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Politicians turn the tough work over to God
Beware the pious pols who claim the only solution to such problems as school violence is prayer
A lesson of tennis: there are some things you can’t turn over to a higher power. (Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash)
As a kid with more ambition than skill in sports, I sometimes tried shortcuts in my mostly unsuccessful quest for athletic success. On the tennis court, for example, I recall silently praying that my second serve would — please, God! — go in. A more effective tactic would have been to master the toss and spin, of course, but that would have required more work than I apparently was willing to devote to tennis. Nevertheless, surely a God who was always watching out for me, as I was taught, would want me to win.
My on-court dialogue with God, the Coach Almighty, always comes to mind these days when I hear politicians talking about religion. No doubt some of them are genuinely devout believers, but it always sounds to me as though they’re passing the buck: Tough task at hand, but I’m kind of busy polishing my image. How about we let God do it?
There was a lot of that in the aftermath of the latest mass homicide in a school, which took the lives of three 9-year-olds and three adults last Monday at the Covenant Christian School in Nashville. Take, for instance, the response of House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, to a reporter’s question just after the shooting asking what Congress might do to stop the awful violence in schools. “The first thing I do in any kind of a tragedy is, I pray,” he said, as other leaders of his party’s conference stood resolutely at his side.
Fine. Go ahead and pray, you members of Congress, but then what? Here’s one perhaps outlandish suggestion: Maybe do something about the 434 million guns that Americans own, including 20 million semi-automatic AR-15 rifles, the weapon of choice in Nashville and most other school attacks.
That’s not going to happen, said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who sponsored last year’s quite modest bipartisan gun control bill — which, incidentally, earned him censures from party organizations across his state. “I would say we’ve gone about as far as we can go,” Cornyn said, when asked after the Nashville tragedy about limiting guns in America.
So that leaves us with only the prayers of the pols, or, as they typically say, “thoughts and prayers.” Maybe that adding of “thoughts” is in deference to the three in ten U.S. adults who have no religious affiliation. Regardless, “thoughts and prayers” has become so hackneyed that it has its own Wikipedia entry and is a popular Twitter hashtag. Many politicians, perhaps sensitive to being criticized as insensitive, are now substituting “prayers and condolences” as their go-to dodge to God.
That’s unlikely to spare them the scorn represented by what the U.S. Senate chaplain, the Rev. Barry Black, offered in his opening prayer the day after the Nashville attack. “Lord, when babies die at a church school, it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers,” Black prayed. “Remind our lawmakers of the words of the British statesman Edmund Burke: ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.’ ”
This is not to deny the usefulness of prayer. Spiritual leaders tell us that regular prayer builds a believer’s wholesome relationship with their God. Even non-religious types must concede that, like any meditation, prayer also can restore hope, build gratitude and get a person’s focus away from internal strife. Research by psychologists has found modest but clear mental health benefits from regular prayer — not as an alternative to therapy for people recovering from mental illness, but as an aid in their treatment.
That assumes, of course, that the prayer in question isn’t the sort of selfish plea that I offered on the tennis court — you know, the God-gimme-this-now kind of prayer. It’s presumptuous, for starters, to imagine that a mere mortal can sway an omnipotent being by suggesting a course of action, and it’s likewise illogical to think that God pays special attention to people who pray harder, or tracks prayers the way a banker tallies deposits, rewarding those who build their assets by rallying more people to their prayer goals. You won’t win an argument by praying more loudly or conspicuously for your side or insisting that God is surely on yours.
That point was made by arguably our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, in his eloquent second inaugural address. Lincoln mentioned prayer three times, quoted the Bible four times and invoked God’s name 14 times in the short speech. He noted that both sides in the Civil War “pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.” Yet while Lincoln believed that the war was fought for God’s purposes — that is, to free people held in slavery — he didn’t stop at prayer to achieve that end: He led the Union through a horrible civil war to establish the end he believed was right.
Maybe that clarifies that a theological argument about prayer is less useful than a practical discussion of its limits. It’s expressed in a Swahili proverb: “The prayer of the chicken hawk does not get him the chicken.”If we want to avoid the suffering of the families of Nashville — and, for that matter, the pain of the 348,000 students who have experienced gun violence in their schools since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 — we need for those folks who are offering prayers to do more than that: to take concrete action to fight gun violence.
