Ben Carson tweets '#IamaChristian' right after the Oregon shooting on October 2nd 2015.

Ben Carson's #IamaChristian

The political effect of going viral

20 minutes to read
Paper
Suleika Gommers
01/11/2018

One day after the college shooting near Roseburg, Oregon, Ben Carsons tweet '#IamaCHRISTIAN' went viral. What made him tweet these words and what was the political effect of that tweet?

Branding yourself

In this paper I analyze Carson's #IamaChristian-tweet after the Oregon shooting as part of his presidential campaingn. More concretely, it will be analyzed as a performance to create a certain message. 

Central to this analysis is the idea that media-performances, and thus also performances of politicians using new media like Twitter, are ways to create an image for the public. They are 'messaging', to use Lempert & Silverstein's (2012) words. New media and the management of visibility in these new media are understood as instruments of (discursive) power. Before mass media, politicians were practically invisible, unknown rulers. Public performances were rare and if they appeared in public, it was a celebration of the political power (Maly, 2012). 

The double meaning of political messages

In The New Visibility, Thompson (2005) states that with mass media not only is ‘visibility is freed from the spatial and temporal properties of here and now’, politicians no longer shape the media to their own likings. Having access to newspapers, internet and television, citizens are able to interact with them and judge them. As a consequence, politicians now need to 'communicate' or create a 'message' that resonates with the electorate. 

Message should not be confused as the literal meaning of message. Lempert & Silverstein (2012) state that message strategists work behind the scenes to fashion “an electorally viable political persona through all manner of signs that creatively gesture toward this persona without explicitly describing it”. So it is not (only) the content of the candidate and the literal message one speaks out. Message is influenced by image, position on issues and style. And to be more exact, the suggestion of these three components. 

Message is influenced by image, position on issues and style. 

Candidates of campaigns such the United States presidential campaign 2016, have to position themselves on issues and fight a discursive battle for meaning (Maly, 2016 & In preparation), rather than get judged on emotional or intuitive acts. Style and image are highly interpretative components of message, which should address to a as large as possible group of voters within a specific context. In this case the Oregon shooting in 2015 and the longer history of College shootings in the United States lived up to the above set criteria.

The Oregon shooting

In a city with 22,000 inhabitants, some 180 miles south of Portland, Oregon a mass shooting occurred on October 1st 2015. At Umpqua Community College, Chris Harper Mercer killed ten people, including himself. Another seven people were severely injured. According to Anastasia Boylan, who got wounded herself, the professor was shot point blank right after Harper Mercer entered the classroom. 

While reloading his gun, he ordered students to stand up if they were Christians. ''And they would stand up and he said, 'Good, because you're a Christian, you're going to see God in just about one second,'' Boylan's father told CNN, relaying her account. “And then he shot and killed them.”

Once a week a gun is fired on school grounds

“This is so out of character for this whole area”, said Rick Francona, a CNN military analyst. According to the schools own reporting, from 2009-2012 the area did not have reported any assaults, weapon possessions or hate crimes. Francona might have been forgotten about other shootings and attempt shootings in the state. 

Francona might have been forgotten about other shootings and attempt shootings in the state

In 1998, a shooting occurred in Springfield, Oregon leaving four dead and another 23 wounded. In respectively June and December 2014, there were two shootings in and around Portland, leaving a total of four wounded and two dead. Even at Roseburg High School, in the same town the shootings of October 1st 2015 took place, there was a shooting incident in 2006 where a 14-year-old shot a fellow student four times in his back with a semi-automatic weapon. In the neighbouring states, such as California and Nevada, there has been a history of mass shootings as well. In fact, ever since the shootings on Sandy Hook elementary school, shootings throughout the country have followed shorter on each other and have left an increasing number of (deadly) victims. LA Times would even comment that once a week a gun is fired on school grounds.

