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Equal Time …to Invoke Indignant Anger

A fair number of governmental bodies have a minister say a prayer at the start of official meetings — an invocation. When criticized by those who favor a true separation of church and state, they often insist that the invocation is not really religious. So what happens when an atheist is invited to give an invocation? The officials sit in respectful silence, as they would insist an atheist should do when a Christian preacher gives the invocation, right? Yeah, sure. From True‘s 8 August 2004 issue:

Well By Golly

The City Council in Tampa, Fla., insisted having ministers say a prayer at their meetings was not an unconstitutional religious act, proudly noting that they even let Jews say the invocation from time to time. So Atheists of Florida chairman Ed Golly called their bluff: he offered to have someone from his group say the invocation. Councilman John Dingfelder agreed to let an atheist take a turn. But when Michael R. Harvey arrived to say the invocation as scheduled, Councilman Kevin White tried to deny him a chance to speak. “We have never had people of an atheist group represent Americans,” he said, “and I don’t think it is appropriate in this setting.” White walked out with fellow members Mary Alvarez and Rose Ferlita. Alvarez had previously gone on record that she “looked forward” to hearing the atheist’s invocation. “It’s a free country,” she said then. Alvarez was the only one to support White’s censorship attempt, but they were overruled by other council members. (AP) …Who better understand what living in “a free country” really means.

Quite a few readers, most particularly those who identified themselves as Christian, were interested to know what an atheist’s invocation* would be like. Here’s the text, according to the St. Petersburg Times:

An invocation is an appeal for guidance from a supernatural power, but it is not only that. It is also a call, a petition, to positive action on behalf of and for a diverse citizenry. On behalf of Atheists of Florida, I would like to express our gratitude in being invited to deliver today’s invocation.

We are committed to the separation of state and church as defined by the United States Constitution. It is the core value of that remarkable and visionary document to protect the human-derived rights of all people in the continuous struggle for equal opportunities to pursue a safe and decent quality of life.

When an invocation takes on the form of public prayer, it is also a violation of the very principles upon which our country and Constitution were founded. Although we are dismayed that the practice of public prayer by governing bodies charged with representing all citizens still continues in violation of the Constitution, we also recognize that this practice has become deeply embedded in the national psyche.

Elected and appointed leaders who wish to seek the guidance of a deity can do so in private, as is their right. But not in the public arena where the establishment of religion is an assured end-result.

History — that ever-unfolding, ever-flowering story of human civilization — teaches us that the rights and accomplishments of humanity are the results of its past struggles, and that the road less traveled is many times the highest path to human progress. We therefore invoke this council and all of our leaders to be guided and inspired by the invaluable lessons of history, the honest insights of science, the guileless wisdom of logic, and the heart and soul of our shared humanity — compassion and tolerance.

So rather than clasping your hands, bowing your heads and closing your eyes, open your arms to that which truly makes us strong — our diversity. Raise your heads and open your eyes to recognize and fully understand the problems before you and know that ultimately, solutions to human problems can come only from human beings.

Thank you.

–Michael R. Harvey
Atheists of Florida

*“Invocation” is not synonomous with “prayer”. According to American Heritage, it is “The act or an instance of invoking, especially an appeal to a higher power for assistance” primarily. Secondarily: “A prayer or other formula used in invoking, as at the opening of a religious service” (emphasis added). Thirdly, it can be “The act of conjuring up a spirit by incantation, or an incantation used in conjuring.” A brief secular speech certainly meets the dictionary definition of “invocation”.

My Favorite Letter

My favorite letter in response to this story is from a Methodist Minister, the Rev. Billy of Texas, who writes:

How dare you! I have never been so appalled! I have never been so humiliated in all my life. To think that my fellow Christians would have to endure such harassment. Where is your sense of decency, man? How dare you throw such drivel in our face and remind us that as Christians the first thing we’re called to do is love our neighbor as ourselves, be merciful and seek to be peacemakers. How dare you remind us that we are called to love our enemies because if we just love our friends and those who are like us, we’re no different than the rest of the world.

How dare you challenge us to live what we believe instead of simply mouthing sacred platitudes and getting angry about anyone who disagrees with our version of the faith. What is this world coming to when someone the likes of you can challenge our faithfulness.

That’s it, I’ve had it, just because of that one story and all the furor it has caused, it looks like I’m finally going to have to upgrade to the Premium version of This Is True. I don’t want to miss any more challenges to my faith or miss another opportunity to rant about how awful you are for demanding that we Christians actually live out and practice what we say we believe.

True to his Word, Rev. Billy did upgrade to Premium.

