Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, back in late January, hosted a prayer rally on the LSU campus. There was a considerable amount of scrutiny on the event, entitled “The Response: A Call To Prayer For a Nation In Crisis,” due to the anti-gay, anti-abortion dominion theologians who organized and paid for it. The event’s leaders insisted that it wasn’t about elevating elected officials or candidates. Jindal, in inviting the 49 other governors to the event, bought into the organizers’ “non-political” framework. In the letter he wrote to every one of them, even those who aren’t Christian: “There will only be one name lifted up that day—Jesus!”
This was false. “The Response” was, at the time, both a political and evangelical platform for Jindal, now a presidential candidate who has often blurred the line between church and state with his policies and public pronouncements—and that’s being kind, considering that he introduced the pseudoscience of creationism into Louisiana schools. The January prayer rally also allowed Jindal to align himself with evangelicals and activists with big followings—men like Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, which reportedly paid for “The Response”—and who, presumably, will help Jindal appeal to the staunchly conservative base he’ll need to show up for him in the upcoming Republican presidential primaries. “Prayer is also a pious way to articulate their campaign strategies and beliefs about how government should run, since praying in this matter shows that they really want to put God above government to begin with,” said Anthea Butler, a religious studies professor and graduate chair at the University of Pennsylvania.
On Thursday night, a gunman in his late fifties named John Russell Houser waited for 20 minutes inside a Lafayette, Louisiana, movie theater auditorium before opening fire upon the crowd. Two women, Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson, were killed. Several others were wounded, some critically. The gunman, described as a “drifter” by Lafayette’s police chief, later shot himself to death. According to the Associated Press, he’d obtained his weapon legally at a pawnshop in Phenix City, Alabama, last year—something that probably should never have happened. Also in that report? Per court records, the future murderer exhibited “erratic behavior and threats of violence” that led to a brief involuntary hospitalization in 2008 and a restraining order preventing him from approaching family members.
The Lafayette shooting evoked the one in a Aurora, Colorado, movie theater that killed twelve and injured 70, missing its third anniversary by a mere three days. Since the Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 20 children and six adults later in 2012, there have been more than six dozen mass shootings in the United States, according to the Stanford Geospatial Center—including the recent murders in Charleston and Chattanooga. Add Lafayette to the list.
Jindal, who is known for his pro-gun views, tweeted a call for prayers for those at the theater and their families. He later gave an interview with KLFY-TV that was carried nationally. “The best thing we can do across Lafayette, across Louisiana, across our country,” he said, “is come together in thoughts, in love, in prayer.” I beg to differ.
For something that is so entrenched within religious practice, prayer is a very subjective endeavor. I don’t have an issue with it, or at least with what I perceive its meaning to be. A healthy mix of my own faith in Jesus and my own skepticism borne of family pain and scientific probability has produced in me a skeptical Christianity in which my prayers seek guidance and not favor, with no expectation of an answer. I have no chance at a response, I feel, if I do not pair that prayer with my own action. As I watched my Twitter feed scroll by last night with more information about the Lafayette tragedy, I revisited James 2 in the New Testament, in which the concept of faith without works is pronounced useless—“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead,” reads James 2:26. Being so, I understand the prayer’s purpose to be mostly an assuagement of my own emotions. It’s always more for me, not Him.
A governor issuing a call for prayers in the wake of a fatal mass shooting is almost boilerplate by now, but what good does it truly do? Prayers will not pull the bullets out of those people, nor repair their flesh. The frequency of these terrible events has somehow numbed us, and the lack of political courage on the right (and at times, on the left) to do anything to stem the flow of guns into our country is staggering. But can it help, somehow?
“Prayer in these moments serve two basic functions in my opinion: one as a sincere attempt at showing sorrow and hoped for comfort for the deceased, and second, as a hope the violence will stop,” Butler told me. “However, these prayers, while sincere, tend to be diffuse, non focused, and often are not prayers that are about the root cause of the situations: usually people's actions, changes in gun laws, or repentance—sorrow for being a part of a culture that promotes the violence. Personally, I think it is more about soothing of those who have lost loved ones, and a way to forget the real issues at hand that need to be addressed.”
