On 7 January 2016, I asked Google, ‘what religion is Barack Obama?’ After considering the problem for .42 seconds, Google offered more than 34 million ‘results.’ The most obvious answer was at the top, accentuated by a rectangular border, with the large word ‘Muslim.’ Beneath that one word read the line, “Though Obama is a practicing Christian and he was chiefly raised by his mother and her Christian parents…” Thank you, Google.
Google is a treasure trove for religious historians. This search and the results alone could fuel days of conversation for my classes. What does it mean to ask an electronic aggregator to answer a question about individual values (belief) that cannot be physically discerned? How do we account for the complicated initial answer (Muslim … practicing Christian … her Christian parents)?
The Obama answer came from a Wikipedia page, a web hosting site that allows users to modify the contents. All in one, Wikipedia is democracy and anarchy, the best of information sharing and the worst. Whether you accept it as a source for citation or not, well, that’s up to you. In this case, we have the Obama religion wars in black and white print … err… in color on a screen.
I scrolled through some of the pages containing these Google ‘hits.’ There were articles from academics, newspaper reports, and blog rants. Many times, the same stories or snippets of information were ‘shared’ (is it plagiarism if it’s on the web?) It seemed that there were as many angles on this one topic – the religion of Obama – as there were voters in the elections he won.
I’m as interested in the process by which humans search for and locate answers to our questions as the answers themselves. In the case of Obama’s religion, this process of seeking and finding may be as informative as the answers Obama gives himself,or the church or mosque or synagogue he attends, or what some pundit or academic has to say about him. The reality is, when most of us want to know something, whether it is about religion or anything else, we ask website aggregators. Years ago, ‘he’ may have been humorously named ‘Jeeves,’ but these web services play the role of priest, librarian, friend, and even god. When we want to ‘know’ something, we turn to the collective of human- and cyber-created information through search engines like Google.
When it comes to religion and politics, this new god of Google gives and gives and gives. This is particularly true for one topic that has run through my research during the past fifteen years: the question of “Was the United States established as a Christian nation?” Obama dealt with this explicitly in 2008 before he was elected president. Numerous historians have written brilliantly on the topic. But one text that has been largely neglected was a petition from African Americans in Massachusetts in 1777 for their freedom. In it, they described the land as a “Christian country.” Those searching for ‘Christian nation’ may not find the piece because of the slight (is it slight?) difference between ‘nation’ and ‘country.’ Thanks to Google (and some diligent librarians and archivists), we can locate not only transcriptions of the petition, but also scans of the original document.
But sources like this, as is the case with anything else placed and found on the World Wide Web, are not without their own set of problems to consider. First is how the documents are presented. One organization presents the petition as an example of American love for freedom and Christianity. Another sets it as an indication of white supremacy. Beyond such content framing, what would the materiality of the source tell us that we cannot see or feel on the computer monitor? Was the paper perfumed or scented at any point? Does capitalization (or lack thereof) matter? Were or are there any other pieces of data or information surrounding the page that have been removed? How heavy or fine was the paper?
All of these seemingly little things may matter, just as our ability to find more than 30 million results to the question of Barack Obama’s faith. One dilemma of the Information Age is how to deal with all of the information we have. Another is to deal with what information we think we have, when in fact we may not.
So when it comes to the religion of Obama, neither I, nor Google, nor any of us will ever ‘know.’ As to whether the United States was, is, or will be a ‘Christian nation’ (or ‘country’) is another question we cannot ‘know.’ But that’s the beauty of religion and perhaps the Internet itself: the point isn’t always to know. It’s to believe.
Featured image credit: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend a church service at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 by Pete Souza. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.