Gabby Giffords prayed for yesterday’s victims and no one shamed her. Here’s why.

In the wake of yesterday’s shooting in San Bernardino, it’s been interesting, and depressing, to see otherwise-smart people make some strikingly dense assumptions as to why liberals are taking issue with politicians offering their thoughts and prayers as a response to mass shootings (otherwise knowns as “prayer shaming”).

Well-intentioned commentators — many of whom would identify themselves as decidedly to the left of Mike Huckabee — have chastised “prayer shamers” such as myself for being a) callous and dismissive; and b) hypocritical. Because if prayer really is as bad as the prayer shamers say it is, then why did President Obama and Gabby Giffords, the opposite of gun rights absolutists, offer their prayers in the wake of the tragedy?

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Checkmate, nonbelievers! You hypocrites.

This kind of callout completely misses the point. As I wrote yesterday:

…if you, personally, want to send good thoughts in the direction of someone who has just experienced a loss, go ahead. It doesn’t hurt anyone, although God’s continued agnosticism on American gun violence has made it pretty clear that it isn’t helping, either. What absolutely is hurting people, however, is the continued implicit insistence of the Thoughts and Prayers Caucus that there simply isn’t anything else we can do about America’s off-the-charts homicide rate.

President Obama hugs Gabby Giffords, via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama hugs Gabby Giffords, via Wikimedia Commons

Prayer isn’t a problem in and of itself. Prayer is a problem when it becomes a substitute for action. No one got mad at Gabby Giffords for praying for yesterday’s shooting victims, and it’s because she’s also helping run an organization dedicated to reducing gun violence. She prayed, and then she got back to work — just like the Bible instructs her to. Similarly, President Obama has spent the better part of his second term seeing gun regulation after gun regulation blocked by the same Republicans who were earnestly tweeting their “thoughts and prayers” to yesterday’s victims. As he said after the Oregon shooting, while his thoughts and prayers were with the victims and their families, “our thoughts and prayers aren’t enough.” These politicians didn’t get shamed because they weren’t using their prayers as a way to dodge an uncomfortable political issue. In other words, they didn’t do anything shameful.

People like me, who are all kinds of fed up with the fact that “thoughts and prayers” is all the GOP is willing to offer by way of a response to gun violence, have made this point rather clearly. This being the case, it’s hard to see how the persistence of the claim that we’re just “mocking prayer” is anything other than willful ignorance. At this point, it simply isn’t serious to say that prayer itself is being “mocked.” Prayer in a specific context is being called out as being a political performance. Either engage that point or let it go.

If you do wish to engage the point, you could argue that the people who “prayer-shame” conservative politicians like Ted Cruz overlap with the people who are skeptical of prayer more generally. That’s certainly true. I fall into both camps. That’s why I didn’t pray for the victims of yesterday’s tragedy, nor did I pray for God to prevent the next mass shooting.

What I did do, however, was call out the people we elect to solve our problems for using prayer as a way to avoid talking about how to solve our problems. And I hoped that I or someone else making the same point got their attention. There are a whole lot of ideas out there as to how to curb gun violence. Some of them may even be pretty good. So when the party that controls both houses of Congress goes “lalalalalala I can’t hear you I’m not done praying yet!” every time we try to bring up ideas for how to reduce the number of Americans killed by guns — the same way we try to reduce the number of Americans killed by other things, because death is generally thought to be bad — it is deserving of shame.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • CanuckleDragger

    Two of the biggest bible thumpers in America (Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin) drew targets on Gabby’s head just before she got shot. Now Gabby and her husband are spokes people for the NRA. Washington has a way of turning decent people into sh!t.

  • Scott Holmes

    Vonnegut couldn’t have said it better.

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  • 2karmanot

    Prayer is a shame under any circumstances when it evokes some impotent magic sky nonsense, which reminds me of Marx’s opinion that religion is the opiate of the masses. America has become so enfeebled by guts, glory, god and guns it seems to have totally forgotten that revolution is not a tail-gate party, 1776 my friends!