Jindal is asking us to comfort ourselves in this moment, which sounds right. There he was in Lafayette on Thursday night, recommending prayer as the first recourse and saying, “We never imagined it would happen in Louisiana,” and expecting to be taken seriously. Having now suspended his presidential campaign, he’s going back to being just the governor of the state with perhaps the nation’s weakest gun laws and definitely its worst gun violence. Jindal uses guns as campaign props, frequently touting his hunting acumen, A+ grade from the NRA, and enthusiasm for firearms in speeches, interviews, and in his Twitter feed. “In Louisiana and all across America,” Jindal told the CPAC audience in 2012, “we love us some guns and religion.”
Both came into play on Thursday night in Lafayette. But comforting people after mass shootings, by definition, makes them comfortable after mass shootings. Praying may make you feel better in the moment, but Jindal is essentially asking that citizens do nothing to solve the actual problem of gun violence. People can talk to God if they want, but someone had better be calling Wayne LaPierre at the National Rifle Association. A few members of Congress, too.
As Slate writer Jamelle Bouie noted Thursday night on Twitter, we live in a country willing to accept dozens of murdered children—in a tony Connecticut suburb, no less. Also, we seem to be able to swallow a child and five others being killed in an assassination attempt on a sitting member of Congress, Gabrielle Giffords. Urgency on this issue seems to be out of style, but I’d think that perhaps even out of sheer boredom, this nation would not simply shrug its collective shoulders in grief and resignation for nearly a hundred times in the last several years, and join those actually trying to make our national gun policies make sense. In the absence of any faith that can be done, it will take work.
“I think that in the wake of any tragedy like what happened at the movie theater in Lafayette, I think the natural impulse is to call persons to prayer,” said Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, the pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, where I remain a member. “But I think that the deeper issue is: why do continue to come back to these kinds of incidents?” He continued by calling prayer the hope that “God can do the part that we cannot do.” Can’t we get the guns away from misogynist madmen like Houser, though? I know the NRA is big and bad, but is the possibility of gun control officially resigned to the realm of the supernatural?
Tyler noted that President Barack Obama, in a BBC interview hours before Thursday’s shooting, expressed that the greatest frustration of his presidency is the lack of a sensible gun control policy or policies that would have, perhaps, prevented the John Housers and Dylann Roofs of the world from obtaining firearms they have no business possessing. Again, it seems we’re comfortable with this, the ease of prayer matching the facility with which future mass murderers obtain guns they don’t need, to say nothing of the murderers killing people every night in cities all over the nation. Thirty thousand people die from gunshot wounds every year, but we’re cool with that. We’re comfortable with this culture that allows men—and it’s almost all men, folks—to use guns as an extension of their own phallus, poisoning us all with their toxic masculinity. Recognizing these realities, I cringe whenever any politician tries to mollify the public after a shooting with calls for prayer. (Particularly if they are like Jindal's, fraught with political and religious associations that appeal strictly to a hardline conservative base. He and I may be praying to different Gods as it is.)
“I think that applying prayer in the political sense is part of the issue, frankly. We don't ask our politicians to be religious leaders, we ask them to do their jobs,” Butler said. “Prayer gives Republicans a way to hide behind it as a way to articulate their beliefs about government. Democrats, when pressed, will talk about prayer, but forget that some of their works—particularly around racism or issues of poverty—can find some unlikely allies in traditions that promote prayer like Catholicism. But as a religion scholar, I am not keen on using a scripture to describe what politicians do, since most of that is in the service of politics, whether they talk about prayer or not.”
Tyler told me what he’d have prayed for after the Lafayette shooting. “The prayer we need to pray is for courage and wisdom,” he told me. “Courage to stand up and say that we can live like other developed nations, without the number of homicides that we experience on such a daily basis that now, we’re numb to it. And wisdom to find a different way.” I say amen to that, particularly as it applies to public servants like Jindal, who have abdicated their duty to work towards the public good. But if prayer is partnership with God, as my pastor termed it, we have to do our part.
That will require political will, and for that, we may need divine intervention. Too many politicians align themselves with those who profit from death, then blame the fact that there aren't more of their weapons available in the hands of "good guys." Meanwhile, conservatives like Jindal remain busy demonizing public works that could bring about a solution, expecting us to go forth solely on faith. Damn all that.