Invoking the Unknown: Sectarian Invocations in Government Assemblies

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Posted on May 19th, 2014 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Leadership, Social Issues, Uncategorized
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As Esther Boyd discussed in her recent post, the Supreme Court's Greece vs. Galloway decision upheld the constitutionality of sectarian prayers in legislative assemblies. Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel of the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, referred to the decision as a "victory for religious liberty," going on to explain that "such prayers showcase our nation's religious diversity." According the Family Council President Tony Perkins, "the court has rejected the idea that as citizens we must check our faith at the entrance to the public square.”

There is a flaw in these two men's logic. Legislative prayers historically have not showcased the nation's diversity in terms of both religious and non-religious worldviews and value systems. The majority of them invoke Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As a result, nontheists and members of minority religions are always "expected to check their faith (and non-faith) at the entrance."

Arizona Representative Juan Mendez has pushed a response to the decision that takes Rassbach and Perkins at their word. Mendez encourages humanists and nontheists to come forward to offer secular invocations before legislative assemblies. In his own invocation, he asks his colleagues to look upon their fellow legislators, instead of bowing their heads. He asks them to "share the extraordinary experience of being alive and to dedicate themselves to improving the lives of people in [their] state."

Such an invocation constitutes a tremendous act of bravery. Mendez himself faced public backlash when he revealed his atheism during an invocation. Hindu statesman Rajan Zed faced similarly public controversy when he opened the California Senate with an invocation from the Baghavad Gita. Both Zed and Mendez, in effect, exhorted that the legislature take heed of their deeply held values, and consider them in decision-making.

These acts are beautiful, vulnerable, and (when you hold a minority view) dangerous. They testify to the public square that no one, religious or non-religious, checks their values at the door. They remind those present that legislative actions are not only accountable to privileged value systems. Multiple faith-based and non-faith-based worldviews must be taken seriously if legislative actions are to truly express the will of the the people.

It is a lot to ask members of unprivileged worldviews to expose the values they hold dear to public controversy in the way Zed and Mendez do. Still, I salute them both for calling the bluff of religious liberty movements that seek to preserve Christian privilege in the name of religious diversity and freedom. I salute them for living into a world where a legislator unabashedly yet humbly brings her values into the public square, excited to build legislation that bridges lines of value difference.

Photo: Rajan Zed, Hindu statesman. Via Wikimedia Commons

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One Response to “Invoking the Unknown: Sectarian Invocations in Government Assemblies”

  1. I fully agree with the views expressed in this and similar postings. In US Presidential elections also the candidate has to prove that he is a good Christian to get votes. These are not signs of a secular society. The criteria by which public leaders should be judged are their policies and administrative capabilities along with their personal quality of being a good human being, not a good member of some religious community.

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An American Baptist seminarian pursuing an M.Div/AM at the University of Chicago Divinity School and School of Social Service Administration.


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