December 11, 2015

Perspective / Sean Gallagher

Critics have short-sighted view on faith in wake of San Bernadino terrorist attack

Various forms of social media—Facebook, Twitter and the like—have for years shown a tendency to coarsen public discourse. The anonymity of such online forms of communication make it easier for people to speak their minds in harsh ways that they might think twice about doing if speaking face to face with another person.

At other times, social media can promote the common good and strengthen solidarity. This happened shortly after Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik gunned down 14 people and injured 21 others on Dec. 2 in an Islamic State-inspired terrorist attack in San Bernadino, Calif., when people across the country, many political leaders included, went to Twitter to express their prayers for all those affected by the shooting.

That good use of social media quickly turned dark, however. With the dead and injured still littering the Inland Regional Center in San Bernadino and police officers scouring the area in a search for the attackers, Gene Weingarten, a columnist for The Washington Post, sent out a tweet that read, “Dear ‘thoughts and prayers’ people: Please shut up and slink away. You are the problem, and everyone knows it.”

The online news outlet The Huffington Post characterized the prayers of political leaders in such a context as “useless.” And the New York Daily News, known for its scathing headlines, reached a new level of daring when it spread the following message across its front page on Dec. 3: “God Isn’t Fixing This,” condemning anti-gun control politicians who “hide behind meaningless platitudes.” The Daily News’ disdainful front page was soon spread far and wide through social media.

Clearly, the primary goal of the shocking words of many of these critics was to call to task politicians who oppose gun control laws, or at least the ones favored by the critics. Because I’m not opposed in principle to increasing gun control measures, I think furthering the public discussion on that topic can be helpful.

I just think scorning prayer is not an effective way to do this. Seen from a merely political perspective, the sharp condemnation of prayer by Weingarten, the Daily News and others might alienate many people across the country who might otherwise be as critical of gun control opponents as they are. I suspect there are many people of faith across the country who both highly value prayer and are open to deepening the public debate on gun control.

At a deeper level, such widespread and open scorning of prayer by members of the mainstream media is suggestive of the growing secularization of a society where the complete shunning of religious voices by influential people is more socially acceptable.

These shapers of culture, however, have a short-sighted perspective on faith. In the Catholic faith at least, a “both and” perspective has been embraced from the very beginning. We believe that God calls us both to pray and to be active in carrying out his will for his glory and the common good. Indeed, we see the two as closely intertwined. Through prayer, we are drawn to a clearer knowledge of God’s will and given the grace to carry it out more effectively.

If Weingarten, the Daily News and others had this perspective on prayer and works, they might actually sincerely encourage the politicians they oppose to enter more deeply into prayer for themselves and those affected by the kind of attack that happened in San Bernadino.

Maybe that is too much to hope for in our growing secularized society. But that won’t stop me from praying for it to happen.

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