It used to be that “thoughts and prayers” was the least controversial thing a politician could tweet — the bereavement equivalent of a baby-kissing photo-op. But on Wednesday, two shooters in San Bernardino, Calif., attacked a social services center, killing 14. And then a mob of frustrated Twitter users attacked that phrase.


Jeannetta Million, center, of Victorious Believers Church, leads a group of local pastors in a brief prayer vigil in San Bernardino, Calif., blocks from the scene of the shooting in which 14 people died. (James Quigg/Daily Press via Associated Press)

You would think that “thoughts and prayers” would be impossible to misconstrue. Its sentiment covers a broad base, reaching the religious and agnostics alike. It’s perfectly beige.

Except.

“Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who represents another town on America’s map of tragedies: Newtown, Conn. “God isn’t fixing this,” blared the front-page headline of the New York Daily News. ThinkProgress’s Igor Volsky tweeted out the amount that thoughts-and-prayers-bearing politicians have received in donations from the National Rifle Association. Some pointed out the difference between tweets by Democratic presidential candidates, which were oriented toward gun control, vs. those of Republican candidates, which expressed prayerful sympathy for the victims. Conservatives accused liberals of mocking their faith. The Atlantic called it “prayer-shaming.”

Although he is not sure when the phrase “thoughts and prayers” became the default bereavement greeting in American politics, Thomas Tweed, a University of Notre Dame professor who studies religion in America, says that it comes from devotionals, or religious manuals, that date back to the 1600s. Books such as William Nind’s “Prayers and Thoughts in Verse” (1849) would have been “the kind of thing on someone’s nightstand,” Tweed said.

“I think it’s become a kind of ritual or ceremonial phrase,” he said. “It’s part of a kind of ritual speech that we offer at difficult moments, but translated into the new media of Twitter and the other social media, it takes on a widely disparate meaning.”

After all, no one can tell whether there is real sentiment behind a tweet, or whether someone is just echoing the magic password for not being a bad person. Most of the online ire was directed at political figures with the power to affect gun control laws — not everyday prayerful citizens.

“I don’t see it as anti-religion as much as I see it as a response of frustration to people who are using a simple phrase of condolence without really being sincere about it or being responsive to what is happening,” said Christopher Coyne, the Catholic bishop of Burlington, Vt., who is active on social media.

There’s a lesson about this in the Bible too, said Coyne, who recited the Bible passage James 2:16: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

In 2013, in the wake of Newtown, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted Senate testimony in support of stricter gun laws. The Catholic Church views the issue through its antiabortion lens.

After the attacks in Paris last month, there was a similar outcry against prayer in response to #prayforparis trending. A drawing by French cartoonist Joann Sfar that read, “Friends from the whole world, thank you for #PrayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kissing! Life!” went viral. And others chimed in with, “The terrorists pray. Good people think.” But thinking apparently isn’t cutting it these days, either.

“Try this: Stop thinking. Stop praying. Look up Einstein’s definition of ‘insanity.’ Start acting on gun violence prevention measures,” tweeted Think Progress’s Zack Ford.

Noted Coyne, “I can’t quite get my head around the idea of why people would be offended by my prayers for them.” Prayer has value for people who feel helpless in the wake of a distant tragedy, he said. “The most important thing when you’re trying to console or help people who have suffered a great loss is to be present,” and even silent prayer is a way of being present.

But politicians — or at least their social media managers — might be keeping their prayers offline for a little while.

“If you’re a speechwriter today, you’re not sure what to say next time tragedy strikes,” Tweed said. “My hunch is that a lot of those who craft public rhetoric will try to find another phrase, at least in the short run, at least until the media cycle ends and we forget this.”

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean agrees.

“I think that it would be wise for Republicans to start using different sympathetic language to avoid the Democrats trying to lay political traps for them around this tragedy,” Bonjean said.

But Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, for one, demurs. Carson “understands the power of prayer,” said campaign press secretary Deana Bass. “I’m sure he’ll continue to pray for this nation.”