Americans know what they want. In a poll last year, about six in 10 Americans said the government ought to restore the ban on semi-automatic weapons, which we had for the decade before 2004. Three-quarters of us said nobody under age 21 should be able to buy a gun; 83 percent believe people convicted of domestic violence should be barred from gun ownership, and 85 percent said there should be a background check before any gun is sold.
None of that will get through the current Republican-led House. That’s because the political backing of the gun lobby — financed by firearms manufacturers, and comprising a large share of Republican primary voters — is more important to those members of Congress than solving the gun problem. We shouldn’t make the mistake of believing the argument of pro-gun politicians that more gun control won’t reduce gun deaths. Study after study has shown that more guns — in a neighborhood, a state or a whole society — leads to more deaths.
Yet in one state under Republican control after another, officials these days are moving to make guns more available to more people. This week Florida legislators approved a bill to allow people to carry concealed guns in most places without a permit; Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign it. And the New York Times notes that in Kentucky, Ohio, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia, Republicans have pushed this year to limit gun-free zones, remove background checks and roll back red-flag laws that seek to remove firearms from those who are a danger to themselves or others.
Instead of laws to make people safer, then, a lot of politicians are turning away from their responsibility and turning over public safety to God — offering only prayers as protection in the face of a weaponized and increasingly angry society. Perhaps imagining themselves latter-day Lincolns with God as their sure ally, they promote cynicism about both religion and government, and do nothing to make us safer as they tout their own piety.
In that, they are also abandoning the humility that the world’s religions expect of their adherents. Scalise, an avowedly devout Catholic, may do well to remember that in the passage of the Gospel of Matthew that introduces what we call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is quoted as criticizing showy praying: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”
Christianity is not alone in this call for action beyond prayer. Rabbi Sid Schwarz, an author and Jewish leader, notes that the call Abraham heard in the wilderness, as recounted in the book of Genesis, was “to extend the boundaries of righteousness and justice in the world.”And in Islam, “sincere prayers must result in good deeds towards others,” notes Justin Parrott, an Islamic scholar at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. Or, as the New Testament Epistle of James puts it, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith, but has no deeds?”
While it’s popular just now to denigrate politics, politicians haven’t always failed to recognize the responsible role of government in executing on the imperatives of faith. John F. Kennedy came to the end of his often-quoted inaugural address with these words: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”
By our deeds, indeed, will we be known. How different that message is from the pious preening of today’s praying politicians. How desperately we need that approach to public life today.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Tuskegee, Ala. (Montgomery Advertiser, montgomeryadvertiser.com)
Fort Collins, Colo. (The Coloradoan, coloradan.com)
Peoria, Ill. (Journal Star, pjstar.com)
Teaneck, N.J. (Burlington County Times, NorthJersey.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes each Wednesday, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Lawsuit allges abuse, ignored by state, at mental health facility
At least five lawsuits have been filed by the families of children who were patients in state-contracted but for-profit mental health facilities in Alabama, claiming the children were subjected to abuse, according to reporting by Hadley Hutson in The Montgomery Advertiser. The abuse occurred after a scathing 2020 NBC News report about the facilities, which are operated in several states by Sequel Youth & Family Services, which prompted several states to sever their ties to the company — but not Alabama, which allowed the organization to rebrand and keep operating. The Montgomery Advertiser reported last year on several cases of abuse at the Sequel facility in Tuskegee, dating to 2017. “The shocking abuses, neglect and even deaths that occur within these unregulated facilities directly stem from prioritizing profits over the safety and well-being of children,” said the lawyer handling the lawsuit for one alleged victim at the Tuskegee facility.
Will herons survive, and will they disrupt cell service?
In some Native American traditions, the Great Blue Heron is seen as a symbol of self-reliance — its keen balance on spindly legs suggesting that none of us need massive strength to survive and evolve. Indeed, the large wading bird’s population is actually increasing in North America, and its conservation status is listed as “least concern.” But as Miles Blumhardt reports in The Coloradoan, residents of Fort Collins are concerned about the fate of some particular herons, who for at least 16 years made their home in a large cottonwood tree near Interstate 25. The massive tree was a rookery for at least 47 occupied nests a year ago. Now the tree is gone, and some of the herons have made their home in a large cell tower nearby. Blumhardt reports that the impact of the cell signals on the birds isn’t established, but that it’s unlikely the birds will affect cell signals. Officials say that the tree was felled naturally, and its demise had nothing to do with plans for a Topgolf facility proposed nearby.
