Rep. Juan Mendez speaking to the Secular Student Alliance at Arizona State University.

Rep. Juan Mendez speaking to the Secular Student Alliance at Arizona State University. Photo Credit: Arizona State Press, courtesy Mendez.

After the U.S. Supreme Court Greece vs. Galloway decision, which approved of sectarian prayers at the start of government meetings, a number of nontheists weren’t content to simply protest.

Instead, they responded with a big push for Humanist and secular invocations at government meetings, calling on nontheists to offer an alternative to religious prayers.

Such invocations don’t appeal to a God or higher power, but to Humanist values. So if they’re not theistic, what exactly do secular or Humanist invocations entail? What do they look like? Why are they important?

To learn more, I reached out to Arizona state Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, who received a great deal of national attention last year after revealing his atheism while offering an invocation at the Arizona House. Below, Rep. Mendez and I discuss Greece vs. Galloway, nontheists in politics, and why everyone should support Humanist and secular invocations.

Chris Stedman: What are your thoughts on the outcome of Greece vs. Galloway? Why should nontheists, as well as theists, care?

Rep. Juan Mendez: This decision allows publicly elected officials to continue stepping on a divisive soapbox of faith during public meetings in which officials are supposed to be serving all people. It’s unfortunate and frustrating.

While the Galloway decision in theory requires the inclusion of different faiths during government prayer sessions, the practice remains exclusionary for many who identify with a minority religion or no religion at all. A government action is damaging to our societal solidarity when it creates the perception of endorsing religion or disapproving of it.

In the 100 days of session that made up the Arizona State Legislative Session this year, we started every day with prayer. Maybe as many as five of those prayers didn’t reference Jesus as our Lord and Savior. The words “God Enriches” are plastered like stamps of approval around the State Capitol, including inside committee meeting rooms and the House and Senate chambers. This very clearly excludes those of us who are enriched by Humanism instead of a belief in a god. Theists as well as nontheists all ought to care about any practice that excludes full participation in our democracy.

CS: Following that decision, some have called for more Humanist invocations. Why do you think they’re important?

JM: Too many people feel disenfranchised from civic engagement and social justice work because they don’t see their values articulated by their government representatives, their community leaders, their neighbors or their friends. But Humanist and other secular invocations can be relevant and resonant for everyone, regardless of religious belief or nonbelief.

Ultimately, it’s important that we all take on the responsibility of being conscious with the words we use. We have to work with humanizing and connective language if we want to produce progressive policies that create opportunities for everyone to thrive, to provide for their families, and to live joyful, free, actualized lives. This is part of the beauty and power of secular invocations.

CS: For those who have never heard one, what does a Humanist invocation entail?

JM: Most prayers begin with a request to bow your heads. I asked my colleagues not to bow their heads. I asked that they take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women there, in that moment, sharing together the extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state. And that we root our policymaking process in the fact that we have much more in common than we have differences. It was really simple—yet I’m still learning about the impact those kinds of inclusive words can make.

Rep Juan Mendez with secular lobbyist Seráh Blain and Secular Coalition for Arizona's Matt Schoenley after giving his Humanist invocation in May 2013.

Rep. Juan Mendez with secular lobbyist Seráh Blain and Secular Coalition for Arizona’s Matt Schoenley after giving his Humanist invocation in May 2013. Photo Credit: SC Arizona, courtesy Mendez.

CS: Why should theists support Humanist and secular invocations?

JM: People of faith need to support the full variety of expressions of belief and nonbelief in our communities because it’s essential to religious freedom. This freedom applies to all of us—not just those whose religion is in the majority at any given moment. The healthiest thing for our democracy would be to begin our public meetings with statements that focus all of us, regardless of religious belief or nonreligious worldview, on the collaborative work of representing our constituents and improving our world.

CS: What advice would you give to other atheists and Humanists who want to offer invocations?

JM: Speak authentically. Don’t worry about originality; steal and borrow whatever resonates or speaks to you. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And if you can, in a diplomatic and compassionate way, make the invocation a protest against division and a petition for ending the practices that continue to support religious division. We need to speak out against practices that separate us from one another.

CS: Nontheist James Woods recently announced his Arizona Congressional campaign, which you are supporting. Why do you think it is important to have nontheists involved in politics?

JM: Nontheists are already involved in politics—but because of the political risk involved in being authentic about atheism, too many people have chosen to hide their nonbelief. I think it’s really damaging to the democratic process to make authenticity taboo. We can improve the depth and quality of our society when we stop shutting people out of the conversation just because their views aren’t the majority view.

I really admire how James is running straight toward the hard questions around Humanism and progressivism in a very visible way; this means that addressing these issues will be easier for other candidates who follow. Someone has to blaze the trail so we can get people to start walking toward full inclusion and authenticity. I can’t overemphasize what a huge, watershed moment the Woods campaign is.

CS: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

JM: No matter what happens on a national level, in Arizona and in other states, we need to end the polarization around immigration and families in order to restore the trust and public safety our communities deserve. This legislative session, over 100 immigration advocates gathered in Phoenix to study and expand on legislation I sponsored and introduced with 16 other members at the beginning of the session, HB2655, The Trust Act. We carried out a successful briefing and press release to steer the immigration conversation toward humane and respectful approaches.