The identity of the shooter

Despite the fact that county sheriff John Hanlin refused to identify the Oregon shooter, multiple media identified Chris Harper Mercer as the shooter and his social media accounts were traced and analyzed. Relatives were shocked by the news that Harper Mercer was the suspected mass murderer. 

Even though the social media accounts of the 26-year-old gun man showed texts and pictures of hatred and gun possession, family would say that it was a nice guy. Harper Mercer wrote several entries on shooting in the United States on a forum, including the recent shooting at that time on live television in Virginia. He urged his readers ‘to check out the ‘good’ footage of the shooting on YouTube’ and told them ‘on an interesting note, I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world know who they are’. On his MySpace account and an account for online dating, multiple pictures were posted of guns and gun men. Moreover the accounts show interests in the Irish Republican Army and, according to his nickname ‘Ironcross45’, Nazi-Germany. On his dating profile he answered to what his religious views are ‘not religious, not religious, but spiritual’.

The reaction of the Democrats

College shootings have a long history in the US. As always, with such shootings, the political debate on the second amendment revives an old discursive battle. The different positions on the issue of the second amendment run along the partylines.  

The Democratic Party (2012) ‘believe[s] in an honest, open national conversation about firearms’ and claim to ‘[…] work together to enact common-sense improvements – like reinstating the assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole – so that guns do not fall into the hands of those irresponsible, law-breaking few.

Especially Obama has invested a lot in a battle to change the law. On January 7th 2016, for example, the New York Times posted a text on gun control by president Barack Obama stating that ‘we all have a responsibility’. In an emotional address, Obama appeared in tears talking about the mass shooting in Newtown, leaving 26 people killed (see figure 1). But according to the current president, changing the legislation laws and get civilians as well the weapon industries working on this issue together, will not be easy. After the Oregon shooting, President Obama delivered his 15th statement addressing gun violence during his presidency (figure 2).

After the Oregon shooting, President Obama delivered his 15th statement addressing gun violence during his presidency

The reaction of the Republicans

The Republican Party (2012) on the other hand opposes federal licensing and national gun registration ‘as a violation of the Second Amendment and an invasion of privacy of honest citizens’. They support the fundamental right of self-defence and recognise the responsibility of individuals to safely use and store firearms. 

In the week after the Oregon shooting at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon, Republican candidate for the presidential elections 2016 had to take a position on the issue. In a remarkable statement, Dr. Ben Carson calls himself a reasonable person, who is willing to listen to anyone who can offer a proposal of how to avoid massacres like this one. But then he goes on and  states “get rid of the guns for the people first, so that you can go and dominate them. That is not what we need to be doing” (USA Today, 2015, 13 November). 

Carson aligns himself with the classic Republican position on the issue but also cleverly injects his discourse with his own message: Not the law, but mental health care is the solution. He claims that the pattern of the identities of shooters is consistent in terms of their mental stability and that there has to be a focus on mental health care, so many lives could be saved by saving the life of the shooter. Referring to the aforementioned identity of the Oregon shooter, little is known about his mental state. Sources claim Harper Mercer had issues on his anger and depression and was obsessed with guns as well as being anti-religious and anti-government (See The Oregonian, 2015, 2 October).  Carson brings in his track record as a surgeon, to give authority to his message.

Dr. Carson's message with regard to the Oregon shooting

Every new issue, is an opportunity to get your message across. But it also works the other way around: if you fail to address the issue in an 'authentic' way, you can loose face or look incompetent. The economic crisis of 2008 for example, proved to be the beginning of the end for the Mc Cain-campaign. Obama had his message ready. We all know what happened from that moment. In case of the Oregan shooting, Carson tackled the issue with success. So let us take a look at his message.

A highly educated, successful family man and a Christian

On the official website for his presidential campaign you can ‘Meet Ben’. This page tells about his childhood dream of becoming a doctor and despite the poverty his family lived in, Ben achieved to excel in high school. 

Every new issue, is an opportunity to get your message across.

