‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Could Be Exactly What America Needs

Gandhi called prayer “the most potent instrument of action.” But will politicians follow through?

Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

Americans have developed a set of rituals around mass shootings. Politicians who oppose gun control pray for the victims. Politicians and journalists who support gun control savage them for praying rather than acting. After the San Bernardino murders in December 2015, the New York Daily News reprinted four Republicans’ tweets about prayer on its cover alongside the words “God Isn’t Fixing This.” After Stephen Paddock killed 58 people in Las Vegas, Chris Murphy excoriated his Senate colleagues: “Your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers.” After Sunday’s murders in Texas, when Paul Ryan tweeted, “The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers,” Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal responded: “They don’t need our prayers. They need us to address gun violence crisis & pass sensible regulation.”

Prayapal’s anguish is understandable. But there’s a different—potentially more effective—response. Instead of castigating Republicans for praying rather than acting, gun-control advocates could suggest that, by praying but not acting, Republican politicians aren’t really praying at all.

Prayer serves various purposes. But in many religious traditions, it is designed to cultivate the spiritual and ethical qualities necessary for righteous action. “Prayer,” argued Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood.” When he joined Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Heschel famously said, “My legs were praying.” Joseph B. Soloveitchik, arguably the most important 20th-century American modern orthodox rabbi, wrote that, “Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are.” Gandhi insisted that, “Prayer is not … idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, notes that, every morning, when Jews praise God who “clothes the naked,” “releases the bound,” and “raises the downtrodden,” they are also promising to do so themselves, since human beings are supposed to imitate the divine.

In her forward to the 2003 book, Standing in the Need of Prayer: A Celebration of Black Prayer, Coretta Scott King recounts a night during the Montgomery Bus Boycott when her husband was awakened by “a threatening and abusive phone call.” Fearful for his family’s safety, “Martin bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud to God: ‘Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can't face it alone.’”

He later told her that, “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: ‘Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever.’” She notes that,  “When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything.”

It would be presumptuous to tell Republican members of Congress that their prayers are worthless unless they lead them to support specific legislation. But gun-control advocates might ask politicians like Ryan for at least some evidence that their prayers have deepened their sensitivity to the suffering in Sutherland Springs. Even if Ryan can’t bring himself to rethink gun control—even if he truly believes, like Donald Trump, that the real problem is mental health—he could still challenge Trump’s cuts to mental-health funding, or take some other action he thinks might prevent the next such tragedy.

According to the Pew Research Center, conservatives are more than twice as likely as liberals to attend religious services every week, and 28 points more likely to pray every day. Given these discrepancies, liberal mockery of conservative prayer reinforces the cultural gulf that separates red and blue America. Better to embrace conservative calls to prayer, and ask to see its fruits.

“Whenever I open my prayer book,” Heschel said during the Vietnam War, “I see before me images of children burning from napalm.” Instead of asking conservatives not to pray, liberals can ask them to see in their prayers the victims strewn throughout First Baptist Church, and to act in their name.