Prayer shamers get both prayer and policy wrong (COMMENTARY)

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Elvina Guerrero, 57, holds a candle during a vigil for San Bernardino County employees after a shooting in San Bernardino, California on December 7, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MARSHALL-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 9, 2015.

Elvina Guerrero, 57, holds a candle during a vigil for San Bernardino County employees after a shooting in San Bernardino, California on December 7, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MARSHALL-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 9, 2015.

(RNS) In the wake of the San Bernardino massacre last week, “prayer shamers” presented a false choice between implied inaction (prayer) and one course of action (new gun laws). In perhaps the most blatant example, the cover of Thursday’s New York Daily News featured prayerful tweets from House Speaker Paul Ryan and other members of Congress, with this commentary: “(C)owards who could truly end the gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.”

Elvina Guerrero, 57, holds a candle during a vigil for San Bernardino County employees after a shooting in San Bernardino, California on December 7, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MARSHALL-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 9, 2015.

Elvina Guerrero, 57, holds a candle during a vigil on Dec. 7, 2015, for San Bernardino County employees after the Dec. 2 shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MARSHALL-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 9, 2015.

Such responses got both prayer and policy wrong. In the face of grave evil, the act of praying acknowledges our and others’ need for a peace that passes human understanding as we grapple with questions of mortality and transcendence.

On policy, these responses failed to acknowledge the complexity of the situation and the need for earnest debate about solutions. Facts have already shown that the oversimplification needs revision. By Friday (Dec. 4), FBI Director James Comey said his agency’s investigation was treating the rampage as a terrorist attack, and in his Sunday night Oval Office address President Obama described it as an act of terrorism. Each day has brought new details to light.

Coming to grips with terrorism in our midst is a much more daunting prospect than the prayer shamers’ derisive comments would suggest. Wisdom and civility demand better: Pray. Debate. Act.


READ: Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ don’t belong on Twitter


Debate has been the missing element time and again on a range of issues. Leading voices have suggested, for example, that stewardship for the environment requires international climate accords. Or that compassion for the poor mandates increased federal spending on welfare programs. By presenting their preferred action as the only legitimate recourse, such voices falsely portray debate as resistance to action rather than the appropriate means of weighing competing courses of action.

For environmental activists, care for the planet translates to national and international action against global warming. But many analysts warn that international gatherings like the Paris climate talks focus on elusive, arbitrary and often counterproductive goals (namely, “to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius” compared with preindustrial levels) that will displace policies and activities that yield actual environmental benefits.

These analysts question the modeling on which the international agenda is premised; climate modeling, for example, predicted more global warming than has actually taken place over the last decade and a half. They argue that the regulatory agenda to cap carbon emissions pursued in Paris would hurt the poor and prevent economic development — the very kind of development that would lead to technological improvements and reduce pollution. Too often, activists have sought to silence such points of debate by labeling their opponents “climate deniers.”


READ: Why conservatives want Obama to say ‘Islamic’ terrorism (COMMENTARY)


Meanwhile, compassion for the poor is often equated with more federal anti-poverty spending. But the United States has spent $24 trillion on the War on Poverty in the last half-century, and the poverty rate remains nearly as high as it was when President Lyndon Johnson launched his initial attack.

If we were going to win this war with spending, we would have done it a long time ago. Something deeper and more complex is going on. Looking at patterns of poverty here in the United States, it is clear that domestic poverty is closely associated with the absence of married fathers in the home and a lack of work. A child born and raised by a single mother is about five times more likely to face poverty than one born to a married mother and father. Even in good economic times, the median poor household with children is supported by roughly 1,000 hours of work a year (the equivalent of 20 hours a week).