Our current immigration policy is antithetical to Humanism, so I want to implore others to engage in local immigration conversations so we can get closer to restoring justice and trust in our communities.

13 Comments

  1. I disagree totally. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..” means, as Thomas Jefferson explained to the Danbury, CT, Baptists, a “wall of separation” between religion and politics, between churches and government.

    The Framers knew their history, and they recognized how divisive religion and churches were when mixed with politics and government. It is for that very reason that the very first clause of the very First Amendment to the Constitution was to build such a wall of separation to prevent such troubles in our new government.

    The insistence of religious individuals, as in Greece, NY, and the Catholic majority on our Supreme Court, to ignore that troublesome history and violate the very Constitution that Court should be enforcing and protecting, is a clear demonstration of the problems the Framers recognized and presumed they were avoiding with the “non-establishment clause.”

    Religious people, like the Greece, NY, politicians and the Catholic majority of our Supreme Court, are not secure in their own beliefs. That is precisely why they insist on adding religious practices to civil action. They are unconsciously reinforcing their religious beliefs about which they are insecure.

    Worse, they are violating all decency, especially the decency presumed of religion, by pompously forcing their religious practices onto everyone else, believers and non-believers. Instead of responding “Amen,” I respond “god-damn!” And I use a lower case “g” to assert my non-belief in the face of their boldness to dare to try to force their beliefs onto me.

  2. Sure. No problem. Su “First Amendment”, es mi “First Amendment.”

    So, you really want more atheist invocations? Then Go volunteer down at City Hall or your State Legislature. Ask to be placed in the invocation rotation or something.

    Hopefully the atheist prayers will be interesting (which is what I say of all invocations).

    But honestly, for me, since you got nobody to pray to, and no God to expect the slightest help or aid from, there’s not much you’ll be able to offer. As Ben Franklin discussed at the constitutional convention of 1787, a desirable outcome for America’s citizens is ultimately NOT a matter of human effort, but of a special, supernatural Person.

    “And have we forgotten that powerful Friend?”, Ben Franklin asked. America’s well-being, and that of her city halls and state legislatures, seriously depends on the answer to that very question.

    • See what I mean? It never stops. Religion has always caused wars, wars between religions and ugly battles within nations and wars between nations for political reasons. That is precisely why it was wise for the Framers to specifically exclude religion from our governmental life. To accomplish that, it must be kept out of politics. We can’t control the politics outside government, but we sure as hell can keep religion out of government by abiding by the First Amendment. It’s good for both, government and religion.

  3. Chris, as usual – great article.

    While gilhcan makes a good point, I can see reasons the other way too.

    When this has come up in the past in discussion, my suggestion to make an invocation that includes everyone was countered by “you make one that includes everyone, and we’ll continue with our prayers when it our turn, and that’s fair to everyone”. I have to point out then that such a plan is not fair, and show that by offering a comparably assertive Humanist invocation, such as “we all give thanks to those brave people who have died for showing us that all gods are just myths, and that hell is just a tool for oppression.”.

    Then they usually see that only inclusive invocations (that don’t mention a god or Jesus) are actually fair.

    However, reading this article helped me see that Mendez’ idea might be better – to offer an invocation which does support Humanism (by condemning divisive invocations explicitly)- and still includes everyone. That is countering the idea while still respecting all people. Bravo!

    His point to be 100% authentic and not worry about being original is great. We need some central place – on a Humanist website or something – to make nationally avaiable a selection of Humanist invocations, so that someone already dealing with the difficult challege of this kind of a situation isn’t simultaneously saddled with trying to come up with an invocation.

    • That is precisely the nature of religion, division. You cannot have a “united” government, a unified and peaceful civic life, without keeping religion separate from them.

    • Another reason for the exclusion of religion from government and civic life, even when some think what they say or do is religious, others think it’s “crazy” and “blasphemous.”

      Government and civic life are not health–they cannot be healthy–unless religion is excluded. Belief is private. Religion is belief. Religion should be private or shared only among those groups who share the beliefs and wish to participate.

  4. So I sent him the words we recite at West Hill every week, written to replace the Lord’s Prayer and mimic its cadence. Starts with words similar to the prayer (wrongfully) attributed to St. Francis so that it would “feel” like it had history. If you use it, please credit it!

    As I live every day,
    I want to be a channel for peace.
    May I bring love where there is hatred,
    and healing where there is hurt;
    joy where there is sadness,
    and hope where there is fear.
    I pray that I may always try
    to understand and comfort other people
    as well as seeking comfort and understanding from them.
    Wherever possible,
    may I choose to be
    a light in the darkness,
    a help in times of need,
    and a caring, honest friend.
    And may justice, kindness, and peace
    flow from my heart forever,
    Amen.
    written by gretta vosper and Scott Kearns
    (c) 2005 West Hill United Church
    Creative Commons Licensing – you can use it, reproduce it, but attribute it and don’t change it unless you mark it changed. Thanks!

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