If you grew up evangelical, or at least in the fundamentalist brand of evangelicalism I grew up in, one of the things you learned about prayer is that it isn’t gossip if you tell a compromising story about another person and end it by asking for prayer.
You probably also learned that public prayer could be a great opportunity for advertising your extensive knowledge of the Bible and practicing particularly pious sounding phrases in order to impress your friends or, more likely, parents and youth group leaders.
Obviously this is more than a little cynical. There were also plenty of sincerely offered prayer requests and genuinely helpful, beautiful public prayers, although I tend to think we’d do well to use more historical prayers than most evangelical churches do.
But American evangelicalism has always had a bit of an odd relationship to prayer and public prayer in particular. Because of our close historical ties to respectable middle America, ties now dissolving in the present day, prayer was often used to reinforce or establish one’s status in the church. A well-worded “prayer request” could be used to expose another member of the group. A rehearsed public prayer could establish one as “godly” and give one a certain level of authority in the group.
I’ve been thinking of these perversions of prayer as I consider the vitriolic response to prayer in the aftermath of this week’s San Bernardino shooting and the newly minted phrase “prayer shaming.” Taken at face value, of course, it’s all rather absurd and further evidence of the increasingly marginal role of religious faith in the life of many of the shapers of American culture. As Rod Dreher noted in the aftermath of the story, if offers of prayer are treated with such scorn by many of our neighbors what hope do we have of cultivating true neighborliness in America? If our ways of life are that incomprehensible to one another we really do live in separate countries even if we happen to share a place.
Further, as Andy Crouch noted the desire to pray in the immediate aftermath of tragedy is actually quite sensible. In prayer we are expressing sorrow over tragedy and asking for wisdom in knowing how to respond. Given our current cultural climate which assumes the good is obvious, simple, and easily known requests for wisdom and outside help in responding to tragedy are essential.
That something so obvious and basic to traditional religion is now treated with such scorn by our cultural elites is further proof of what Dreher and others have been saying for some time. In a post-Obergefell America traditional believers will be attacked even when we have done nothing wrong.
Consider how many journalists thought it was relevant to specifically mention that Planned Parenthood had a clinic near the site of the shooting despite the complete lack of any evidence linking the shooters to the clinic:
Planned Parenthood near San Bernardino shootings says they’re fine, no gun violence there, per MSNBC.
— Jennifer Bendery (@jbendery) December 2, 2015
It’s not wrong, therefore, to see this response as evidence of an anti-religious sensibility amongst many of our cultural elites on either coast. That said, like many examples of anti-religious sentiment it comes from a mixture of unreasonable personal animus and more understandable aversions to religious formalism that retained the visible trappings of religion with little of its heart.
This is a point Francis Schaeffer was making 50 years ago when he, like a voice in the wilderness (to use the inevitable description of the remarkable man), was calling evangelicalism to a deeper compassion and reality in our practice of Christianity. He was telling us then that if our Christian faith only aimed at personal peace and affluence we could not be surprised when people rejected it:
Schaeffer was telling us in the 1960s and 70s that America’s young people were rejecting a plastic culture that maintained an appearance of religion with none of its life or vitality. That most of us did not hear his call may go some distance to explaining the specific details of our current cultural moment. To take only one example, imagine if the evangelical response to the AIDS crisis had been closer to that of Schaeffer and his friend C. Everett Koop? I’m not sure how much that would change, but certainly evangelicals would have more cultural capital with the gay rights movement then we actually do. To take another example, what if evangelicals had learned to talk about same-sex attraction in the way that Schaeffer was way back in the 1960s when he was making the sort of nuanced, careful analysis we have only discovered en masse in the past 5-10 years? If we had learned our lessons sooner and had been less enamored with the personal peace and affluence on offer from the American mainstream perhaps we wouldn’t be in the dire position we’re in today.
So yes, there is every reason for religious believers to be annoyed by the fact that “prayer shaming” is now a thing. And there is every reason to see it as still another sign of how many of our cultural elites think about religion. But our response cannot stop there with religious believers as basically virtuous victims and secularists as basically vicious perpetrators. The reality is more complex. And that more complex reality is that post-religious secularists are tired of prayer being offered up as an empty gesture by our nation’s pols, many of whom are in the pocket of the gun lobby which has itself boasted about how it benefits from mass shootings.
What we are seeing from many of the politicians offering their “thoughts and prayers” is simply another species of the prayer-as-gossip and prayer-as-performance ritualism that many of us saw as children and, quite rightly, rejected. Though there is something more to prayer shaming than merely this, a part of the prayer shaming we saw this week is a right and appropriate rejection of empty religious ritual. And that is something that the people of God should reject as well because it is something that God rejects, as any reader of the Old Testament prophets knows quite well. The fact that we haven’t rejected this empty ritualism is why we, like past members of God’s covenant community who made the same error, are entering a period of exile. And remember—in Scripture exile follows infidelity.