  • 2karmanot

    This isn’t a rant, nor a dirge, not even an histrionic prophesy, rather a Kaddish for what is increasingly obvious to me, and that is the collapse of the American cultural and civil State. The level of corruption is so rampant and now normalized that the average citizen can’t even depend on basic contract obligations from most institutions. Democrats certainly aren’t excepted from this now unstoppable trend, certainly since Billo Clinton and now we are about to elect Hillary to further the putsch. Republicans have become the Party of radical anarchists, who for decades have been working within our crumbling governing institutions to destroy what now affectionately known as the Old Republic. The theocratic cultists among them are determined to create ‘The Handmaiden’s Tale.’Sound classic capitalist foundations have been replaced with the concept of endless growth and the insane notion that debt as asset is somehow an infinite expansion.
    I suspect that sometime in the decade after Obama leaves office for the wealthy cincture of million dollar speeches the economy will collapse, absolutely will collapse and the forth coming depression, after many desperate patches will devastate the nation with a poverty unimaginable. In collusion with that will be an increased paramilitary presence in which citizens will continue to be murdered at will by the police—especially citizens of color. Endless corporate war has/is bankrupting the nation and only death profiteers gain the game. Worse, war criminals like Cheney walk cynically free. Which, is another illustration that our once vaulted system of justice lies in ruins and we imprison so many individuals that the once Stalinist gulags now look like summer camps. The conclusion: It’s over. Hold on the best you can. We seniors, single parents, the poor and struggling middle class will be the first to fall. Think I should set up crack-pot camp somewhere in Idaho? PS. Bill Perdue, I’ll share my cardboard box with you. Pick a safe, if possible, underpass, under which we may find a furtive rest.

  • Baal

    I don’t need a sky fairy to have a conscience.

  • Don Chandler

    Is your conscience imaginary? In fact, when you ask yourself if you are being completely honest, you are accessing your conscience? I don’t know what it is, but we both have a system within ourselves to distinguish truth from fiction. Or a system that approximates truth from fiction. Socrates might have told Xenophon that he should ask the right questions. Socrates meant present the right questions to some Oracle. The modern atheist might mean ask the right question to oneself, leaving out the entrails and flight of nearby birds and hocus pocus of a some priest. Your prayer is a properly framed question to yourself and to that unseen reservoir that for a lack of better words is your conscience. I don’t accept the binary god of “right and wrong.” I feel there is more than circuitry. That is as far as I can go.

  • Don Chandler

    Finding solutions to problems doesn’t mean that you find the perfect solution to problems. You have to analyze the issue a bit.

    First, why did Obama bring up the No-Fly list? Maybe he wanted Ryan and Republicans to address the issue of due process and transparency on the no-fly list. But he also wanted to show that if you have a list of people that can’t fly, well, it’s far worse to be on the no-fly list than on a list that prohibits gun ownership. This is my opinion, I’d rather be able to fly than carry a gun. I’m not an ammosexual ;) I don’t even want a gun. I like being able to move through neighborhoods without weaponry–just wits or good sense or good will. My drivers license or right to fly is much more important. My ability to get a loan is far more important than having a gun. The right to express myself online is more important than gun ownership. Look at all the people using guns. They are killing people. They don’t appear to be rational.

    Under Bush2, whenever the war machine needed money, they just said, “we need to support our troops…are you going to sign the bill to fund our soldiers or not?” Congress caved in every time. So now, Obama can say, “are you going to keep guns out of the hands of suspected terrorists?” And all Ryan can do is say…what about the suspected terrorist’s due process? It’s a gut punch to the republicans. It’s all they understand. They would rather not act on gun legislation to appease their base than protect the nation from suspected terrorists.

    So, you have to ask yourself, do you trust government to act? Government is never perfect. Transparency is essential when dealing with the public. But to get anywhere, you have to start with strong rhetoric. Don’t the republicans want to keep guns out of terrorist’s hands?

