In the aftermath of last Sunday's horrific shooting in a Texas church, there was an almost instantaneous reaction: People demanded politicians do more than just invoke the customary "thoughts and prayers," which has become cliche during these now-too-common acts of violence.
Politicians, especially those on the right, took an immediate offense to such reactions, saying that it suggested a typical left-wing elite hostility toward religion. Thoughtful religious reflection was exactly what a hurting nation needed, they responded. In other words, thoughts and prayers were completely adequate and appropriate.
Of course, the point of the frustrated citizens was not an attack on thinking or praying, instead it was a call to action — in other words, do something more than just offers somber platitudes.
Some politicians took the opportunity to ignore the topics of gun control, mental health or violence and instead made themselves the victims — of a hostile left, hellbent on mocking religion.
What chutzpah! Only a politician could take a mass shooting and fancy themselves as a victim.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan was quoted in the Washington Post, "It’s disappointing, it’s sad, and this is what you’ll get from the far secular left. People who do not have faith don’t understand faith, I guess I’d have to say. And it is the right thing to do is to pray in moments like this, because you know what? Prayer works."
It's convenient to take what is a conversation about gun control and change it into a discussion of religion, specifically evangelical Christianity being under attack.
It's a telling sign of the times when a politician regards God as a less dangerous subject than guns.
Beyond spinning this away from the actual topic of guns and missing the call to action, let's take Ryan and others at their word and deal with the theology of prayer.
I appreciate and believe in the power of prayer, but not in the same way Ryan does. Prayer cannot put the bullets back into the guns of those who unleash unbelievable violence.
Politicians, like Ryan, who believe in the power of prayer, have to answer the uncomfortable question of why some prayers seem to work, while others go unanswered. Believing blindly that a bowed head and some godly thoughts are a sort of prayer panacea risks turning it into a measure of God's favor. In other words, the more righteous your prayers, the greater the likelihood the Almighty will listen.
But that does a terrible disservice to those caught in that Texas church.
We may never know what their last thoughts were, but I bet many were prayers. And suggesting that thoughts and prayers right now are an adequate response is an insult to those who were in that church, presumably praying for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
If the power of prayer was adequate, then it would have been enough to stop the bullets in, of all places, a church. If God didn't intervene on behalf of those dying victims' prayers, why would politicians believe theirs would be somehow more efficacious?
Alas, prayers seemed insufficient when put up against the firepower of a very sick person. So it stands to reason that prayers and thoughts will not be enough to thwart the next mass shooting.
If we must pray, can't we at least ask for something more inspired and thoughtful? Can we pray for heavenly wisdom for our leaders to truly solve the problem? Can we pray for a unity of spirit — can we have solidarity enough to fix this one problem? Violence isn't a political issue, yet solving it seems to be.
For all that politicians talk about the power of prayer, they never talk about the real danger of it: That it can be used as an excuse.
Ryan invoking the power of prayer shifts responsibility away from politicians like him who have the power to make change, and it shifts it toward God. You know: Power of prayer works, so therefore as long as we've said our obligatory prayers, it's now in the Good Lord's hands, not ours.
Ryan placing his faith in prayer puts the responsibility for changing on God, and less on Congress. What's worse: It makes those who want change, and are fed up with killing after killing, heretics rather than patriots concerned about the safety of their country.
In the debate about gun control, Ryan has amazingly turned prayer into an us-versus-them weapon. It would be clever if not so toxic.
Turning the Texas massacre into a religious debate is one of the shrewdest moves the conservatives can muster, because it's an argument they might win. Talking about the unacceptable and unprecedented level of violence due to lax gun laws in our country is growing more and more difficult with every revolting incident.
Let's not confuse the prayer, "God help us," with "God, we're helpless."