“Prayer-Shaming” Isn’t About Attacking Prayer

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

San Bernardino shooting prayer.
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 by Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

Wednesday 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.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the San Bernardino, California, shooting.