  • Baal

    I have to admit though, if I was completely honest I would say that prayer in and of itself is a problem because it implies belief in supernatural magic and imaginary friends. I don’t think that is very healthy.

  • goulo

    I agree with the general point, of course, that officials need to work on solutions to reducing the US’s serious problem of gun violence, instead of just praying about it.

    But about the specific idea of using the no-fly list as some kind of basis for denying people additional rights (whether gun possession or otherwise) beyond flying: I’d be extremely leery of that, given the no-fly list’s history of arbitrary abuse (it’s evidently used not only against “terrorism suspects” but other groups like progressive activists, journalists, and other random unfortunate people), and complete nontransparency (people cannot even officially find out whether they are on it or not, nor appeal their appearance on the list or discover why they might be on the list). It’s basically like a secret star chamber.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Fly_List

  • goulo

    I agree that the opinion makers like Coulter know what they are cynically & consciously doing when they propagate memes like “prayer shaming”.

    But I think many/most of their readers/listeners/consumers really do fall for those cynical shenanigans and sincerely believe that “hateful intolerant anti-religion liberals are shaming anyone who prays for victims” and when the full story is pointed out and it’s explained that no, it’s not about the praying per se, it doesn’t matter by then, because the rest of the sentence is just gobbledygook nuance to them.

  • It’s a good book, for the most part, although somewhat culturally dated at this point.

    Personally, I thought one of the better moments was when the protagonist, Michael Valentine, finally realizes all the explanations he’s been given for the concepts of ‘humor’ and ‘laughter’ were wrong.

    But yes, ‘grok’ came from it. The word means, basically, to understand something so completely and fully, the understanding becomes part of you. More recently, it’s just just shorthand for being aware and understanding in general.

  • cambridgemac

    Well, snapping at Jon is not a bad thing, because he actually listens. I used to shout at NPR over the bad grammar of both hosts and guests. I think I heard a “guest” say “should have went” once. Or something equally atrocious. Or how about “I’m sorry for your loss.” No, it’s Sorry FOR you (which means to pity) – or Sorry ABOUT your loss. But all of that was a waste of time.

  • cambridgemac

    Yes grok comes from Stranger in a Strange Land and no, the word is not used early on nor is it used like that. Worth reading.

  • Don Chandler

    I think they grok very well what they are doing ;) Ann Coulter, or she the must not be named, wrote a book on how to treat liberals. Of course, like a compliant and cooperative “attention nut”, she told us all her secrets for no more than a thoughtful penny. They grok.

    I never read Stranger in a Strange Land. I have the book but never read it. Is that where you found grok? I’ll give Heinlein another chance. But if he does start his books with “Grok this….” he ain’t got a prayer’s hope ;)

  • Don Chandler

    Maybe the best prayer is one that asks for the help to help oneself. It’s digging deep for hope and action. But then we see these people like Rand Paul making prayers but they never act legislatively. So he wakes up in the morning, knees all sore, to read the Daily News criticizing him for just praying and not acting as a leader needs to act. Of course, the Daily News is exhorting him to act and is the very answer to a prayer: Lead Bozo Rand, stop blaming the press and do something as a Senator of the United States. The guy is clueless.

    Then there is good old Paul Ryan. Last night he got on his knees and prayed to god for help solving these American Shooter issues. In the morning, he wakes up and Obama says, maybe we shouldn’t sell guns to people on the no-fly list. And totally forgetting his prayer last night, Paul Ryan says, ” but what about their due process?” Yeah, right. Last night, Paul Ryan actually was praying for a Republican President…god forbid. So Paul Ryan forgot the meme, “we have a right not to be blown up.” This meme could easily be expanded to “We have the right not to be shot.” So if someone finds themselves on the no-fly list, don’t sell them a weapon. Instead, let them go through due process and acquire a gun if they prove they shouldn’t be on the no fly list. Then folks without weapons can enjoy our god given right not to be shot. Due Process takes time. But a shooter needs mere seconds to shoot and kill. Ofc, all Paul Ryan wants is a Republican President so he can act–now that is fucking WRONG.

