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Arizona Rep. Juan Mendez: We need atheist invocations

After Greece vs. Galloway, Arizona Rep. Juan Mendez tells RNS why atheists should offer invocations at government meetings, and why all people should support them.

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