At Yale University he met Candy who would turn out to be his future wife. They moved to Baltimore where Ben Carson performed his residency training at the John Hopkins University Medical Center. Highlights of his career as a paediatric neurosurgeon are the first successful separations of conjoined twins. In June 2008, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush of which a large photograph is posted next to the text. 

The power of education

Being a success story himself, Ben Carson is named a strong believer in the power of education and gives back by awarding scholarships to more than 7,500 scholars through the Carson Scholars Fund. Today, he has a calling:

"Over a year ago, hundreds of thousands of Americans encouraged me to listen to the call and seek the office of president of the greatest nation the world has ever known. I am ready to be president and believe that my unique experience and background is what is needed to heal, inspire and revive America”.

'Heal, Inspire, Revive'

The campaign slogan of Dr. Ben Carson is ‘Heal, Inspire, Revive’, which is referring to his career as a doctor, being able to heal sick people. ‘Inpire, Revive’ can stand for the hospital work Carson is accounted for as well as having a more spiritual meaning.

In reading ‘Meet Ben’, there is no explicit text that actually describes Dr. Carson as a Christian, let alone a practicing one. Though, in his social media use, it becomes clear that he has indeed warm feelings for Christianity.

#IamaChristian

Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson used the hashtag after a college shooting in Oregon not only as a symbol of his sympathy, but also as a political propaganda instrument. He was 'on message'. By tweeting the exact same words as, according to witnesses, the deadly victims of the shooting have said that morning, Carson not only stood up as a Christian or as somebody who feels the pain of the victims, he also positioned himself politically. And he addressed not only the republican electorate, but everyone condeming this massmurderer targetting Christians (Maly, in preparation).

The text on the note Carson is holding in the picture is short, but effective. 'I am a Christian'. This is accompanied with the tweet: 'Yes, #IamaChristian'.

The hashtag #IamaChristian can only be fully understood in a long intertextual tradition. 

The historical context of the message #IamaChristian

The hashtag #IamaChristian can only be fully understood in a long intertextual tradition. ‘When I say I am a Christian’ is a poem (whenisayiamachristian.com) written by Carol Wimmer in 1988 and first published by Hi-Call Gospel Magazine in 1992. It is a poem about being humble and having the trust in God to look after oneself. The author ends his poem with the lines “When I say, ‘I am a Christian’, I do not wish to judge, I have no authority, I only know I’m loved”. These lines can mean the tolerance towards people with other believes than Christianity. Wimmer only wants to express his feelings about the God he trusts in for loving him. ‘I am a Christian’ is also a Bible song for children. Children have to repeat the song spelling words faster every time.

So the words itself ‘I am a Christian’ are not uncommon to speak out for Christians, but in the presidential campaign 2016, they acquire a whole new meaning: A political meaning. Dr. Ben Carson gives full compassion to the victims of the Oregon shooting, who were questioned about their religion by the gun man. Whenever they confirmed they were Christians, they were shot point blank. With the concise text ‘I am a Christian’ on a piece of paper (figure 9) he answers the question in the same way the victims must have did. 

So the words itself ‘I am a Christian’ are not uncommon to speak out for Christians, but in the presidential campaign 2016, they acquire a whole new meaning: A political meaning

The relationship between #IamaChristian and #Yeswecan

At this point, we see how the word 'yes' in the tweet can not only be read as an implicit reference to the political campaign slogan of Obama: 'Yes, we can' and to the debate on the suggested 'Muslimness' of Obama. It can also be understood in as a confirmation on the question asked by the murderer followed by the classic 'I am a Christian'. Although this message can be interpreted in many ways, Carson leaves his followers without any doubt: Yes, he is a Christian and he is proud.

The symbolic meaning of Carson's message

Besides the text on the note, we also see the the ichthys symbol. This symbol is more commonly known as the symbol of Christ as a fish, first appearing in Christian literature and material culture in the latter half of the second century AD. There is no clear consensus on the exact meaning of the symbol. Bull, Lied & Turner eds. (2012, chapter Revisiting the Ichthys) describe different possibilities for the origin of the ichthys, for example being a symbol of the Eucharistic or baptismal fish (p. 328) or having oriental roots, influenced by piscine gods and heroes such as the Indian god Vishnu. 

