The contemporary world is often regarded as a place full of violence and injustice. Some claim that the current socioeconomic situation and the influence of media are the major reasons behind this trend, while others (often religious people) simply assert that the world has basically become too sinful (Quillin, 2018). Mass shootings illustrate one of the atrocities of modern times that have attracted much public attention.
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These violent acts are often associated with dozens of deaths and lingering psychological trauma where making a complete recovery, for survivors, is problematic at best. Perhaps startling is the fact that such events also result in a radiant response, communicated through media and, especially, spread by way of social networks. One of the most common reactions is the phrase “thoughts and prayers,” aimed at supporting others and expressing personal concern.
However, this phrase is now facing substantial criticism as people (both religious and nonreligious) claim that empty words offer no solution to the issue. It is interesting to identify the personal and political reasons, as well as the religious underpinnings of the two, that are contributing to the contemporary extensive use of the phrase.
Beginning with the personal reasons for using the words in question as a response to mass shootings, in some cases, “thoughts and prayers” is almost a set phrase to express an individual’s awareness and sorrow concerning particular events and as a response to death. These sentiments, specifically expressed in social media posts, tend to be regarded as insincere. Rowen (2017) stressed that a similar use of the phrase is also common to official communications of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives. It has been estimated that since 1995, the Congressional Record has included over four thousand “thoughts and prayers,” equating to at least one such phrase uttered on the Hill per working day.
Apart from expressing concern, many may employ the phrase as a way to show religiousness. The United States can be characterized as a country where major religious values have been deeply rooted in the culture and political agenda (Cimino & Lattin, 2002). Therefore, these three words have become an instrument, often important for politicians or other groups, to create the image of a righteous and religious person. In light of this trend, many are expressing outrage at such use, stressing that action is needed more than mere empty words, focus on positive images, and condolence.
Nevertheless, research shows that this phrase might help victims and their relatives as well as fellow citizens to cope with trauma and even take action. Survivors of a mass shooting can experience difficulties in returning to normal life and revisiting the location where the event took place.
However, the spiritual power of prayer can help them reconsider their experience and go on (Huckabee, 2018). The results of longitudinal studies showed that people who practice prayer as a way to respond to a tragedy are mentally healthier than those who do not pray (Rowen, 2017). People find inner strength and ability to cope in praying as they are not focusing on the negative aspect of their experiences. Therefore, “thoughts and prayers,” even if posted on a social network storyline, can be regarded as an act of praying for many people. In such cases, the simple phrase does make a difference as it is an instrument for coping with tragic events and associated memories.
It is, however, noteworthy that the positive effect of prayer has not been found in those who are prayed for (Rowen, 2017). Although the methodology used was doubtful, research has not identified any statistically significant effects of prayer. For example, a study that involved almost 2000 cardiovascular patients showed that the health conditions of people who were prayed for and those who were not were almost the same.
At the same time, Rowen (2017) argued that it is unclear whether the participants actually prayed, meant it when they did, and were righteous. Huckabee (2018) emphasized that according to the Bible, prayers work when righteous people practice them. Hence, it is necessary to consider this limitation when discussing the role of prayer in the lives of those who are prayed for. Huckabee (2018) added that apart from comforting victims, prayer can change people, empower them, and encourage them to act. When praying, individuals feel connectedness to God and to their religious community, making them feel strong and capable as well as willing to change the situation.
Apart from purely personal and religious reasons to use the phrase under analysis, political factors often contribute to the common use of these words. Throughout the history of the country, religion has influenced the development of American society, manifested in different domains including the arena of politics. Although the United States is regarded as a secular country, religion plays a considerable role and has a direct effect on the political sphere.
Various religious groups have a strong lobby that helps them achieve their established goals (Cimino & Lattin, 2002). Quillin (2018) noted that religious organizations are trying to enhance their influence in the present-day political sphere. In the process, religious individuals and entities voice their concerns, and “thoughts and prayers” is one tool employed to reach this aim.
Some clergy see a lack of activism as one reason for the decrease in the number of church members or simply attenders. Cimino and Lattin (2002) argued that religious groups lobby in support of various decisions, stressing the need to adhere to universal values such as love, forgiveness, and cherishing life. One illustration of the effect of religious groups is their ability to defend their right to ignore specific regulations.