Racial disparities rock Peoria
When Theodore Roosevelt visited Peoria, he described a residential avenue overlooking the Illinois River as the “world’s most beautiful drive” (proudly reflected yet today in the call letters of the local CBS affiliate, WMBD). The heritage of Midwestern charm, however, is belied by a new report commissioned by the city council that reveals stark racial disparities in the city, where almost half the residents are non-white. Andy Kravetz reports in the Journal Star that overall life expectancy is 79 years for a white person and 64 years for a Black person; huge gaps by race also are revealed in median home values, use of public assistance and lead levels in children’s blood. Said one City Council member, "I see a picture of what is but I don't see a picture of why.”
Rising antisemitism forces armed guards at synagogues
The Anti-Defamation League reports that antisemitic incidents across America, including assault, vandalism and harassment, jumped 36% last year, the highest increase since 1979. Columnist Mike Kelly notes for Gannett New Jersey that one result is the presence of armed police officers or private security guards each Saturday at New Jersey synagogues. Kelly lives in Teaneck, which he describes as a town with “a long, hard-earned and well-documented reputation as a place of open doors and tolerance,” and worries that we have come to see the alarming rise in antisemitism as simply another troubling shift we must tolerate, rather than combat, in American society.
Beware the ‘free speech’ you think you want
Florida legislators seem about ready to overhaul defamation laws in the state, to make it easier to sue news organizations, and some other red states are watching closely. It’s not a smart strategy, however much it may cheer the MAGA crowd.
Gov. Ron DeSantis says his proposal will punish media outlets that he claims aren’t fair to conservatives. He and the compliant Republican-controlled legislature need to be careful, though, for two reasons: First, what they propose is clearly unconstitutional, under Supreme Court precedent set almost six decades ago; second, the effort to go after the mainstream media will likely be far more dangerous for the right-wing news outlets that have been most friendly to DeSantis and his ilk.
The Florida politicians don’t worry about the Constitution. In fact, they’re itching for a constitutional fight. Two conservative Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have made it clear that they want to upend the libel standards set in the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan case, and the Floridians are betting that other conservative justices might go along. Sullivan set law to protect news outlets from expensive lawsuits aimed mainly at harassment, by forcing plaintiffs to prove that a reporter or outlet demonstrated “actual malice” or “reckless disregard for the truth” when publishing erroneous information that defamed a public figure. Note that honest mistakes, unfortunate as they are, aren’t grounds for a libel suit, and that publishing truth is an absolute defense in a libel suit. That is, a journalist can’t be punished for harm a person suffers as a result of truth-telling — which is why Donald Trump’s blather about suing The New York Times and other outlets, which are meticulous in their reporting, is just so much hot air.
But as someone who spent four decades in mainstream news organizations, I’ll tell you that we are careful to a fault in working to avoid defamation — which isn’t the case, clearly, at some of the reckless right-wing outfits that are popular nowadays. We would not only check facts, but also sometimes even pull from stories potentially libelous comments made by public officials — because the news outlet could be liable for defamatory remarks made by somebody whom we merely quoted in our pages. And sensitive stories would get a review by a capable lawyer. The process was time-consuming and exhausting, but it was worthwhile: Never in my career have I been pulled into a courtroom in a libel action.
The peril now facing Fox News, however, shows that those standards don’t apply everywhere. A judge Friday ruled that the lawsuit filed against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems will go before a jury. Plenty of evidence already revealed in that case shows that Fox disregarded the conclusions of its own on-air hosts and producers, as well as executives, that Donald Trump’s claims of fraud after the 2020 election were baloney, and Fox knew that it was falsely maligning Dominion by passing along the claims of Trump’s backers that the voting machines had fraudulently given the election to Biden. Fox went ahead, anyway — and now faces a $1.6 billion suit from Dominion (and an even bigger suit coming along from a different company) for recklessly airing the Trump lies.
Conservative talk radio is similarly imperiled by the kind of legislation that DeSantis is pushing. Outrageous invective on the airwaves and the internet is poisoning American society, but it is now protected because proving that false statements were made with “actual malice” is hard. DeSantis wants to make it easier to foreclose free speech. It’s ironic that those most at risk of his assault on established constitutional law are those most likely to cheer his own political aspirations. Be careful, governor, what you wish for.
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