On Tuesday, I sat in a room of conservative and liberal academics and policymakers who were coming together to assess the state of religion and politics in our nation. When the subject of the rise in religious disaffiliation came up, I pointed out that about a third of the Democratic Party is now religiously unaffiliated. I suggested that this rise in religiously unaffiliated Democrats was going to have to play out in the Party’s rhetoric and actions, and in fact it already was.
The example I used was the odd critique we had started hearing from some Democratic politicians in recent months that “thoughts and prayers are not enough.” I argued that this was in effect a dog whistle: while it could be justified one way to a broader audience, it is meant to provoke a certain reaction among a subset of Americans. In this case, it is meant to appeal to anti-religious sentiment.
This debate over “thoughts and prayers” became a national conversation the following day in the wake of another tragic shooting, this time in San Bernardino, CA, and we saw how these kinds of political games work. First, politicians and strategists send out signals to media and other allies, priming them for an attack. In this case, after years when “thoughts and prayers” was acceptable language for politicians of both parties to use in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, the same politicians who used that language now issued statements that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. Almost immediately after news of the shooting broke, politicians, media and other voices knew what to do.
Outraged tweets went out from politicians, journalists and others. “Never doubt the influence religion has as training wheels for illogical thinking,” one tweeted. Another tweeted, “Dear ‘thoughts and prayers’ people: Please shut up and slink away. You are the problem and everyone knows it.” Many other statements were even coarser. A staffer at one liberal organization made national news suggesting that politicians who tweeted their thoughts and prayers, but opposed gun control measures in Congress, did so because they received $2000 checks from the National Rifle Association. And, of course, The Daily News featured this argument on the cover of their publication.
The basic idea that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough has great merit. Well-meaning religious people affirmed the truth in that basic statement. But it is important to understand that the people who made that critique were not interested in helping us better understand the theological introspection on the meaning of prayer. If people meant to criticize inaction, rather than appeal to anti-religious sentiment, they would simply criticize inaction. Instead, this was a cynical ploy that is just the latest tactic in the development of our new tribal politics.
It is a politics that is not satisfied with policy disagreement, but must attribute that policy disagreement to a deficiency of the person who disagrees, something that makes them “other.” In our tribal politics, we are told that politicians who oppose gun control aren’t tweeting thoughts and prayers because they sincerely pray for those who suffered. We are told their thoughts and prayers are "political cover," a ruse and misdirection.
It was reminiscent of another cynical religion and politics charade during the 2012 election. The Republican Party--looking for a new wedge in an era when all the wedges seemed to be working against their interests--decided to drastically increase mentions of “God” in their party platform to ten. As you will see in the graph below, prior to 2012, both parties’ mentions of God had been below six. But the Republicans had an idea, laid the trap and soon enough you had Mitt Romney pledging that he would never remove God from the GOP platform: “I will not take God off our coins and I will not take God out of my heart.”
This is our new tribal politics: “Democrats want to take God out of your heart!” “Republicans are content to pray while people die!” These personal appeals are meant to blind us to the humanity and arguments of those who disagree with us. They are meant to make us define “them,” and make us feel good about the fact that “we” are not “them.”
As Christians and as citizens of a nation that demands a deliberative politics, we cannot be naïve about these matters. We need to be able to see through blatant, shameless rhetoric that is meant to divide us, even if it supports our policy goals.
I support gun control reform. I think those who oppose it are wrong. It is OK to think other people are wrong on an issue. In fact, a healthy debate requires it.
We have become so uncomfortable with the idea of right and wrong that we have accepted a politics that robs us of our ability to reason. We have a tribal politics because it works for politicians—it is an effective means to attain power. We must reject it. We must reject the cynical tactics of tribal politics that lead us to skip over the policy questions we face. We must—I must—guard our hearts against that buzz of superiority it gives us, that sense of belonging.
We do not belong to our politics. We will not find our meaning there. A politics of tribalism has our ideology and identity as its aim. A politics of citizenship tells us that our common challenges and the good of our fellow citizens are our aim.
May God give us the wisdom to confront the injustices of our day, and may God help us pursue a politics that is equal to that task.
-Michael Wear is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He previously led faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 election campaign and worked in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.