Thoughts and prayers

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The phrase "thoughts and prayers" is often used by public officials offering condolences after any publicly notable event, such as a deadly natural disaster.[1] The phrase has received criticism for its repeated usage in the context of gun violence or terrorism,[2][3][4][5][6] with critics claiming "thoughts and prayers" are offered as substitutes for actions they believe would be corrective, like gun control or counter-terrorism.[7][8]

Usage history[edit]

White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders using the term "thoughts and prayers" in reference to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting and the victims of Hurricane Maria
After the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting, Nancy Pelosi sends "thoughts and prayers" for Steve Scalise.

The phrase thoughts and prayers is frequently used as an expression of condolences for victims of natural disasters (e.g., Hurricane Katrina (2005),[9][10] the 2010 Canterbury earthquake[11] 2011 Christchurch earthquake,[12][13][14] the 2017 Central Mexico earthquake, and Hurricane Maria [2017][1]). In addition, "thoughts and prayers" are also offered to victims of numerous mass shootings, including the Columbine High School massacre (1999),[15] the November 2015 Paris attacks,[16] the Orlando nightclub shooting,[17] and the 2017 Las Vegas shooting.[18]

President Donald Trump has been known to use the phrase. In 2016, he used it following the St. Joseph courthouse shooting,[19] the Great Smoky Mountains wildfires,[20] and the shooting of Nykea Aldridge, cousin of professional basketball player Dwyane Wade.[21] In 2017 he used it following the Congressional baseball shooting in June[22] and the Southern California wildfires in December.[23] In 2018, Trump used the phrase following the Marshall County High School shooting in January, the Carcassonne and Trèbes attack in March,[24] the YouTube headquarters shooting in April,[25] and the Capital Gazette shooting in June.[26]

Following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February, Slate noted that several Republican politicians who had previously used the idiom (including Trump and senators Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey) avoided using the specific phrase "thoughts and prayers" in response to the shooting.[27] Trump, for example, instead offered "prayers and condolences" via Twitter.[27][28]

Effect on gun control[edit]

The momentum for gun control legislation in the United States has been blunted repeatedly by the use of the phrase "now is not the time", offered as a defense against what could potentially be hastily-drafted laws.[29] David Weigel pointed out that repeated calls to wait for an "appropriate time" to discuss gun control is the strategy used by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to avoid meaningful legislative action.[30]

United States[edit]

In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.

 — Dan Hodges, Twitter, June 2015[31]

Following the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, several politicians used the phrase "thoughts and prayers" in place of taking immediate legislative action. President Barack Obama called for "meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this regardless of the politics",[32] and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg challenged him to go further: "the country needs [Obama] to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem – and take immediate executive action. Calling for 'meaningful action' is not enough. We have heard that rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership – not from the President and not from Congress. That must end today. This is a national tragedy and it demands a national response."[33] The resulting proposed federal legislation to control guns, including universal background checks, failed to pass Congress; after the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment failed on April 17, 2013, Obama called it "a pretty shameful day for Washington".[34]

Following the Orlando nightclub shooting in June 2016, Phil Plait wrote that while it was "natural and very human" to "send their thoughts and express their grief ... it's cynically hypocritical when politicians do it and nothing else", later noting it was "particularly galling" to see "all the NRA-funded lawmakers tweeting their 'thoughts and prayers'".[35] An accompanying Slate post provided a selected list of members of Congress who had tweeted "thoughts and prayers" along with the amount of campaign contributions they had received from gun rights groups, based on research provided by Igor Volsky of the Center for American Progress.[36]

Protestor's sign at March for Our Lives, Washington DC (2018)