According to the Organisation for Religious Tolerance  the fish as a religious symbol is associated with the Pagan Great Mother Goddess, as an outline of her vulva and is found in various directions of the world, such as Scandinavia, China and throughout the Mediterranean. The early church adopted the symbol itself and the association with deity, but erased the sexual component.

This tweet is also a political act with the explicit goal to go viral.

The international context of #IamaChristian

There is a movement of congregations in the United Kingdom calling themselves Ichthus Christian Fellowship, using three ichthys symbols woven together. A study association in The Netherlands (ichthus.nl) call themselves ‘Ichthus’ and reside in almost every student city in the country. Typing in the word ‘Ichthus’ on Google Search, there are high school communities popping up residing in cities like Veenendaal and Kampen. These cities are known to be part of the Bible Belt in The Netherlands, where a large number of practising protestants live.

For Christians throughout the United States, the symbol has become a way to express their belief in God and being proud of showing it. Jesus Christ told his disciples in Matthew 4:19: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’(Institute for Bible Study]. Christians expressing the symbol recognize the command of Christ to follow and by sending out the ichthys symbol, they identify others who believe the same. A way to express publicly is by having a car bumper sticker or emblem. Atheists in the United States may construct a parody on the ichthys symbol by putting the name of scientist Charles Darwin in it. 

Going viral

Carson clearly communicates himself as someone 'in the know'. As a Christian who is proud about his heritage and a Christian who is deeply moved by the fact that Christians were murdered in the US just because the fact that they were Christians. It would be a mistake to understand his tweet as just that: An emotial communicative act. It was a political act as well, with the explicit goal to go viral (Maly, In preparation). Two elements in that tweet are indexes of that intent. First, we see that the profile picture of Carson. At that the time, there was a professionally constructed button with the hashtag "#IamaChristian" in a nice lay-out. And of course the fact itself that Carson rewrites the classic line 'I am a Christina' as the hashtag ‘#IamaChristian’ informs us that Carson not only wants to show his sympathy, he also wants to go viral (Maly, In preparation). 

Carson clearly communicates himself as someone 'in the know' 

It were these elements that prepared his tweet for uptake. If we compare it to actor Ben Piershale's youtube-post, we see a clear difference in uptake. Piershale makes short videos which he posts on his YouTube channel and shares on his Facebook. He expressed his feelings to the victims of gun violence by making a video in the town of Roseburg, Oregon. A three-minute long video in which he stands up for the Christian belief and states that ‘none of us know for sure’ what the answer would have been to the question the gunman asked. 

The power of multimediality 

He is inspired by the ones who did acknowledge Jesus Christ by confirming their religious believes. The video got over 6,000 views. Even more striking, Piershale does not have a Twitter account to promote his message. His message is in essence not different from Ben Carsons one. But the form and the media he used are different. His video is longer, he does not use hashtags and does not use Twitter. And even more important, he does not have such a large public following him.

Tweets and posts on Ben Carsons social media pages.

Carson's tweet went viral (see collage above). The Oregon shooting, as well as other shootings particularly in school environments, seems to be a news item for candidates to use in their campaign. Even more, it was a turning point in the Republican battle for elections. In Figures 15 and 16 it is showed that on October 4th 2015, Ben Carson is becoming front runner for the Republicans in the polls. The following weeks Donald Trump, the former front runner, and Carson are tied up in the battle who becomes the new front runner. NY Times posted on November 2nd 2015 that Ben Carson is in front (New York Times, 2015).

Carson's tweet went viral

Screenshots of poll rankings on Ben Carsons social media pages

'In God we trust'

From that day onwards, his religious beliefs are foregrounded in his message. Today Carson is not only a surgeon, he is above all a Christian condemning that violence. But very soon the usability of this message will become obvious when tackling other issues like 'Muslim terrorism' and ISIL (see below). As of December 2015, Ben Carson proclaimed campaign changes, announcing a new campaign manager, campaign chairman and several new members of the National Security and Foreign Policy Advisory Committee. Herewith, he surrounds himself with religious professionals in politics.

