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Graham writes: "How comforting to be able to argue about language from these worn trenches, rather than to confront the raw, unfolding horror of the shooting itself."

A heavily armed officer sets up a perimeter near the site of a shooting that took place on Dec. 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. (photo: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)
A heavily armed officer sets up a perimeter near the site of a shooting that took place on Dec. 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. (photo: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)

"Prayer-Shaming" Isn't About Attacking Prayer

By Ruth Graham, Slate

06 December 15


It’s about calling out empty platitudes in the wake of tragedies such as San Bernardino.

ednesday afternoon, two shooters turned San Bernardino, California, into the site of the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. since the 2012 attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School. Even considering the unusual early details—the husband-and-wife attackers, their escape from the scene—there was a grim familiarity to the way Wednesday’s events unfolded. The aerial maps, the police press conference, the worried relatives cleaving one by one into groups of the relieved and the grieving—Americans know these scripts by now.

One element of the post-massacre liturgy is getting fresh attention, however: the politicians who quickly offered their public “thoughts and prayers” to the victims. President Obama pushed back against “thoughts and prayers” in a press conference after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in October. “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” Obama said back then. Two months and 57 mass shootings later, the apparent backlash against prayer has metastasized. “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS” blared the New York Daily News’s remarkable front page Thursday morning.

The Daily News editors illustrated their point with tweets from GOP leaders who had quickly turned out near-identical statements. Indeed, several presidential candidates seemed to speak in unison: “Our prayers are with the victims ...” (Ted Cruz), “My thoughts and prayers are with the shooting victims ...” (Ben Carson), “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims ...” (Rand Paul), and so on. An editor at Think Progress retweeted a long series of “thinking and praying” politicians and appended information about their recent campaign donations from the NRA. The Washington editor of the Nation contrasted Republicans’ “thoughts and prayers” with the Democratic candidates’ calls to action:

Both politicians and plebes have been offering “thoughts and prayers” in response to tragedy for ages. It’s a stock phrase in both sympathy cards and verified tweets. So what’s going on with this new resentment? Emma Green, writing in the Atlantic, dubbed it “prayer shaming”:

There’s a clear claim being made here, and one with an edge: Democrats care about doing something and taking action while Republicans waste time offering meaningless prayers. These two reactions, policy-making and praying, are portrayed as mutually exclusive, coming from totally contrasting worldviews.

And with that, the battle lines were drawn. Conservatives took umbrage at the “prayer shaming,” liberals took umbrage at the umbrage, and the cycle took on familiar contours. How comforting to be able to argue about language from these worn trenches, rather than to confront the raw, unfolding horror of the shooting itself.

Green subtly put her finger on a real phenomenon: America’s declining patience for expressions of civil religion, particularly in elite quarters. (Full disclosure: I contribute regularly to the Atlantic.) Conservatives are exquisitely tuned to this long decline, but it’s not new, and it’s reflective of a country in which the fastest-growing religious identification is “no religion.” Almost one-quarter of Americans now say they are atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular,” according to Pew, so it’s to be expected that we’re hearing more skepticism over politicians’ expressions of piety.

And let’s be clear: This week’s prominent “prayer shamers” aren’t really against prayer. They’re against platitudes. The problem is when “thoughts and prayers” are the only response to a public event that calls for political action. It’s hard to imagine that even the most dedicated atheist objects to Ted Cruz kneeling by his bed at night to pray for the victims of yesterday’s shooting. What Cruz chooses to do in his bedroom is his own business. The issue is that politicians like him continue to offer thoughts and prayers and nothing else: no assault weapons ban, no universal background checks, no federal gun registry.

And what about those tweeted assurances that a politician is praying? Here’s what Jesus himself said, in a passage in the book of Matthew introducing the Lord’s Prayer:

When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Until now, “thoughts and prayers” has been a bipartisan cliché, and a harmless one. Going forward, it seems the phrase will become a politically inflected dog whistle in some quarters in the vein of Chik-fil-A and “Merry Christmas.” That’s a loss. But it’s nothing compared to the losses we endured this week, and last week, and the week before that, and the week before that, and the week before that. your social media marketing partner


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+22 # Thomas Martin 2015-12-06 22:54
quite true - our thoughts and prayers are made authentic and expressed through our actions
+7 # Shades of gray matter 2015-12-06 23:24
Some affluent minority churches around Detroit suburbs bought expensive billboards when Detroit was in crisis: "We Lift Up Detroit With Prayer."
New mayor, GOP governor (god forgive me for saying it), wealthy outsiders have done a LOT more good than those billboards, or alleged prayers. Try sending prayers to the IRS, those atheist bastards. Or your cable provider.
+10 # PaulK 2015-12-07 07:28
I have seen First People tribes complain about Euro-Americans dressing up in Native American drag. Bending one's identity may give one a certain personal feeling, some kind of satisfaction inside, but it's not really like taking on that other type of life full-time.

I kind of expect to see righteous moral comments written about Christians by nontheists and agnostics in drag. I would rather that you walk your nontheist talk in your comments.

