Democratic State Rep. Juan Mendez opened a session of the Arizona House this week with a quote from Carl Sagan instead of the customary prayer. Republican State Rep. Steve Smith refused to allow an atheist’s right to give the House Invocation to go unchallenged.
Last Tuesday, something unexpected happened in the Arizona House. It was Representative Juan “Johnny” Mendez’ turn to open the legislative session with a prayer. Rep. Mendez, a unapologetic atheist, said he felt that he had the right to use that time to “stand up and offer some kind of thing that represented my view of what’s going on.” So he invited members of the Secular Coalition of Arizona, a group usually ignored by lawmakers, to watch from the gallery as he took the opportunity to make this positive, life-affirming statement:
Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you not bow your heads. I would like to ask that you to take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people in our state.
This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my Secular Humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in commobon than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love…
Carl Sagan once wrote, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” There is, in the political process, much to bear. In this room, let us cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our state, for our Constitution, for our democracy — and let us root our policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans regardless of religious belief or nonbelief. In gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion, let us work together for a better Arizona.
Afterwards, Rep. Medez told the press, “I hope today marks the beginning of a new era in which Arizona’s non-believers can feel as welcome and valued here as believers.”
Please note that no lightning bolts hit Rep. Mendez as he stood on the Capitol lawn afterwards, surrounded by members of Arizona’s Secular Coalition holding signs that read “ONE in FIVE,” drawing attention to the recent Pew poll that determined 1 in 5 Americans check the “None” box when asked if they are affiliated with an organized religion. The weather service had no reports of flash floods that made ark travel necessary in Tuscon or Tempe. None of the Arizona papers reported infestations of locusts or an eruption of boils. So the gods all seemed ok with Johnny Mendez’ secular invocation. But there was someone unhappy. Arizona State Representative Steve Smith, self-appointed Christian Mullah, went Taliban on Rep. Mendez when the House session opened the following morning.
Rep. Steve Smith’s Facebook page claims he is a state senator. He’s not. He used to be, but his district was combined with a neighboring one, and Smith had to choose whether to run for reelection to his senate seat, or take over his district’s house seat, for which there was no Democratic opponent. Smith took the sure thing. I guess he has yet to come to terms with his change in title, or perhaps he just hasn’t gotten around to updating his Facebook status. It’s only been 5 months. His ‘likes” by the way, include Barry Goldwater, Paul Ryan, and Christian 4 Biz. Smith says enthusiastically that he’s anti-choice and anti-gay, and he thumps the bible every chance he gets.
Although his committee assignments do not seem to include the House Committee for Christian Sharia Law, Smith took it upon himself to inform his fellow House Members that Rep. Johnny Mendez’ use of prayer time for his (very Jesus-like) message of compassion and cooperation was an affront to his god. After Wednesday morning’s prayer and pledge had been completed, Smith addressed the House, publicly chastising Rep. Mendez:
“When there’s a time set aside to pray and to pledge, if you are a non-believer, don’t ask for time to pray. If you don’t love this nation and want to pledge to it, don’t say I want to lead this body in the pledge, and stand up there and say, ‘you know what, instead of pledging, I love England.”
Smith presented no credentials that would indicate how he became vested with the power to decide exactly what is, or what isn’t, an acceptable prayer. Perhaps he keeps them with his white Mullah’s robe and the stick he uses to threaten unmarried women seeking to buy birth control pills, and gay teens trying to come out of the closet. Whatever his authority, it must be substantial. Perhaps an advanced theological degree he neglected to mention on his curriculum vitae? Or it could be the night after Rep. Mendez spoke of love on the House floor, he heard the voice of Jesus in his dreams telling him to go forth and nip Johnny Mendez’ whole “love thy neighbor” idea in the bud. Steve Smith did not indicate where his license to judge came from, but judge he did. Smith announced to the assembly that Johnny Mendez’ entreaty to cooperation and compassion did not meet Steve Smith’s immutable standards.
“That wasn’t a prayer, it’s that simple!” Smith proclaimed.
Then, to publicly chastise Rep. Mendez, Steve Smith offered what he called a prayer of “repentance of yesterday” bullying House members, who had already offered their morning prayer, to stand once again and “give our due respect to the creator of the universe.”
About 30 sheeple, half the 60-member legislature, joined Mullah Smith in this blatant insult to Rep. Mendez and the 1.3 million Arizonans who are not followers a religious tradition.
Johnny Mendez, the secular humanist, turned the other cheek. But there was one unexpected champion of freedom who had the courage to defend Rep. Mendez and challenge Steve Smith’s standing as self-appointed Christian Mullah. Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, a Native American woman whose district includes the Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona, let Steve Smith know, his was not the final word on the subject. Rep. Peshlakai:
“I want to remind the House and my colleagues and everybody here that several of us here are not Christianized. I’m a traditional Navajo, so I stand here every day and participate in prayers,” even without personally embracing them. This is the United States, this is America, and we all represent different people… and you need to respect that. Your God is no more powerful than my God. We all come from the same creator.”
I find no small amount of irony in the idea a nation founded by people who fled Europe because they wished to worship in their own diverse ways could produce a Steve Smith – and we have so many so many Steve Smiths! These “Christian Only” officials personify everything the colonists risked their lives to get out from under. It’s been 200 years, it seems like religious freedom should be second nature by now. It should be in our bones. In our American DNA. The freedom to worship, or not to worship, should be like breathing. Instead, everywhere we turn it seems to be on life support.
Johnny Mendez is trying to open a dialogue. Steve Smith is attempting to shut that dialogue down. Choose your side, the stakes could not be higher: freedom of expression.
Watch Rep. Mendez’ Invocation:
Image (top) from Mosques around the Globe Facebook Page
Rep. Juan Mendez press conference photo from Richard Dawkins Coalition for Reason and Science Facebook Page
Rep. Steve Smith’s photo via his Facebook Page
Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai’s photo via her Facebook Page
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.