After the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Florida state senators held a contentious debate on SB 7026, which included funding for mental health programs and authorized teachers and school officials to carry concealed firearms;[37] among the amendments that failed were a ban on assault weapons, large-capacity magazines, a gun registry, and requiring background checks for guns purchased out-of-state.[38] Opponents of the ban on assault weapons included Sen. David H. Simmons, who drew an analogy to Nazi Germany's ban on private ownership of firearms,[38] and Sen. Kelli Stargel, who questioned whether the ban would be extended to fertilizer (used in the Oklahoma City bombing) and pressure cookers (used in the Boston Marathon bombing).[39] Stargel added "When we say 'thoughts and prayers,' it's frowned upon. And I take real offense at that because thoughts and prayers are really the only thing that’s gonna stop the evil from within the individual who is taking up their arms to do this kind of a massacre."[39]

International responses[edit]

In contrast to the repeated failure of United States gun control proposals, in many other countries, stricter gun control laws have passed in response to gun violence.[40]

Within one month after the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019, New Zealand legislators passed a law banning the ownership of most semi-automatic weapons[41] (except pistols), including calibres larger than 0.22 and magazines holding more than 10 bullets.[42]

Earlier, the United Kingdom banned semi-automatic weapons following the Hungerford massacre in 1987, then expanded the ban to all handguns after the Dunblane massacre in 1996.[43]

Norway plans to ban semi-automatic weapons by 2021, seen as a belated response to the 2011 Norway attacks.[44]


After a natural or human-caused disaster, people may be urged to "go beyond thoughts and prayers," by donating blood or sending aid or money to help the victims. After the Las Vegas shooting, authorities said that although thoughts and prayers are appreciated, the most effective way to help was to give blood.[45]


As "thoughts and prayers" became associated with post-tragedy condolences, commentators have criticized the phrase as a form of civilian or political slacktivism.[46]

After the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, called on politicians to "move beyond thoughts and prayers".[47] In her post, vanden Heuvel referred to a press release by Paul Helmke, then-president of the Brady Campaign, who offered his thoughts and prayers but also stated "it is long overdue for us to take some common-sense actions to prevent tragedies like this from continuing to occur."[48]

Video of President Obama delivering a statement on a 2015 shooting and criticizing "thoughts and prayers"[49]

In October 2015, following the Umpqua Community College shooting, President Obama said that "thoughts and prayers [do] not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel, and it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted some place else in America next week or a couple months from now."[49] The White House subsequently announced that Obama would continue to take more executive action on the subject of gun control.[50]

On December 2, 2015, in the wake of the San Bernardino mass shooting, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted his frustration with the phrase "thoughts and prayers", a sentiment echoed by the December 3 cover of the New York Daily News, which included tweets from senators and representatives the newspaper characterized as "meaningless platitudes".[51][52]

After the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February 2018, demands for "policy and change" were used as a pithy rejoinder to the typical "thoughts and prayers" offered by politicians.[53] Student survivors of the shooting[54] were joined by religious leaders in calling for concrete legislative actions.[55]

Religious criticism[edit]

Some critics of the phrase "thoughts and prayers" point to the Epistle of James in the Christian New Testament to argue that action is needed in addition to expressions of faith. Verses commonly cited to back up this argument include:[56][57]

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?[58]

Pope Francis stated "Prayer that doesn't lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer. [...] Prayer and action must always be profoundly united" in his Sunday Angelus message on July 21, 2013.[59]

In 2018, the Dalai Lama stated on Twitter that he was "skeptical that prayers alone will achieve world peace. We need instead to be enthusiastic and self-confident in taking action."[60]


Laura Coward, a writer for The Huffington Post, defended the use of the phrase "thoughts and prayers", acknowledging the inadequacy of not taking actions, but arguing that prayer "jolts us and disrupts us, removing us from our comfort zones [... it] takes us to uncomfortable places – spiritually, physically and emotionally – and asks us to do the hard work of accepting more than one perspective."[61] Kimberly Ross, a writer for RedState, asks that victims should "not [be] used as pawns in another political debate about guns" since "[w]e shouldn't blame anyone but the perpetrator for crimes committed, [...] that means we can do nothing on our own – in that moment – apart from submitting thoughts and prayers."[62]

The criticism of the phrase "thoughts and prayers" has itself received criticism as insensitive to those who sincerely pray for victims.[63] Katelyn Beaty argued that prayer "is perhaps the most powerful form of action you can engage in during a crisis", citing studies which showed that regular meditation and prayer improved focus and reduced anxiety, touting the potential beneficial effects for "better policy solutions than would an urgent, fretful, ill-considered response",[64] akin to the "now is not the time" arguments favored by the NRA.