Bazelon (2015) mentioned some instances when courts decided that members of religious groups could ignore some rules and laws as part of every individual’s constitutional rights. For example, in some states, the clergy can refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if their religious beliefs contradict the practice. These rulings are often associated with such highly debatable topics as same-sex marriage or contraception.
Nevertheless, the influence of the religious lobby on gun control remains limited. The primary reason for this is a lack of consensus on the matter among religious people. The Christian religion has a definite view on violence that cannot be tolerated. All Christian denominations agree that violence must not be present in society and should be opposed if necessary. As a rule, such opposition is associated with kindness, preaching, convincing, and supporting.
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However, some groups deem more radical ways to resist violence as acceptable. Evangelicals share the conservative views of Republicans and constitute a considerable proportion of the Republican Party. It has been estimated that 40% of these people own guns, while only a third of the overall number of Americans are gun-owners (Shellnutt, 2017).
Evangelicals value kindness, but they also interpret the Bible in a straightforward way, claiming that while God protects people, individuals should also take action to ensure safety. According to these beliefs, God empowers people and gives them opportunities to protect themselves and others. In this view, having and carrying a gun is a way to obey God’s will.
This stance is brought to the fore through two channels, religious communities and religious organizations. On the one hand, many politicians practice some form of religion, meaning that they are affected by the way issues are addressed by their spiritual leaders. Regarding gun control, one study showed that slightly over 40% of Republicans are in favor of an assault weapons ban, while 40% of Republicans who were Evangelicals did not support this ban (Shellnutt, 2017). In comparison to these figures, 45% of Protestants and 46% of Catholics among Republicans were in favor of a ban (Shellnutt, 2017). Hence, politicians’ religious beliefs correlated with the choices they made.
On the other hand, religious organizations may try to exert a direct influence on many decisions through lobbying. The activism of bishops, as well as such entities as Evangelicals for Social Action, Catholic Pax Christi, or Call to Renewal, draw public attention and force policy-makers to consider their perspectives when making decisions (Cimino & Lattin, 2002). For example, Evangelicals stress that they are against violence and would consider it difficult to take someone’s life, but they are also ready to act. The case of shooting in the church and the actions of one of the believers show that some religious people do not see any contradiction in the issue (Shellnutt, 2017). They are against violence, but they see weapons as necessary instruments for their protection.
Therefore, the rising power of religious entities and leaders is another reason for the increased use of “thoughts and prayers” in today’s United States. In their messages, religious leaders and their congregations mention prayer and its power, frequently using the phrase under consideration. This practice can be regarded as a sign of unity and relatedness to a religious group that is often associated with authority. Apart from calling for particular action, religious leaders invariably encourage people to pray and feel their connectedness. Thus, the three words often constitute a final message meaning that all these actions are aimed at bringing people back to God and are underpinned by thoughts encompassing all those in need.
In conclusion, it is necessary to note that the popularity of “thoughts and prayers” in American society is facilitated by political and personal agendas that are deeply rooted in religious beliefs. Individuals seek and find comfort in prayers, and thus the phrase is often related to this practice. In the current political sphere, religious organizations are becoming ever more involved in activism and are having an increasing influence on the process of policy-making.
Clearly, the messages articulated by these groups often include “thoughts and prayers” as another way to stress connectedness. While many may use the phrase as a cliché or an empty expression to cultivate a better outward appearance, thousands mean it when they say or even post the words “thoughts and prayers.” As American society has been built on religious values, the use of the phrase in question can be seen as a manifestation of the strength of these beliefs.
Bazelon, E. (2015). What are the limits of ‘religious liberty’? The New York Times Magazine. Web.
Cimino, R., & Lattin, D. (2002). Shopping for faith: American religion in the new millennium. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
Huckabee, T. (2018). Do ‘thoughts and prayers’ do any good? In mass shootings, where’s the line between prayer and action? Relevant Magazine. Web.
Quillin, M. (2018). Faith and firearms: Why Christians don’t talk about gun violence. The News & Observer. Web.
Rowen, B. (2017). What science says about ‘thoughts and prayers’: The research is mixed. The Atlantic. Web.
Shellnutt, K. (2017). Packing in the pews: The connection between god and guns. Christianity Today. Web.