For a couple of months now, atheist activist Justin Scott has been trying everything to get an Iowa state senator to invite him to give an invocation before one of their sessions. Christian pastors are invited to do it all the time, so why can’t an atheist offer secular words of inspiration?
Justin did exactly that in the Iowa House last year (as did another Humanist a couple of weeks later), so this didn’t seem all that controversial. Surely someone — probably a Democrat — would be willing to put his name on the list?
He’s now emailed all 50 state senators, and not a single one, Republican or Democrat, will sponsor his invocation. One said yes but hasn’t responded to Justin’s emails about possible dates/times. Several Democrats said they had no problem with him, per se, but they opposed the invocation practice entirely and wouldn’t be sponsoring anybody. One Republican accused him of just trying to “draw attention” by “making a political point out of an important part” of the day… even though you could easily say the same thing about pastors who make similar requests.
It’s all been very frustrating, as you might imagine.
The most eye-popping response came last month, when Justin got in touch with State Sen. Craig Johnson, the man who represents his district. Johnson didn’t just say no. He said, “I can no more sponsor this request than I could sponsor a bill for abortion,” as if allowing an atheist to speak in the State Senate for a couple of minutes was the same thing, in his mind, as murdering a baby. He added that his constituents knew him to “be a legislator with Christian beliefs,” which apparently meant he couldn’t extend an olive branch to an atheist… even though sponsoring people to deliver invocations doesn’t mean you agree with all their beliefs.
It was a horrible response that was echoed by so many of the other elected officials. So when Johnson held a town hall this past weekend (along with Republican State Rep. Sandy Salmon), Justin was there with some questions and a camera.
Justin began by asking a simple question: Did State Sen. Johnson (as opposed to “regular citizen” Johnson) identify himself, first and foremost, as a Christian or an Iowan? The thinking was that elected officials ought to set aside advocacy of their personal religious beliefs when acting on behalf of thousands of diverse constituents.
Johnson didn’t like the premise of the question, but he spoke about how he planned to use the little bit of time “set aside for prayer” before each Senate session.
What I said was absolutely true to you. … What I would also bring up, Justin, though, is that for me to invite somebody in [for] prayer time, which amounts to one minute, maybe three minutes out of, if you use an eight-hour day as an example, 480 minutes, 3 minutes, 0.00625% of that day was spent on prayer, the rest of the day’s wide open for whatever. So I’m interested that speaking, you know, of God for that short of time during the day in the Capitol has everybody up in arms. I’m good with whatever you want to believe or not believe, I’ll talk with you about any subject, in the rotunda, anywhere you want in the Capitol.
For that moment in the Senate, that is set aside for prayer, for me to invite you in — it is an invite, by invite — here’s my policy going forward, just so I’m clear: I will have to have been to a ceremony, something, in a religious setting, with a pastor, that has said prayers with his congregation, or her congregation. That’s how important it is to me. Maybe at a wedding, maybe at a funeral, maybe even worked with them out somewhere in public, in some way, shape, or form.
So I just want to be clear with that, Justin… My family and I took on some ridicule from that. My family and I were called “socialist Nazis.” I was called a “goon face,” and I might be… So we took that on and I will say that I’m a Christian, I love to be a Christian. Justin, I love you dearly. I don’t know what else to say.
There are a lot of problems with that statement, just as there were problems with his initial email response.
What he’s saying is that he’ll only invite someone to deliver an invocation if he’s seen that person in action. Since atheists don’t have congregations and rarely conduct wedding ceremonies, Johnson’s new policy, by definition, excludes non-believers.
It’s also telling that Johnson’s gone out of his way to calculate how little time each working day is set aside for invocations: 0.00625%. (He did the math wrong. It’s actually 0.625%, just under one percent of the working day. Not that it changes his point.)
When we’re talking about such a short time, though, it’s all the more reason to invite diverse voices to deliver those opening remarks! What harm would it do to have words of inspiration from non-Christian sources?
We shouldn’t even be having these conversations. The whole practice of having invocations is outdated and irrational. If these state representatives can’t get to work because they haven’t had their morning prayers forced upon everyone, they should be working in a church, not government. But it’s telling that a Christian representative can’t bring himself to listen to an atheist before a working session for what he openly admits is an incredibly brief time period.
Johnson never directly answered if he was a Christian or Iowan first, but it’s clear his religion takes precedence over being a voice for everyone in his district. What an embarrassment.