In media[edit]

In his third stand up special "Thoughts and Prayers", comedian Anthony Jeselnik skewers people who tweet out "thoughts and prayers" on the day of a tragedy, calling it a way for those people to garner attention in the face of a tragedy and saying that tweeting thoughts and prayers is so useless that it achieves "less than nothing".[46]

In 2016, a web-based video game, Thoughts and Prayers: The Game, was published to argue that thoughts and prayers have had no effect on saving lives in the context of mass shootings.[65]

The fifth episode of the fourth season of animated series BoJack Horseman, titled "Thoughts and Prayers", presents a real-life shooting that delays the opening of a new movie featuring gun violence.[5]

In early August 2018, after court documents were made public showing the NRA was having financial issues, mocking tweets were made offering thoughts and prayers for the NRA's troubles.[66] Thoughts and prayers were again directed to the NRA in November 2018 after news broke that free coffee at the headquarters was being discontinued amid a sharp drop in revenue[67][68] and again in December 2018 after Maria Butina pleaded guilty to using her connections with the NRA as an unregistered foreign agent.[69]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Scribner, Herb (21 September 2017). "Celebrities share thoughts and prayers for Mexico and Puerto Rico victims". Deseret News. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
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  3. ^ Carter, Brandon (2 October 2017). "Dem rips colleagues for offering 'thoughts and prayers': 'Your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed'". TheHill. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  4. ^ Telnaes, Ann (2 October 2017). "Opinion | Thoughts and prayers, again". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  5. ^ a b Martinelli, Marissa (2 October 2017). "BoJack Horseman's Mass Shooting Episode Reminds Us That "Thoughts and Prayers" Won't Stop Gun Violence". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  6. ^ Murray, Douglas (23 March 2017). "Pray for London, for Antwerp, for Nice: this is Europe's new normal". The Spectator. Retrieved 5 November 2017.
  7. ^ Brigham, Bob (2 October 2017). "'Enough BS': Ex-Bush ethics lawyer derides politicians offering 'thoughts and prayers' after Las Vegas massacre". RawStory. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  8. ^ Bort, Ryan (2 October 2017). "Thoughts and prayers and not much more: Politicians react to Las Vegas shooting". Newsweek. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  9. ^ "A Message to Individuals Impacted by Hurricane Katrina" (Press release). Walmart. 2 September 2005. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  10. ^ Clinton, Bill (2 September 2005). "Statement: Hurricane Katrina Relief" (Press release). Clinton Foundation. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  11. ^ "Thoughts, prayers and love". Stuff.
  12. ^ "Our Thoughts & Prayers Go Out to the People of New Zealand -".
  13. ^ "Archdiocese of Wellington – Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Christchurch".
  14. ^ "Stars send prayers to Christchurch quake victims". 22 February 2011 – via
  15. ^ Robinson, Marilyn; Obmascik, Mark; Lowe, Peggy (24 April 1999). "Official: Bombs planted during prom party?". The Denver Post. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  16. ^ S.Res. 313 at
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  57. ^ DeBerry, Jarvis (2 October 2017). "Opinion: Your thoughts and prayers haven't stopped mass shootings". The Times-Picayune. New Orleans, Louisiana. Retrieved 4 October 2017.
  58. ^ James 2:14–2:16
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  60. ^ Dalai Lama (9 February 2018). "Tweet". Twitter. Retrieved 5 April 2019.
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  65. ^ Kircher, Madison Malone (17 June 2016). "This Is Not Your Average Shooting Game". New York. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
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  69. ^ Phifer, Donica (13 December 2018). "David Hogg sends 'thoughts and prayers' to NRA after Maria Butina pleads guilty". Newsweek. Retrieved 9 April 2019.

External links[edit]