The First Amendment, by definition, doesn’t need your prayers

I think it’s fascinating that the same people who spent the better part of the last month calling anti-racist college students “coddled” are now curling up into a ball over the mere suggestion that prayers aren’t an adequate substitute for public policy.

But that’s exactly what Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan did this morning, arguing that the wave of “prayer shaming” in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting has put the First Amendment itself at risk. As she titled her column, “The First Amendment Needs Your Prayers,” writing:

Prayer, via Wikimedia Commons

Prayer, via Wikimedia Commons

Americans are growing weary of being told what they can and cannot publicly say, proclaim and think. We all know what’s going on at the colleges, with the mad little Marats and Robespierres who are telling students and administrators what they are and are not allowed to say or do. This is not just kids acting up at this point, it’s a real censorship movement backed by an ideology that is hostile to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is led by students who, though they managed to get into the greatest universities in the country, seem never to have been taught to love the little amendment that guarantees free speech and free religious observance, the two pillars without which America collapses. And too bad, because when you don’t love something you lose it.

Once again, since this bears repeating, the First Amendment does not protect your bad opinions from being called out as such. It may be your right to say something racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or deliberately deflective, but as this seemingly always-timely XKCD comic shows, it is also my right to call out your speech for what it is:

[iframe src=”http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/free_speech.png”]

The fact that your speech takes the form of a prayer doesn’t protect you from the criticism that your prayer, when used as an anti-anti-gun talking point, is doing more harm than good. That isn’t censorship; that’s disagreement.

The First Amendment doesn’t need your prayers. It isn’t a religious document, nor is it even a social document. It’s a legal document that says that the government can’t, among many other things, prohibit you from expressing your feelings following a mass shooting. That applies to prayers, but it also applies to the opinions about prayers. I don’t call it “censorship” when Noonan writes that I shouldn’t criticize her religious speech, or that I shouldn’t talk about gun regulations following a mass shooting. She’d prefer that I don’t say certain things — and she can criticize me for saying them! — but she isn’t using government to make her preference a political reality. She just has a (wrong, bad, counterproductive) opinion.

Two sides of a political debate are freely exchanging criticisms of each other in the public sphere, and that’s how the system is supposed to work. It may be jarring for Christians to be the target of criticism at this scale, as for the first 200+ years of the United States’ existence they enjoyed a dominant position in our country’s social hierarchy, but these callouts for using prayer as a substitute for public policy represent a loss of a privilege, not the loss of a right.

Noonan writes that, “The censorship movement is radical. It is starting to make everyone in the country feel harassed and anxious.” What a coddled special snowflake. Criticism of prayer isn’t a violation of your rights to free religion and speech. It’s an exercise of mine. I hope she gets the point.


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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9 Responses to “The First Amendment, by definition, doesn’t need your prayers”

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  2. Baal says:

    Matthew 23: 1-2

    Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They
    tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s
    shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move
    them. 5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[a] wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

  3. irritatorofthepowerful says:

    Seems to me that prayers for the victims of the shootings are roughly equivalent to Michelle Obama holding up a sign that said #Bringbackourgirls when Boko Haram kidnapped those poor gals. Neither brought back the victims but maybe it made Michelle and Peggy feel better. Of course Michelle’s husband could have actually done something but he chose not to.

  4. intlet9949 says:

    Peggy wrote….” But prayer is a very active endeavor—it takes time, energy, concentration.”

    The shooters prayed five times a day and the response they heard was….KILL THE INFIDELS! Does that mean prayer works?

  5. DoverBill says:

    My thoughts and prayers are with you Mz. Noonan of the Right!

    You are a fine, fine American…. just like Sean and Rush and…

  6. BeccaM says:

    This is Peggy Noonan you’re talking about, Jon. There’s no way in hell she’ll get your point.

