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:

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.

(image via: http://www.religionnews.com/2015/12/03/daily-news-provokes-with-cover-on-calif-shooting-god-isnt-fixing-this/)

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

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  • What is called prayer shaming today was a small part of the book of James back in NT times (see James 2:14-17). And the reason for the “prayer shaming” is that American Conservative Christianity is really preaching two Gospels for 2 Kingdoms. It is preaching the Gospel for the heavenly Kingdom and conservative/Republican Party ideology for the earthly kingdom. So as we urge people to pray about gun violence because of the Bible while, because of our political ideology, oppose al government attempts to reduce that violence, people get confused and frustrated.

    I’m not saying that we should share our poitical convictions. But the tie between conservative Christianity and conservative politics in America is so strong that the two are constantly being conflated. That associaion needs to be relaxed.

    • Charles

      Would it be the same issue if America were tied to leftist policies? I think both ideologies seek to create and earthly kingdom and a Heavenly one.

      • Charles,
        Not everyone belonging to either ideology are utopian in nature. Early Marxists were because they scapegoated the bourgeoisie, externalized evil to others than themselves, and believed that the world’s problem with the distribution of wealth was because the bourgeoisie was the ruling class instead of the proletariat.

        So those who are looking simply to improve things, whether they are from the left or non-left, (there are more than 2 groups), engage less in seeking to create a heaven on earth.

        • Charles

          What I have heard you describe about your views is that our priority should be justice in all phases of life. I’ve heard you argue that we should unconditionally provide for the poor, accept every person’s way of life (within reason), encourage and foster peace throughout the world through our foreign policy, and ensure that healthcare be easily and affordably available to everyone regardless of income level. Unless you and I have a different definition of Heaven, then I believe what you want is heaven on Earth as well. I think we all, regardless of how close to God we are, selfishly pursue our own heaven on Earth whether it be in our personal lives, or through our politics.
          In the end, anyone who claims to value God’s word but also stands on a political pedestal looking down at the lesser forms of government or lesser molds for society is in grave contradiction of what we are truly called to do. Really Curt, if you want to make a difference in the name of God, you will not do it by pioneering socialism in America.
          If you and I want to help Syrians who are suffering, we should go to them and love them. We should invite them into our homes and feed them. If we want to love people who are poor, we should go and fellowship with them. We should freely and joyfully give them as much as we can. We hardly have enough time as it is working every day, spending time with out families, and spending time with God. Making a difference for God doesn’t come through the advancement of a political or social system. It comes from the things we can do by taking time out of our days to love people.

          • Caring for the vulnberable does not give us heaven on earth. Caring for the vulenrable is simply a requirement. Such does not make heaven. For one thing, that we have those who are vulnerable means that we havien’t reached heaven. Second, the state of caring for the vulnerable always volatiile. Third, caring for the vulnerable does not allow all to reach some state of nirvana where those everyone in society is happy and content.

            The real question facing us Christians is where our treasure is. That is because the more our treasure is here, the less inclined we are to be good stewards in using our resources in helping the poor. In addition, the more our treasure is here, the more we are creating our own heaven on earth here.

            BTW, I fully agree that we hard have enough time doing our jobs, caring for our families, spending time with God, and so forth to put much time into caring for others. But that should cause us to ask whether we need new structures and systems that allow us to help the vulnerable better and/or whether that lack of time is really due to a problem with our personal priorities.

          • Charles

            “Caring for the vulnerable does not give us heaven on earth. Caring for the vulnerable is simply a requirement. Such does not make heaven. For one thing, that we have those who are vulnerable means that we haven’t reached heaven. Second, the state of caring for the vulnerable always volatile. Third, caring for the vulnerable does not allow all to reach some state of nirvana where those everyone in society is happy and content.”
            It seems our definition of Heaven may be different after all. Salvation and Heaven are for the vulnerable, the needy, and the weak. Perhaps this form of government that you view as something that will provide justice in all fascists of life isn’t so much of a heaven on Earth, by rather a salvation on Earth. You just said not everyone will be happy caring for the vulnerable. That is why the government forcing people to do so will never work. On the other hand, the government not forcing people to do so doesn’t work. The only way for us to follow Christ in this matter is to do what he did. Live among the poor, give to the needy out of our own willingness, feed the hungry and give a room to the homeless. If you are not doing that to the maximum extent, which most of us aren’t (including me), then we are all ravaging over the tiny speck in the other’s eye while there is a hideous plank stuck in our own.

            “BTW, I fully agree that we hard have enough time doing our jobs, caring for our families, spending time with God, and so forth to put much time into caring for others. But that should cause us to ask whether we need new structures and systems that allow us to help the vulnerable better and/or whether that lack of time is really due to a problem with our personal priorities.”

            Judging by your reaction, I suppose what I said completely flew over your head. I am for helping others. Politically helping others puts us in a position where we can do it comfortably from the tax dollars we pay, etc. Sure, that would be great and ultimately I would not mind paying more taxes to help other people if that is the law. However, really helping people is going to them where they need us. And I am more for that than anything else.

            “The real question facing us Christians is where our treasure is. That is because the more our treasure is here, the less inclined we are to be good stewards in using our resources in helping the poor. In addition, the more our treasure is here, the more we are creating our own heaven on earth here.”

            Perhaps this can go both ways. The more we give to the poor because we are forced to, the less we will try to truly interact with them on a personal level. The less they will encounter the love of Christ. And the less the righteousness of God is realized.

    • SamHamilton

      The problem with “prayer shaming” as I see it is we don’t know what these politicians did in their private time. Perhaps their tweeted messages about “thoughts and prayers” were superficial and meant to convey the appearance of concern and nothing more, or perhaps these politicians actually spent time in literal thought and prayer following the shooting. I don’t know. And neither do the “shamers.” So unless we know whether these were meaningless platitudes or truly heartfelt, we should be silent.

