.

No comments:

Post a Comment