    She and her ilk have decided they’re not going to listen to both parts of the sentence, “Don’t pray if that’s all you plan to do or, more importantly, allow to be done.” All they hear is “Don’t pray”–which they conflate to mean somehow we’re going to force them to stop praying.

    Like I remarked the other day, although people may attach all kinds of import and significance to the act of praying, prayer alone is like signing an online petition: You may think you’ve actually done something useful, might even be emotionally attached to the idea you’ve accomplished something meaningful, but in actuality it was a sophist exercise.

    Pray for an end to poverty and hunger…or donate money to your local food bank. Or, better still, go volunteer in a soup kitchen for the homeless, or drive for Meals on Wheels. Guess which of these actually accomplished something useful and helpful, and which was just wishing really hard for a deity to magically fix everything?

    A prayer alone isn’t going to change the minds of politicians who think it’s safer for their careers to allow more and more access to guns — including at this point the position that it is perfectly fine for those who are otherwise banned from travel on planes to buy unlimited weaponry and ammo. This is the official position of Congressional Republicans. Prayer isn’t going to fix this situation either, not when they think it only matters that they appease the minority of their own supporters who want no gun laws at all. Supposedly a majority of Republican voters support universal background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill…but they don’t hold their elected leaders to this. So the Republicans in government obey only the NRA and the guns-for-all supporters who do wreak consequences if the GOPers don’t stay in total lockstep.

    However, Jon, we should be aware here this “war on prayer” they’re trying to gin up is nothing but their yelling SQUIRREL! They do not want there to be any limits on guns and appear to want everybody armed, everywhere…unless your skin color is dark and/or you’re not a Christian. We say it’s long past time for some meaningful gun law reforms, including universal background checks and closing the gun show, internet, and private sales loopholes, and perhaps just maybe people do not need magazines capable of holding dozens or even hundreds of rounds…and they are forcing us to explain instead that we’re not attacking them personally or their religious beliefs. (It’s dismaying, sickening, and ironic–and somehow also not surprising–they’re attaching religion to their gun fetish, but there it is.)

    Each time there is yet another of these massacres, these mass murders, they frantically try to make the conversation about anything other than keeping lethal weaponry out of the hands of the mentally ill and would-be evil doers. This time it’s prayer. Last week, it was arguing about Robert Dear Jr’s motives for murdering people at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Other times, they try to make it about violent video games.

    Don’t fall for it.

  7. LasloPratt says:

    Dontcha get it? Noonan isn’t free unless she’s free to tell YOU what to do.

  8. Houndentenor says:

    The fauxrage is typical right wing bullshit. No one is objecting to prayers. The Daily News is rightly objecting to the use of prayer by public officials to pretend to care when they quite obviously do not. In fact many have stated outright that the daily (sometimes more) mass shootings are just a price we have to pay for the 2nd Amendment. That’s the reason for the reaction. The fauxrage is just bullshit.

  9. nicho says:

    No one is criticizing prayer, per se. People are criticizing the notion that if you pray you’ve actually done something constructive to solve the problem.

    I spent what seemed like a million and a half years in Catholic schools. We were always taught:

    a. Pray as if everything depended on God
    b. Work as if everything depended on you.

    People these days, engage in a. without going to b. In the last three years, we’ve had 1,000 mass shootings. After every one, people say they pray. Guess what? It’ ain’t a-workin’.

    So here’s the deal. Every time you say a prayer, follow it up with a real constructive action:

    Call your senator or congressman. Demand action on gun control.
    Tell your senator, congressman, governor, mayor, whoever that you will not donate to or vote for anyone who doesn’t support gun control. Tell them you will pray for them instead.

    Get a group. Picket your local gun shop.

    Go around the neighborhood and get signatures on a petition to send to your representatives.

    Anything. But if all you do is stand around and mumble words, maybe your god figures you’re not really serious about it since you’re not actually doing anything about it. It’s a lot like sitting in the ice cream store and praying to god to make you thin just before you scarf down the second hot fudge sundae of the day.

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