Overview:

After 50 years of prayers and 50 million abortions, did God finally answer Christian prayers and end Roe? No. There's a more mundane cause.

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Those who support the demise of Roe’s legal protection for abortion said the decision was the effect of Christian prayers. And yet it took God 50 years to answer the prayers? At a million abortions a year, God was so offended by the termination of pregnancies that he allowed 50 million abortions to occur while he was mulling over the prayer requests?

Prayer comes from the Latin word precare, which means to beg, plead, or implore. If your heart is made of penetrable stuff, seeing people in prayer will move you. Why? Because prayer is a pitiable disposition. Prayer encompasses all the hopes and wishes of the entire human race collapsed into the feelings and utterances of private and public begging.

Do you realize that most people you see every day beg God for something at one point or another during their seventeen hours of wakefulness? If someone earnestly begged you for something, on their knees in a pitiable tone and with briny tears, wouldn’t you be moved? Wouldn’t you, were it in your power to do so, grant the requests?

It would depend, you say, on what is being begged for.

Since the first humans began begging the Gods many thousands of years ago, until today, there are just five or so recurring prayer requests.

  1. People beg for health, for themselves and for their children, and for their friends and family. Would you give them health, were it in your power?
  2. People beg for their lives or for safety when dangerously ill or otherwise threatened. Would you extend their lives and offer safety?
  3. People beg for guidance in major and minor life choices. Would you grant your guidance?
  4. People beg for forgiveness. Would you forgive?
  5. People beg for solace against life’s outrageous misfortunes. Would you confer solace? You would do all these, if you had the power.

After deadly events, we are asked by preachers and priests and politicians and presidents to pray for survivors. But doesn’t this cast God in an attitude of unsympathetic and adamantine inertia in the face of suffering? It’s as if God were to say, “I wasn’t going to help these families at all, but since you begged me to …” Or to put a finer point on it God might say, “I was not going to help this heart-crushed mother whose child was murdered at school, but since a collection of church-going devotees of mine have begged me in candle-lit vigils for over a month, I will.”

You yourself—heart made of penetrable stuff—might always help a beggar. But, obviously and inarguably, God will not.

Some religions have devised formulaic prayers for various uses, and these prayers are stitched and bound together into prayer books. This religious sensibility invests each word of a prayer with efficacious power, so that the formula of the prayer cannot be deviated from without enervating the effect.

In this view, God is a persnickety judge of proper form: one word off, and God will deem your prayer ineffective.

Philosophical theologians have always been bothered by the idea that human words, garnished with hot emotions evinced in human begging, can alter an immutable God. Unchangeableness is supposedly one of God’s perfect attributes. But if God answers prayer, God is moved to change. This was deemed a problem, and the problem was ‘solved’ through this clever construction: Prayer does not move or change God but puts the petitioner in a position to be moved or changed by God. Smoke and mirrors.

It’s no matter though because most prayers go unanswered, having neither moved God nor any other celestial resident. With billions of daily prayers flung heavenward by billions of people, were you to guess billions of those prayers go unanswered for every one that’s ‘answered,’ you’d probably have a rough estimate of the reality.

You yourself—heart made of penetrable stuff—might always help a beggar. But, obviously and inarguably, God will not.

So no, God didn’t answer anyone’s prayers in the demise of Roe. Roe fell due to human subterfuge—in The Federalist Society, in Senator Mitch McConnell, and in a clutch of improbably placed, feverishly religious, far-right Justices. Can I get an “amen” to that?

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...