Politics & Policy

Prayer Isn’t a Distraction

People pray near a memorial to the victims in Sutherland Springs, Texas, November 7, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Bachman)
The anti-prayer tweets aren’t encouraging a debate about gun control; they are discouraging expressions of shock, sympathy, and mourning.

Social-media platforms and the press outfits sniffing clicks through them continue to play a distorting role in tragedies such as the Texas church massacre. The effect is increasing the ambient background level of contempt and hatred in American society.

Even before they express anger at the killer, and even before politicians offer their somewhat rote and impotent expressions of sorrow and sympathy, a huge number of people ready themselves to pounce on “thoughts and prayers.” After the mass shooting in San Bernardino the Daily News derisively featured Republican tweets offering their sympathies on the front page, highlighting the word “prayers” in each one. Now after almost every mass shooting the Huffington Post puts together mocking collections of these tweets and the sick burns people give in response.

Some even opined, stupidly, that the Church massacre proves that prayer is insufficient to stop all violence. It’s an open question why people think this is a smart thing to say. Is it because they are too ignorant to know what prayer is for? That the prayers of people shocked and horrified by the news are for consolation in the face of evil, the strength to seek justice, the wisdom to know the best course of action, or even the eternal rest of the departed? Or is it because they are cynically pretending that people believe prayer works like superstition?

When asked to defend their mocking of prayers offered to God in the face of a massacre in a church, the people in these online dog piles respond that Republicans are offering prayers as a distraction from their own pro-gun-rights politics.

In fact, almost the opposite is the case. Republicans are not shy about defending their views on guns. And they are often forced to do so in the days and weeks after a mass shooting reminds people that America is almost uniquely afflicted by this kind of violence.

In the moments after a tragedy, the fact is we have no idea whether the killer would have been deterred by stricter gun-control laws, whether he broke existing ones, or whether he would have sought to circumvent them the way mass killers do in other countries. We often have no idea how any particular gun-control policies we would like to see implemented would have changed these events.

And so attacking the prayers of politicians in fact substitutes for thought and reflection. It is a way for those who favor more gun control, as I do, to express a sentiment about gun violence, without actually putting forward a policy that addresses the issue at hand. If anyone is using “prayer” as a distraction in the wake of a mass shooting, it is those who want gun control but have no idea how their policy preferences could be implemented, and how those policies would have changed the events.

Of course, all statements from politicians about any tragedy or death sound inadequate, and this is exasperating. But I find it hard to blame them. The public demands statements from their politicians about every grave and unsettling event in our national life. And in relation to the dead and bereaved, politicians are in the same position as any other stranger, only able to offer the bare minimum, the culturally accepted clichés about mourning. Their statements exasperate the public in the same way the repetition of the phrase “sorry for your loss” often quietly tries the patience of those truly bereaved at a funeral, since this phrase is often the only thing that distant acquaintances of the dead can say. We are destined to be annoyed by politicians joining in immediate public mourning for exactly as long as we continue to demand that they participate in it.

The anti-prayer tweets aren’t encouraging a debate about gun control; they are discouraging expressions of shock, sympathy, and mourning. That is, they are discouraging statements about the inherent value of the lives lost that address the real grief of the bereaved. Often that is the only thing we can sensibly offer in the minutes after awful news breaks across our screens. By discouraging these expressions, they are also inadvertently boxing pro-gun-control politicians into talking about the victims of mass shootings in a purely instrumental way, a less human way — thereby reducing such deaths to having no other public meaning beyond another reason to pass legislation that these politicians already wanted to pass. Without being able to offer a plain expression of sorrow and anger, even pro-gun-control politicians are deprived of a means of offering human respect before engaging in politics. This opens them to the charge of disrespecting the dead by using their deaths to promote views to which the dead would object.

So even if you are frustrated with America’s permissive gun rights, it isn’t the prayers offered to the dead that are the problem. Let people mourn the dead. Let them say the human thing first. And then engage in vigorous political debate afterward.

READ MORE:

In the Face of Evil, Prayer Is the Most Rational and Effective Response

In Texas, Two Very American Heroes

— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.

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