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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