Why are Americans turning to God, not the government, when disasters hit?

Exactly when you’d expect Americans demand elected leaders act on things like gun control, they rush instead into the realm of thoughts and prayers. .


“We took God out of schools,” said a Fox News host about last week’s slaughter in Texas, then “we wonder how this evil comes in.” It left “a vacuum,” and the way to fill it is to “start with God.” Another host agreed, saying change is possible — “but it’s as much prayer as it is policy.” Perhaps even more, I’d observe.

I don’t find talking with God at all perplexing or peculiar. I did a lot of it during a lengthy period earlier in my life. What I do find hard to understand is what so many Americans talk to God about, and when they do it. It is exactly at moments when you’d expect them to turn to elected leaders and governments to demand they act within their proper domain of policy — like gun bans and controls — that Americans rush instead headlong into the realm of thoughts and prayers.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz offered so many thoughts and prayers in response to shootings that (as noted by novelist and former journalist Omar El Akkad) he had to upgrade to “lifting up in prayer” people left bereft by mass shootings.

Shootings are a weird thing to ask God to handle, when God has so obviously left them in the hands of his/her/their human creations to deal with. Places like the U.K. and Australia, with many prayerful folk, have legislated effectively. Even Canada’s been somewhat successful. What’s with Americans?

There are of course times when believers in need turn to God, but at other times they turn to each other for succour, via human institutions like governments. You only turn away from such institutions to God when you’ve concluded they are impotent. It’s as if, in desperation, you try to replace the government with God, confusing one with the other. This is bad for God and bad for government. If U.S. public bodies provided adequate schools and health care, which they too often don’t, then Americans would probably also expect them to fix problems like gun violence.

This wasn’t always so in the U.S.; it’s the fruit of neo-liberalism. The U.S. once had great public schools. But for decades, they’ve been starved and/or privatized under the dogmas of deregulation, free markets and government retreat. Americans pray to God when a social disaster occurs less because they’re stupid than because they’ve lost faith in government and their fellow citizens. That’s rational, not mystical. A public health-care system would do wonders (!) to restore God to a proper divine context, whatever that might be.

It becomes a massive theopolitical muddle. David Simon, who created sublime shows like “The Wire” and the current “We Own This City,” about the hellish violence in U.S. cities, says he “stole from the Greek tragedies, the idea that the institutions were the gods and they were bigger than the people.” That’s brilliant, yet it seems to me in the U.S. case, it’s more like God has replaced the government and is smaller than the people would be if they placed confidence in themselves and their institutions. Gods ought to be gods, not cops or mayors.

The classical sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote a study on what used to be called “primitive religion” among Australia’s Aboriginal people. After examining their practices and beliefs he came to the conclusion that what they meant by God was actually society. Society is an invisible abstraction, yet its combined, vastly complex machinations result in rule-abiding, functioning and often creative arrays of human lives that manage to enhance each other much of the time, rather than undermining each other. Durkheim found it awesome, like God. We all live within society so totally that we rarely notice its astounding processes.

This column first appeared in the Toronto Star.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[