The Christians among us have our own set of issues. Political tap-dancers within our corrupt government are all sending their public prayers, but the Old Testament prophets would have a major problem here. God listens to people's lives. What have these people done to glorify Christianity? Have they fed the widow and the orphan? Or, have they raided Social Security taxes in one year and cut Social Security payments next year? Have they in fact worshiped mammon (money) for all of their lives? Is mammon not their true god? When I see what they're setting their own great grandchildren up for, is not Moloch, a fiery furnace into which acolytes throw their children, not their god?
+5 # Charles3000 2015-12-07 08:35
Americans need to understand and appreciate the dominant religious thinking of our founding fathers and it was not Judeo-Christian as often asserted by some. The majority of the founding fathers embraced deism, believing in God as the creator of the universe but rejecting the notion that God interacts in the lives of people. It is a very logical and observationally confirmed position, rejecting the utility of prayer.
-4 # Depressionborn 2015-12-07 09:33
Hogwash. Charles3000 2015-12-07 08:35 (That means really not so)

George Washington: called the nation's first federal day of prayer. According to President Washington, "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”

Benjamin Franklin:.... called them to prayer. He told them:
"...In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men.
So, I would point to the independence of America and the creation of its unique Constitution and government as direct answers to prayer."

There are many more founding father prayer examples. All refute Deism. Deism puts mankind in charge of His world. I think I can hear Him laughing.
+4 # StuBones1960 2015-12-07 11:45
You will note neither quote mentions Jesus. Washington was episcopalian, but had little patience for its trappings and ceremony (often leaving before mass). Franklin was a Christian, but had serious doubts as to the divinity of Jesus. Plus, that's only two. Most of the others were deists.
-2 # Depressionborn 2015-12-07 13:39
The issue was Deism and prayer.
Deists do not recognize God's presence and would not have prayed to Him.

I do not know if the founders followed the Gospel, but Harvard was a seminary and it is illogical to be a Christian and not follow Christ. It would be a weird contradiction. Most all of them prayed, at least they said so.
+5 # Buddha 2015-12-07 09:53
How dare you quote Jesus and use it to attack Christians! Don't you know, in America, being "Christian" has very little to do with actually following the teachings of Christ, bleeding heart communist that he was, eye-roll.
-4 # Depressionborn 2015-12-07 13:51
rsn often has difficulty with words. They are want to make up new meanings.
"Christian" for example. seems beyond rsn understanding. Being Christian to us is not complex, or politics but un-understandab le to most rsn posters.

Maybe this will help them: We believe:
Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). God’s love for you isn’t based on what you do or don’t do, it's based on His Son Jesus and your decision to accept Him!

0 # economagic 2015-12-07 21:12
Been there, done that. Karen Armstrong, one of the best modern scholars of religion, pointed out a decade ago that it's not about belief. It does not require profound thought to recognize the absurdity of the insistence that it IS ALL about belief, a couple of isolated quotes recorded only decades after the fact by people who were not there notwithstanding .
+1 # newell 2015-12-07 16:30
why is attacking prayer wrong? if my child is praying to a telephone pole for help or guidance or because she wants a new toy--i, and i think most, would question that behavior. jesus and muhammad were great men and teachers--but when we make them gods and talk (pray) to them we lose reason and rationality. that said, people should have the freedom to believe whatever they want unless it effects me. if some religious zealot prays to god and hears voices--let's say a future president cruz and god, or the devil, tells him to push the button--that effects me. or if people are praying for the next life, a fantasy afterlife, with no concern for this life--this planet--that effects me.
-3 # Depressionborn 2015-12-07 18:12
Then you believe newell 2015-12-07 16:30 that the planet is going to pot and it is wrong, even bad, for us not to be doing something about it?

Me: I agree the planet is going to pot. I just think governments are doing the dirty deeds-so lets get rid of them.
0 # newell 2015-12-08 08:41
i can tell you why i think the planet is "going to pot" as you put it..... the 'civilized" class-system countries demonized and colonized the healthy cultures of africa and most of the new world, then royalty (1%) got the world hooked on materialism. now we live in a sick, empty culture of wanting bigger houses, bigger cars and bigger screens. so the planet is dying...... they tell us we live in democracies. we now have the technology to vote directly (like a townhall) on computers or phone--we could vote on war, taxes, environment, minimum wage--we no longer need representatives . we could vote for a lower population that would control climate change, mass extinctions, resources--but growth is money and the 1% can't seem to get government? it works on a small scale--communis m, socialism or capitalism. but if you want small local governance--i would want a very, very detailed, explicit, declaration of human rights--defende d by a randomly chosen annual panel to settle clarification of those rights.
+1 # davehaze 2015-12-13 18:41
Your behavior is what you believe.

Do I care that you say you are a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist or a Jane? No. Do I want to hear about your faith or your prayers or lack of faith? No.

I have had to put up with more fucked up Christians in my life than any other group just because they dominate my country and not because they are worse than.

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