Prayer shaming: Are prayer and political action at odds?

As #prayershaming sweeps social media, many on the right and left are rejecting what they see as a simplistic discussion of the meaning of prayer within the public sphere, especially after mass killings.

James Quigg/Daily Press/AP
Dr. Jeannetta Million (c.) of Victorious Believers Church leads a group of local pastors in a brief prayer vigil on Thursday at the corner of Waterman and Orange Show Drive in San Bernardino, Calif. just blocks from the scene of a mass shooting.

In the wake of tragedy and sorrow, many people offer to those who are hurting a simple act of social grace and spiritual solidarity: “You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”

It’s usually an act of personal intimacy, rooted both in faith and a kind of cautious empathy, many observers say. Moments of grief, sudden and unexpected, can seem to be beyond words, and even collective responses to sorrow often begin with moments of silence and reflection.

Yet amid the frustrations of yet another mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., where 14 people lost their lives and at least 17 were injured, this social grace has been politicized. Within the 140-character parameters of public quips and avatars on screens, tweets offering thoughts and prayers to victims online have appeared to many a hollow political pose – empty cliches and self-interested public platitudes without any deeper calls to action.

And now it’s become a new social media phenomenon: #prayershaming.

On the one hand, the new hashtag in many ways reflects the country’s deepening political and cultural divides. A secular-leaning left demands action for gun control, while a religious-leaning right offers, ostensibly, prayers but no solutions to the country’s problem of mass shootings, which are becoming more and more a part of the everyday American landscape.

Still, as the trending #prayershaming debates sweeps across the country, many on the right and left both are rejecting what they see as a simplistic if not itself cliched discussion of the meaning of prayer within the public sphere.

“Prayer is an inner commitment to transform our deepest hopes into social goods, healing, and community-building,” says Randal Jelks, a professor of African American studies and religion at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). “And there are lots of discussions among people of faith – people joining forces with anybody who will listen to each other.”

“But I do think, this larger religious posture of piety without action – I think people are frustrated,” he continues. “Overall, the American public includes many who are religious themselves, and who see the efficacy of prayer, but they, too, are deeply frustrated. So I don’t see it as a divide.”

But the hashtag, too, has also evoked a deeper theological debate about the efficacy of prayer – a debate that goes back to the origins of secular society centuries ago, scholars say.

“God isn’t fixing this: as latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes,” blares the provocative and much tweeted cover and tagline in today’s New York Daily News.

The political debate over prayer began almost immediately after news of the shootings in San Bernardino begin to unfold on Wednesday, and a number of Republican presidential candidates tweeted their offerings of prayer and support.

“Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing – again,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut. 

Later, after his tweet began to circulate, his office clarified his point, making the same distinction between the “thoughtful reaction of people to pray in times of tragedy in grief” and what he saw as some lawmakers’ empty banalities and general inaction in the wake of the the country’s mass shootings, the 355th in the first 336 days of 2015.

“I’ve been exasperated by the way politicians have used prayer, too,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a prominent conservative Evangelical thinker, in The Washington Post. “Some campaign ‘benedictions’ are basically campaign commercials containing everything but ‘I’m John Smith, and I approved this message,’ at the end.”

But while Mr. Moore said he could try to give prayer cynics the benefit of the doubt when it came to political posturing, and affirmed a necessary public debate over gun control, he noted that the “vicious” #prayershaming on social media has extended into something far more.  

“If you shame away the most human aspects of public life — such as the call to pray for one another — you will find this situation worsening, not getting better,” he wrote. “After all, we learn to listen to one another, and even work together, because we see one another as fellow humans, fellow citizens, as people of goodwill, not just as avatars to be warred against on a screen.”

Yet many on the left, however, note that many of the presidential candidates and other politicians offering thoughts and prayers, but no real solutions, also happen to receive thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association. Igor Volsky of ThinkProgress tweeted a list of those who offered prayers along with the amounts they received.

The current debate over public expressions of prayer does illustrate how much the country has changed over the past few decades, many observers say. No longer is there a widely shared language of religion and politics, as the country generally becomes less religious, according to polls.

But as Emma Green at The Atlantic pointed out, the current cynicism online belies the facts on the ground. As people inside the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino hid from the shooters, a woman texted her father:  “Pray for us.” At the same time, those who had been evacuated formed a prayer circle outside the building, holding hands.

“Prayer and political action have a deeply entwined history in America,” Ms. Green and others also note, saying that most all social justice movements, including the fights for civil rights and women’s suffrage, maintained deep religious ties.  

“And maybe silence is the best way of being in solidarity because it’s such a horror to the people who have experienced loss,” says Jelks at the University of Kansas. 

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