Yesterday, while trekking through the rubble from Monday’s horrific tornado in Moore, Okla., CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stopped to interview a survivor holding her young child in her arms.
After the woman recounted the last-minute escape that saved her family’s life, Blitzer said, “I guess you got to thank the Lord, right?” The woman hedged and looked down at her baby.
“Do you thank the Lord? For that split-second decision?” Blitzer pressed. CNN cut to a close-up of the woman’s face.
“I’m actually an atheist,” the survivor said politely. There was a moment of silence, then the two laughed awkwardly.
“You are? Oh, all right,” Blitzer responded, visibly surprised. CNN cut back to the medium shot. “But,” he said, “you made the right call.”
But. Note the conjunction. Somehow, Blitzer seems to be saying, without any professed faith in a higher power, this woman and her child survived—even without God on her team. What a coup!
Blitzer’s behavior may seem startlingly condescending, insensitive, and mawkish. But in fact, mentions of God, miracles, and prayer have become the argot of post-disaster reportage. They shouldn’t be. If you want to pray for Oklahoma or thank God it didn’t kill more people, go ahead. But please, especially if you’re a journalist, keep it to yourself.
Thanking the Lord for deliverance just doesn’t make any sense. Any God powerful and attentive enough to save survivors’ lives should also be powerful and attentive enough to stop the catastrophe in the first place. It’s insulting, futile, and distracting from the reality of natural disasters to inject your god into a calamity like Oklahoma's.
Not that most public figures are hesitating to do so. #PrayforOklahoma began trending on Twitter soon after news of the storm spread, attracting contributions from Chris Christie, Laura Ingraham, and Michael Vick. President Obama proclaimed that “our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma,” and Gov. Mary Fallin requested “lots of prayers.” (Fortunately for the survivors, she wasn’t too busy praying to set up an actual disaster relief fund.)
In a country as religious as the United States, calling for prayer is almost always a popular move for politicians. But the trend extends into what should be fact-based news broadcasting. A reporter for KFOR, examining the footage of a razed school, noted that “we pray [the faculty and children] were somewhere else.” (They weren’t; seven children perished.) Even the anchors at the Weather Channel, normally a good source for solid meteorological reporting, repeatedly sent their prayers to Oklahoma on Monday night. And while interviewing Ben McMillan, a storm chaser who used his EMT training to rescue 15 people from tornado rubble, Erin Burnett on CNN exclaimed, “Thank God you were able to help them!” (Shouldn’t she be thanking McMillan?)