      No one opposes “all government attempt to reduce that violence.” Some people oppose specific attempts that they think infringe on people’s 2nd Amendment rights. But there have been a number of public policies enacted at the federal, state and local level that have dramatically brought down the level of gun homicides over the past 30 years. I’m guessing that the politicians that have been “prayer shamed” support at least some of them. It’s not a question of “Do you or do you not support laws to reduce gun violence?” but “How draconian are you willing to make our laws in order to reduce gun violence?” We all have our limits to what we’d put up with.

      Having said all this, I think politicians should shy away from trying to say anything meaningful over twitter. Even if these “thoughts and prayers” were heartfelt, they sound superficial because of the medium. I’m all for “twitter shaming” people.*

      *Shaming people for using a superficial medium such as Twitter to talk about something very serious.

      • Sam,
        It isn’t just politicians I am referring to; it is those who present the public of Christianity. And when because of their conservative political allegiances that they oppose every gun control legislation, then the analogy between them and those whom James was referring to in chapter 2 fits way too comfortably.

        So to answer the rest of your note, please let me know which specific guns do you support and which ones do you oppose. If needed for laws you support, write your own laws as hypothetical examples.

        • SamHamilton

          My comments could apply just as well to those “who present the public of Christianity” as they do to politicians. It’s not a question of “Do you or do you not support laws to reduce gun violence?” but “How draconian are you willing to make our laws in order to reduce gun violence?” We all have our limits to what we’d put up with.

          I don’t know what you mean by which guns do I support or oppose. I don’t own any guns.

          • Sam,
            Not only do we have our own limits, we have our own definitions. What laws do you consider to be draconian?

          • SamHamilton

            Well, for example, I would consider a law that required the placement of cameras in everyone’s home so the police could monitor our activities to be draconian, but I’m sure such a law would reduce gun deaths. I assume you oppose such a law too, so do you not support laws to reduce gun deaths?

            More realistically, some people consider “stop and frisk” policies, “broken windows” policing, and higher incarceration rates to be too draconian. To some degree, I do as well. However, I think a good case can be made that these policies have resulted in fewer gun homicides over the past couple decades. But some still want to eliminate these policies. Do those people not care about gun violence or do they just want to strike a different balance than I or others do?

            See what I mean? Saying “You don’t support the specific laws that I support that would allegedly reduce gun violence so therefore you’re doing nothing to end gun violence and your ‘thoughts and prayers’ should be mocked” is not good for our public discourse.

          • Sam,
            What you are asking is whether reducing gun deaths is the only qualification for a gun control law. And no, I believe that we have to look all of the tradeoffs of each law before passing it. Thus, I would agree that the hypothetical law you mentioned is wrong.

            But I don’t know of any gun control advocates who support draconian-type laws. However, I think it is fair to question those who automatically oppose any new gun control law. Each law should be considered on its own merits.

          • SamHamilton

            Each law should be considered on its own merits.

            Absolutely. But no one opposes any new gun control law. I’ll be that even the most pro-2nd Amendment politicians who offered “thoughts and prayers” support some gun control laws, just not the particular ones that Daily News thinks they should be supporting. They’re just not willing to go as far as some other people think they should go.

          • Sam,
            Don’t know if you can speak for everyone by saying:


            no one opposes any new gun control law

            This is especially true when I don’t conservatives offering any gun control laws. What I do see is opposition to laws such as background checks for gun purchases at gun shows. And then the rhetoric that the only one who can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Then consider the number of states that have no requirements for the purchase of a gun.

          • SamHamilton

            See, you, like the Daily News, are saying that because someone doesn’t support the specific laws you think that person should support (background checks for purchasers who buy from a non-gun dealer) then that person doesn’t support any laws. There are gun control laws on the books that people who oppose background checks for non-high volume gun sellers support.

          • Sam,
            You seem to misunderstand me here. What I am saying is absence of any proposals made by conservatives other than to resist new laws and claim that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good with a gun. So if there are some examples of gun control laws supported by conservatives, please share them here.

          • SamHamilton

            Curt,
            You’ve narrowed the scope of your original comment considerably. Originally, you said “oppose al government attempts to reduce that violence.” When I pointed out to you that many of these people you’re criticizing actually do support and have supported attempts by the government to reduce gun violence, you’ve now narrowed it to “they don’t care because they don’t support new gun control laws.” So again, you’re saying that because these people don’t support the laws that you support, despite them supporting all sorts of other laws that significantly reduce gun violence, including current gun control laws, (as opposed to tinker around the edges proposals like banning “assault weapons,” background checks for guns bought from non-high volume sellers, etc.), they’re hypocrites (or something) for offering prayers.

          • Sam,

            What I wrote was:


            is absence of any proposals made by conservatives other than to resist new laws and claim that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good with a gun. So if there are some examples of gun control laws supported by conservatives, please share them here.

            So please, be specific and state gun laws that you would support that could be used to help reduce gun violence.

          • SamHamilton

            I think we should chop off the hand of anyone caught using a gun in the commission of a crime. Do you support that proposal?

          • Sam,
            So what you believe will work is upping the ante on punishment because you believe that doing so prevents crime. If that is true, why doesn’t the death penalty stop crime?

            It’s not that we shouldbn’t punish such crime, but that should be joined with inhibiting access to the tools of a crime. We should also look at why some commit violent crimes and do what we can to remove, as much as possible, those conditions that lead people to commit violent crimes.

            Tell me what the statistics on mass shootings were when there was a ban on buying assault weapons and how they compare since that ban was taken down. But if you object to the buying of assault weapons, tell me why.

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