 

Consistency, messaging and uptake

The I am a Christian-message of Carson pays off. Not just because it addresses Christians to vote for him, but especially because this message is supported by a longer trackrecord of messaging about his Christian identity. The pictures below are examples of that. 

The I am a Christian-message of Carson pays off

On September 22nd 2015, Ben Carson tweets about a blocked bill in the Senate that would have increased protecting fetuses. In Figure 3 becomes clear that Carson supports all fetuses. Opposing abortion is one of the deeply rooted positions of Republicans as well as for Christians. Figure 4 shows religious tweets on November 14th 2015, the day after the Paris attacks. He refers to Psalm 18:28, saying God will bring light into the darkness. Figure 5 showing Carsons new profile picture on his Twitter account standing with his hand palms open towards the public showing ‘These Hands’. With the word ‘heal’ in the middle, there stands the doctor who can actually save one's life, but the suggestion of having the hands of God healing the people is aroused. In Figure 6, Carson is praying and the caption reads ‘Seeking God’s wisdom in my life has been an essential part of this campaign from day one’. 

Tweets and posts on Ben Carsons social media pages with religious content.

Blended identities

These Christian messages are also picked up and reproduced by external sources. Deseret News for instance retrieved information on Carson faith from one of the books Carson wrote and interviews he gave in the past. Carson clearly positions himself as ' a neurosurgeon' and a 'Christian' and these are blended into one identity: As a neurosurgeon, he prayed before every surgery, feeling that God is the ultimate source of all wisdom.

So, Carson's Christianity is not new, what is new is that he knows that he can score with: showing sympathy and communicating his Christian identity online. 2015, he did not express his sympathy for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris on social media. But of course, at the time he was not yet in the running to become president of the United States. But after his success, with his 'IamaChristian'-tweet, his doesn't miss an opportunity to show emotional considerations. Some examples regarding the San Bernardino shootings;

Retweets and likes on Ben Carsons tweet after San Bernardino shooting on December 2nd 2015.

Using identity in the political debate

About an hour after the carnage of the San Bernardino shooting on December 2nd 2015, Carson tweeted a sympathetic text for the victims and their families. Figures 19 to 22 give an overview of how fast people liked and retweeted this tweet and how fast Carson tweets about something else again. 

During his opening statement of the Republican presidential debate he again tried to score by asking a moment of silence for the victims . Every second of speaking time is precious in such mediatized presidential debates. So to use precisely this few seconds, only shows the belief of Carson and his campaign team in the electoral effect of this gesture.

 

Defending Christianity, proclaiming war on ISIS

And again, it would be a mistake to understand this as a non-political thing. That becomes clear if you take into account Carson looks at America as a ‘Judeo-Christian nation’. This concept shows an intertextual connection with Zionist discourses. That becomes explicite on December 8th 2015, when Ben Carson announces George Birnbaum to be his Foreign Policy Advisor. Birnbaum is a son of Holocaust survivors and the former right hand to Israeli Prime Ministers Netanyahu, Olmert and Sharon. This alignment with Israel and the Zionist cause becomes clear when a few weeks later, Carson denounces Obama and Clinton for spying on Israel. Ben Carson is not afraid to show his personal sympathy and relations to Israel. Even before he got nominated to run for president, he went to Israel (figure 17). Carson is building a Judeo-Christian discourse around himself. With the danger of leaving freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the United States only to Christians.

Ben Carson is not afraid to show his personal sympathy and relations to Israel.

The concept of America as a 'Judeo-Christian nation' blends in his quest for the political support of Zionist lobby groups and his 'Christian identity' in one message. And it excludes not only the murderer of Christians in Roseberg, it also excludes 'the radical Muslims'. As a Christian, he is part of the 'Judeo-Christian nation', the others are not: They threaten the very existence of this nation.

