It has become a cliché every time another mass killing rocks the United States. Politicians offer “thoughts and prayers” to victims’ loved ones, but offer no concrete actions to tighten gun control. How did this Hallmark-worthy greeting-card phrase end up at the center of a fiery political debate?

This time the horror unfolded last Monday at a Christian school in Nashville. Six people, including three children, were killed by someone armed to the teeth.

As always after a mass shooting in the United States, elected officials expressed their sympathy to the relatives of the victims. “We send our thoughts and prayers to the families of those who lost their lives,” Tennessee Rep. Andy Ogles said.

His statement sparked a torrent of comments on social media, accusing him of being hypocritical at best, and complicit in the tragedy at worst. In 2021, the elected Republican posted a photo of his family on Facebook posing all smiles with assault rifles in front of a Christmas tree.

“When babies die in a Christian school, it’s time for us to go beyond thoughts and prayers,” responded U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black.

The adage thoughts and prayers is specific to American culture, says Véronique Pronovost, researcher at the Raoul-Dandurand Chair.

It refers to a feeling of compassion and empathy (thoughts), but also to the intervention of God (prayers). “Prayer is a commonplace for American society,” says the doctoral student in sociology from the University of Quebec in Montreal.

In politics, the term’s use dates back to 1950, when President Harry Truman, at a White House conference, offered “his thoughts and prayers to the young men fighting in Korea,” notes the American media Insider. Its contemporary use, mostly associated with mass shootings, is thought to date from the Columbine High School shootings, which killed 17 in 1999.

In Quebec, when a tragedy occurs, politicians often offer “their thoughts” to show their empathy. Paying tribute to the victims and naming the horror “has the effect of calming the discontent and rallying people behind the politician, which, however, no longer works in the United States,” says Ms. Pronovost.

Today, the expression has rather the effect of antagonizing the fringe of American society which has been calling for tighter gun control for years, especially when it comes from the mouths of Republican leaders.

“It’s become something of a cliché, because the longer the time goes by without political leaders taking concrete action to ban assault weapons or make it more difficult to acquire them, the hollower these words seem,” notes Russell P. Johnson, associate director of the religious studies program at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

According to Véronique Pronovost, the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, which killed 28 people, including 20 children, in 2012, was the tipping point. It was the tragedy that was to change everything legislatively, and yet history keeps repeating itself.

“There is an extremely strong cynicism that has emerged,” observes Ms. Pronovost. In recent years, the expression has inspired many memes, including a video game in which you have to prevent shootouts using the “thought” and “pray” buttons. Even the Urban Dictionary defines the adage as “an expression of indifference in the face of tragedy, in an effort to appear empathetic.”

“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” ex-US President Barack Obama thundered during remarks following the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon in 2015. According to an analysis of the Washington Post, this declaration marks the politicization of the adage on social networks.

In 2017, an Atlantic reporter calculated that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” had been heard 4,139 times in the Senate or House of Representatives since 1995, which equated to almost once per sitting day. Today, Republicans would avoid using the phrase that has become a “rallying cry” for Democrats, a Republican official told Insider in 2021.

For Russell Johnson, there are certain risks to these criticisms. “Following a mass shooting, criticizing conservative political leaders can also become routine talk that doesn’t necessarily lead to substantial change,” he explains. Above all, they must not shirk the need to show compassion and solidarity when a tragedy strikes society, he believes.