We've definitely arrived at a strange cultural moment when the worst thing you can do after a tragedy is pray.
But that's what a significant segment of Twitter seemed to think in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting. Politicians offering thoughts and prayers in the wake of the tragedy were excoriated by Twitter progressives. But it wasn't just the internet mob. The tabloid the New York Daily News turned the meme into its cover, with the blunt headline: "God Isn't Fixing This." It quickly went viral.
Let's first highlight the best possible spin on this. Progressives believe that stronger gun control laws would prevent mass shootings like this, and they are incensed at politicians who differ from them on the issue. To them, tweeting mealy-mouthed "thoughts and prayers" is a way to duck the issue, to pretend that nothing can be done. It's a show of hypocrisy and cowardice, one that leads to the deaths of innocent people.
The debate over gun control is a valid one. But it doesn't take away from the fractal stupidity of this response. Besides the fact that guns are clearly here to stay (think about what it would take to push the U.S. to a European-style situation), of course politicians are going to give mealy-mouthed, empty reactions to developing live situations where no facts are known. And have you absolutely no awareness of the irony of attacking fruitless online signaling with an orgy of fruitless online signaling? This Ted Cruz tweet is why there's gun violence, but quoting that Ted Cruz tweet and adding the f-word saves lives? Ted Cruz would not be a good president, but it's still not a good reason to emote like a petulant child.
The psychological mechanism is so obvious it's blinding. Tragedies evoke the same response in all of us to varying degrees. By exposing the randomness and cruelty of fate, they expose our own powerlessness and cause a deep psychological need to reassert some control over our lives and environment. Your tweet about gun control is going to do exactly the same thing as Mike Huckabee's intern's "thoughts and prayers" — zero, nada, zilch — but the first makes you feel like you can do something. That's an entirely understandable human response, but it's no reason to spit on people.
The #thoughtsandprayers critique is also explicitly directed at religious pietism — the idea that religious people are putting their fervor in the wrong place, retreating to piety instead of engagement. But is that fair?
Even if it doesn't move your needle, prayer does change lives, almost always for the better and often dramatically so. That ought to be one of the most uncontroversial factual statements possible. Lasting change in the world happens only when hearts are changed. The rest, including the politics, important as they are, follows. The history of every successful cultural and political movement shows this.
In fact you might even say, as Christians are required to believe, that praying is the most potent and subversive political action you can imagine. Maybe that's why it makes some people angry.