The cancer of the American society

In his opening statement of the Republican presidential debate on December 15th 2015, we could see how his identity discourse becomes very political. Carson starts his opening statement with statements about his former work as a neurosurgeon and links this metaforically with the idea that the United States of America are a patient with a certain kind of cancer: The cancer of the radical Islamist jihadi's of IS . He is asking the Congress to declare war on ISIS, to help and cure the disease the country is having.

“You know, as a paediatric neurosurgeon, I frequently faced life and death situations. And had to come up with the right diagnosis, the right plan and execute that plan, frequently with other colleagues. […] And bring peace, prosperity and safety back to America.”

Seven steps for a safer America

In this debate, he advocates seven steps for a safer America, in which he emphasizes on the security of United States’ borders, identifying radical Islamic extremism by name and 'rooting out its agents and collaborators' in our own country. Of course, such medical metaphors are highly effective in a War-discourse. They create an image of necessity and precision. And in case of Carson, it also projects authority. As a surgeon, he is of course far from familiar with waging war, but the use of medical jargon allows the potential voter to imagine he does know what he is talking about. His identity as a Christian on the other hand, allows him to position himself as part of Judeo-Christian America that stands by Israel and is at war with 'Muslim Jihadis'. His identity as a surgeon and as a Christian are thus highly political.

His identity as a surgeon and as a Christian are thus highly political.

This becomes all the more clear when we see that, after the massive shootings in Paris on November 13th 2015, Carson tweeted ‘my thoughts and prayers are with the people in Paris tonight’ (figure below), showing a sign of religious sympathy for the victims. Although in both cases it was announced rather quickly it might have been a terror attack carried out by ISIS-supporters, there was no hashtag saying ‘I am a Christian’ on both these tweets. But implicitly, the duality between 'us', part of the 'Judeo-Christian culture' and 'they', the Muslims, is of course manifested.

Ben Carsons tweet after Paris shootings on November 13th 2015.

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Virality and the long term

Going viral once, is of course no garantue for an electoral victory. We see Carson desperately trying to recreate this virality. Ben Carson really made a stroke in the battle for his candidacy by tweeting ‘I am a Christian’ after the shootings occurred in Oregon. He repositioned himself from not being very open about his religious beliefs to be outspoken about himself being a Christian. Since October 2015 he tweeted and posted numerous of text and pictures praying or quoting Bible texts. 

His position on Second Amendment rights and being a religious Republican grew stronger as a result of (1) the virality of his Christian tweet, (2) the success Trump had with his strong anti-Islam-discourse and (3) the mediatization ISIS and terror-attacks around the world. In this context, Carson started to build a religious Judeo-Christian and pro Christian discourse around himself in order to become the Republican frontrunner.

 

Endnotes

Bull, C.H., Lied, L.I., & Turner, J.D. (2012). Mystery and Secrecy in the Nag Hammadi Collection and Other Ancient Literature: Ideas and Practices. Preview retrieved from Google Books.

Democratic Party (2012). Moving America Forward. 2012 Democratic National platform. 

Hoover, S.M. & Schofield Clark, L. (2002). Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media (p. 277). 

Lempert & Silverstain, (2012). Creatures of Politics. Media, Message, and the American Presidency. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Lund, N. & Winkler, A. The second amendment

Lund, N. Not a second class right. The second amendment today. 

Maly, I. (2012). N-VA. Analyse van een politieke ideologie. Berchem: Epo. 

Maly, I. (2016). 'Scientific' nationalism. N-VA and the discursive battle for the Flemish nation. In Nations & Nationalism.

Maly, I. (in preparation). New media, Politics and Resistance.

Republican Party (2012). We Believe in America: 2012 Republican platform.

Thompon, J.B. (2005). The New visibility. in Theory, Culture & Society, December 2005 vol. 22 no. 6 31-51