That’s why welfare reform efforts have focused on offering a hand up, not a handout, by requiring welfare recipients to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving assistance. The policy recognizes the significance of work for human dignity and the success of work as an anti-poverty strategy. This approach helped reduce welfare rolls by half and led to historic lows in child poverty after the last major reform in 1996. Even so, when similar proposals are made today, some defenders of the status quo resort to impugning the motives of reformers as anti-poor rather than debating competing approaches to alleviate poverty.

Jennifer A. Marshall is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation and senior research fellow at the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Photograph © David Hills, courtesy of Jennifer A. Marshall

Jennifer A. Marshall is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation and senior research fellow at the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Photograph © David Hills, courtesy of Jennifer A. Marshall

The United States faces serious issues — from poverty to environmental challenges to radical Islamist terrorism. We can’t afford not to debate the diagnoses of these problems and the best solutions.

As the turning of another year brings new uncertainties, the need for prayer is real. Action is essential. And debate should not be denied.

(Jennifer A. Marshall is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation and senior research fellow at the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.)

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  • Barry the Baptist

    “These analysts question the modeling on which the international agenda is premised…”
    Which model? The old one that predicted more extreme climate change or the newer one based on updated data and better analysis techniques?

    “Looking at patterns of poverty here in the United States, it is clear that domestic poverty is closely associated with the absence of married fathers in the home and a lack of work.”
    Or is it clear that there is a correlation between single parenting and domestic poverty? Or is it just a lack of work?

    The author equivocates on these things. This article smacks of the “teach the debate” mantra that is pushed by ID creationists: take a good idea, like debate, and twist it to give a platform to bad ideas.

    All of this to (weakly) defend prayer from accusations of “pointless” which, by the author’s definition, must be followed by actual “action.”

    Maybe something would improve if the author didn’t waste time trotting out tired platitudes…

  • Be Brave

    The demons that spoke to Jesus were not wrong about Him. So those that represent an oppositional side to Christianity are necessarily off base always. And these obvious fanatical Christian bashers at the New York Daily News are right as well. Like a broken clock of course.

    Jesus prayed and Jesus acted. The carnage caused by bad people doing bad acts with a gun needs to be solved. And implementing “sensible gun safety measures” (though obviously a gun-grabbing scam/lie from the anti-gun Left) isn’t bad or wrong. But gun-owners need to the people that develop the sensible NEW gun laws. Clearly the western-world is no longer a morally sound place. Watching the Jesus act portrayed in the Gospels shows us that prayer and action go hand in hand. So we jettison the secularism zealot (control freaks) in all of this gun control fanaticism, and allow the more morally sound to develop solutions that are fair and sensible.

  • Emie

    As the saying goes, “Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.”

  • Ajiitai

    Obviously you have never tried praying, or at some point you received an answer from the Divine that you didn’t like.

    At some point in your life you will encounter a situation over which you will have no control, your money won’t be able to change the situation, and so dire that no one else on earth will have the expertise or power to give relief. I’ve been there. Prayer works.

    Jesus placed a high priority on prayer. Luke, in his account, tells us, “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.” Prayer was certainly not a waste of time for him.

    But he also charged us to also use our strength, our hands and legs, and our resources to work for the good of others. It’s not either/or, but both/and.

  • Karen

    Unfortunately, PDW is right. I too have yet to see any proven instance of a prayer causing a god to do anything. Nor has anyone else, really. Consider all those parents of really sick kids who prayed fervently for god to save their kids yet the kids died.Many other cases. It’s clear; either god is an a-hole and doesn’t care to get involved, or doesn’t exist.

  • Prayer Doesn’t Work

    Here is the truth: There is not a single proven, verifiable case of prayer ever causing a divine entity to do anything, ever. Prayer simply does not work.

    Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise. Prayer makes you fat.
    Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
    Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
    Prayer messes up your knees and your neck and your back.
    Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
    Prayer makes you secretively flat​ulent and embarrassed about it.
    Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
    Prayer makes you fro​thy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer dulls your senses.
    Prayer has been shown to have no effect towards what was prayed for.
    Prayer wastes time.