  • Fer fuck’s sake… this isn’t and never has been “Don’t pray.” It’s been “Don’t mistake prayer for the only action you need to take.”

    If I’m driving down a highway, praying for God to take the wheel and finish the trip for me will end in only one result: My demise and possibly that of others.

    If I pray for victims, all that’s going to happen is there will be a never-ending source of more gun shooting victims.

    And if I only pray that lunatics stop it with the mass shootings, guess what? The mass shootings will continue.

    Most of all we should not get off track. It’s not the praying we’re criticizing. It’s the fact the right wing and the gun fans demand we do nothing but pray for the victims and just maybe for lunatics to stop murdering people. The down-the-line consistency of the Republican party was the glaring evidence: Not one of them said we should do something concrete about these mass murders. All of them it was “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and not a single suggestion maybe America’s current gun policies and laws could use some reforming.

  • goulo

    A lot of people don’t seem to grok subtlety or nuance in a sentence with more than one part. If you say something like “It’s bad when you pray when you do nothing else to solve the problem and even intentionally try to block any change to the circumstances causing the problem”, then their brain apparently turns off after they hear the first part “It’s bad why you pray” and OMG WTF YOU’RE PRAYER-SHAMING!

    You could probably say “It’s bad to eat dog poop” and they’d hear you saying “It’s bad to eat” and say that you’re eat-shaming and claiming that it’s wrong to eat…

  • Baal

    “Prayer isn’t a problem in and of itself. Prayer is a problem when it becomes a substitute for action.”

    This is it. It is so good, I wrote it again for you. Thank you for pointing this out. It is obvious and shouldn’t require it, but still, thank you.

    Of course Atrios makes the other really good point, most of these people don’t actually pray either, they just say they do.

  • nicho

    Some of the most vicious fights take place in monasteries.

  • Don Chandler

    Ted Cruz is on record for saying that his main objective is to get the government to do nothing. Yeah, we knew, Ted. So your heart felt prayers are seen as basic obstructionism. Where as Gabby Gifford’s are going to be heard by both believers and non-believers as sincere.

  • Don Chandler

    It was a long time ago. I found myself in a gay “safe space” at the student union. I think we needed one all those years ago. I was in my later twenties and snuck into the room. It was filled with all these young gay guys in their early twenties or younger. They then shut the door and it became a kissing and necking “safe space”. It felt like nothing was safe. It was more like out of the frying pan and into the fire for me. Very funny moment in retrospect. So in a “safe space” nobody can protect you from one another…

  • nicho

    And the same to college kids — there are no “safe spaces.” Stop demanding them. Once you leave mommy and daddy’s house (and maybe before) someone is going to call you a name, spit in your milk, steal your shoe. Part of growing up is learning how to deal with that. College administrators would earn their money if they would tell the students that instead of cowering.

  • Don Chandler

    “oh, you’re shame shaming.” ;)

    Yeah, it’s time to grow some thick skin, nothing so thin as donald trump’s skin. I’m tired if his “media shaming”, he’s running for fucking president …

  • nicho

    Agree about the substance of the article. It’s just that the “shaming” terminology is getting to me — and I snapped.

  • cambridgemac

    I think the use of -shaming as a recipe for neologisms started with the dog-shaming photos, which I have to admit I continue to enjoy. But I get your point. I hate adding -gate to anything in order to “brand” a scandal
    As for the substance of the article, rather than the vocabulary, I think it’s right on.

  • nicho

    Can we please stop with this fucking nonsense of calling every type of criticism “shaming.” It’s getting really really old.

    My back is sore because the guy next to me on the plane weighed 450 pounds and was halfway into my seat. “Oh, you’re fat shaming.”

    This woman has nine kids by six different guys. “Oh, you’re slut shaming.”

    All these people say they’re praying, but they’re not doing one goddamn constructive thing. “Oh, you’re prayer shaming.”

    Just fucking stop it. Take is out of your vocabulary.

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