In the wake of tragedy, we are accustomed to hearing calls for “ thoughts and prayers.” We have heard them from prominent political figures, both Democrats and Republicans. But more recently, such calls have drawn harsh criticism from the Left.
What does it mean when a political leader says that the nation’s “ thoughts and prayers ” are with those who are in sorrow and grief? It could mean nothing. It could be a quick way of moving on without meaning to do anything.
Or it could be an expression of what is called “civil religion,” the common spiritual language of the American people. Robert Bellah, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, famously argued that “every nation and every people come to some form of religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not.”
Some critics clearly do not like it. Nevertheless, expressions of civil religion are necessary for a president of the United States — any president — who must lead the nation, sometimes as mourner in chief.