Why Juan Mendez Matters.

DSC_0032Lake Tahoe. December 2011.

Casey and I have been consuming The West Wing over the last several months. It’s a fantastic show with strong characters, incredible acting, and a nice insight into certain aspects of the political process. But my favorite moments of the show are the rousing, inspirational speeches given by a charismatic President. After one of these speeches ending in the Catholic President’s (and every other President in the real world’s) requisite “May God bless you. And may God bless America!” I found myself wondering. I wondered how an atheist President could end a speech. What would the phrase be? This is of course assuming that an openly atheist President could be elected in America. I noodled around some ideas, mostly Sagan quotes. But what could be pithy enough that would fit the meter of the traditional statement? I still don’t know.

Then I realized that truly, even a current President should be ending his/her speeches more inclusively. In spite of what the vocal minority of intensely Christian online commenters say, leaving God out of a government address is not persecuting Christians. In fact, by leaving God in speeches, it’s actually leaving out those citizens of the United States who do not believe. But the odds of God leaving any government address are incredibly low. At least I thought that until I opened my laptop yesterday to read about Arizona Representative Juan Mendez, who managed to deliver the most beautiful, inspiring invocation I’ve ever read in my life. He did it in front of his colleagues, and he did it during a government session.

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 common 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.

One of Rep. Mendez’s colleagues decided that the next day’s session needed two prayers, one being in repentance of what Rep. Mendez did the day before, since what he did was
“not a prayer.” I find this reprehensible. It was Rep. Mendez’s turn, and he gave an invocation that I would challenge anyone to find exclusionary. Apologies to the tapirs and zebras reading this, but I can say with utmost confidence that everyone was included in this “godless” invocation.

Rep. Mendez’s invocation was “not a prayer.” Not a prayer? Not a prayer? Of course it wasn’t a prayer! Who said anything about prayer? I thought that Rep. Mendez signed up to give an invocation. What does invocation mean? One definition is this: “the action of invoking something or someone for assistance or as an authority.” Rep. Mendez delivered an invocation. He invoked the love we should all have for each other as people, as humans. He said nothing against anyone’s religion or belief systems. He appealed to the best that we have in all of us. And despite the headlines, it wasn’t about atheism, because atheism is not a belief system. It was about secular humanism, which by its definition includes all humans. All of them. Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Anglicans, Satanists, pagans, atheists, Wiccans. All. Everyone. One nation, under the atmosphere.

I sent Rep. Mendez an email saying that I would be proud to call him my representative if I lived in his district. I’ve never in my life heard of a politician speak openly about his non-belief in God and in his belief in something I feel to be far greater: all of us, collectively, as a species, focusing only on today. Here. Right now. What’s in front of us.

Thank you, Juan Mendez. I’ve never felt prouder to be an American.

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One Response to Why Juan Mendez Matters.

  1. iamchesapeake says:

    Thanks for the former, and I agree completely with the latter.

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