A couple of weeks ago, Arizona State Rep. Athena Salman delivered an invocation that didn’t refer to God or a traditional “Higher Power,” only to have Republicans in the House say she broke the rules.
All prayers had to reference a Supreme Being, they said, and if she didn’t have one (as an atheist), then she should’ve asked the other House members “to focus on theirs.” Then, a Republican gave a second invocation — a Christian one — to make up for what Salman did. It was an utterly demeaning response to an otherwise excellent statement.
One of the more uplifting reactions to that whole debacle occurred on Thursday, when United Methodist minister David Felten was invited by State Rep. Mark Cardenas to open the day’s session with his own prayers.
In solidarity with Rep. Salman, Felten’s invocation was also secular.
Good Morning. I invite you to center yourselves in a manner that reflects your tradition and worldview…
How good it is to be alive!
To feel the beat of our own hearts,
the pulsing of life in our veins,
the rhythm of our breathing.
And so we come to this moment with gratitude for the wonder of life this day.
May it be a day of opportunity — to take seriously the responsibility of serving the whole community, with all its diversity; of overcoming the temptation to disrespect those whose lives or beliefs are unfamiliar, and of seeking to promote understanding, wisdom, and the common good.
In our communities at large and in this chamber, as differences of opinion and points of view are articulated, may we be reminded of our common love for this State and its people.
May our representatives gathered here be moved to express their privilege in actions of compassion and grace — especially for the benefit of those in our communities who are excluded or struggling to make their way through life.
In so doing, may Peace, Salaam, Shalom be our way in the world.
May it be so.
It might sound religious, but it was explicitly not religious.
And no Republicans rebuked him. And no Republicans offered a Christian prayer to “make up” for what Felten did.
Isn’t that interesting…
Felten said in an email to me:
Certain House members were happy to rebuke a person who is young, female, humanist, and a member of a racial minority. But when a white male clergyperson from a mainline church breaks the rules, I get a pass.
He gets it. Felten’s invocation looked right, so he got a pass. Salman’s was unique and didn’t play into tradition, so she was called out on it. The whole purpose of the opening prayer was lost in the battle over keeping Christian traditions.
It’s all the more reason to celebrate what Felten did and thank the legislator who made it possible, which is what the Secular Coalition for Arizona did in a press release:
“Personally, I’m Catholic,” said Cardenas, “but I asked Reverend Felten to give a secular invocation because that’s the most inclusive. It’s applicable to all of us regardless of our religious beliefs or lack of belief.”
“Unlike Representative Salman’s experience, it appears that my title and clerical garb served as insulation from any immediate consequences.” said Felten. “Religious freedom shouldn’t be dependent on a title or clerical garb. It should be extended to all Arizonans — including religious minorities and the secular community.”
This isn’t the first time Cardenas has defended secular invocations. In 2014, after a similar incident involving atheist State Rep. Juan Mendez, Cardenas delivered a six-second invocation that was preceded by a lengthy disclaimer about how he wasn’t speaking for anyone but himself.
In case you’re wondering, Felten’s invocation didn’t escape the attention of Rep. Salman. They met up afterwards to take this picture:
That’s interfaith cooperation I could easily support.