A Few Other Letters

As usual, the comments from readers who actually think about their actions are interesting:

I thank you for pointing out the ‘log in (Christians’) eyes’. Such reporting helps me better to be aware of mistakes I myself might have made. I count myself fortunate to learn how our actions appear to others. –Rev. Dan, a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor in Pennsylvania

I am once again dismayed to hear that you received backlash against your perfectly fair story from the Christian population. I being not only a true subscriber (premium for 2 years), but a Youth Pastor and Seminary Student, am impressed with you for continuing to stand your ground against ignorant Christians who love their blinders. There has been more than a few times where I have taken your stories about hypocritical Christians straight off your e-zine and into my sermons. They have been a great help in teaching my young Christians (ages 13-18) what their faith should/shouldn’t look like. The only real question I had about the story was, how does an atheist pray? In all sincerity, I was very curious about what the atheist said at the invocation. –Brendan in California

Atheists, of course, don’t pray. They may say an invocation, however, which isn’t the same thing. See above.

I am also one of the Christian faith, but often find myself embarrassed by those who flaunt their Christianity as the only way of life. It has come to the point that I no longer identify myself as Christian, and am wary of those that do, for they tend to be the most apt to spout ‘better than thou’ dogma. Those secure in their choice of faith, for there are so many valid versions to choose from, will have no issue with you stating the obvious! I understand that it is frustrating when such insecurities translate into $$, but I am proud to be a part of (how ever small, as a subscriber), your newsletter that shines light on everyone who behaves as a righteous ASS! –Cathy in North Carolina

Indeed, as I’ve said before, that is the saddest part of this minority of self-identified “Christian” readers acting the way they do: they drive people away from their own faith, their churches, even their self identity (“I no longer identify myself as Christian, and am wary of those that do”). Jesus taught about the problems that hypocrisy brings; almost intent on proving that, some of His followers insist on giving an example as to why. Yet they accuse me of being the problem!? How very sad.

To end on an up note, I offer this last one:

I appreciate your words on Christians. But please make fun of us Jews too, and all the other religions for that matter. Religious people tend to be a bit stuffy and we can use a little ribbing. Oh, and one thing for sure comes through loud and clear from your stories: God definitely has a sense of humor. –Max in Missouri

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8 Responses to Equal Time …to Invoke Indignant Anger

  1. Camille, Montana August 11, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    I see nothing wrong with that invocation. And Reverend Billy’s response letter was truly wonderful. 🙂

    Of all various wedding ceremonies I’ve been to for family and friends, the best speech I ever heard was given a local Justice of the Peace when my brother and his wife got married. It was a wonderful — and completely secular non-religious — speech about the rewards from marriage but also the hard work it requires, and how a marriage is not only a personal commitment but also a very public statement of that commitment in front of neighbors, friends and family. The speech probably lasted 10 minutes, wasn’t boring at all, and it was done ENTIRELY from memory.

    Besides being a really good invocation for a wedding, it also was the best proof I’ve ever seen that whether or not an invocation is meaningful, inspiring, and memorable has nothing to do with whether or not specific deities are mentioned in that speech.

    I personally don’t have a problem with public invocations that are also prayers, but at the same time an invocation doesn’t have to be a prayer, and certain members of the Tampa (Florida) city council made themselves look like idiots with their narrow-mindedness.

  2. Linda, Los Angeles August 11, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Many years ago I became upset at the invocations of my fellow engineers at our annual conference. Listening to good ol’ boys from Auburn and Clemson finish with “through our Lord, Jesus Christ” while I was sharing a table with Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and others, got me to thinking. So I developed a non-denominational invocation. I tried it out at a local meeting in San Diego and had it polished for the annual international conference when I was chairman. Now everyone in the room could invoke whatever higher concept they chose and give thanks for the food, the fellowship and the education we were getting. Most conference chairs after that have tried to do the same.

    That’s a nice trend you set, Linda. -rc

  3. Denise, Missouri August 11, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    I love the reply you posted! That minister did an excellent job of letting fellow Christians know what the Biblical response is to nonbelievers who disagree with us. Even better, he did it with humor.

    It is important that everyone have access to all viewpoints and opinions in our public debates. It is important that we take the time to listen to what they have to say, whether they are right or wrong and whether we agree with them or not. Even people who are actually wrong (and we can’t usually know this without listening to them) can have some very good points to make sometimes.

    Atheists exist, just as they always have. Screaming at them won’t make them go away. Perhaps we can be examples for them by respectfully listen to them, just as we expect them to do for us.

  4. David, Pensacola, Florida August 14, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    I recently delivered my own “Anyone’s Invocation” before the county commission. No adverse reaction (yet). I’m working on the City Commission. More people need to do this. Here’s the video: [No longer online]

    It’s wild that the man who introduced you felt it necessary to make up that you were a “man of faith” and a “Christian” musician. I’ll bet they were boggled by your message. -rc

  5. Brent in Mobile August 9, 2014 at 11:11 am #

    Is it just me or did 90% of the atheist’s invocation seem like a rebuke to the council?

    Having been invited to preside over the invocation, I think he was a bit rude to use it as an opportunity to rebuke the council for not praying in private in their previous invocations. While I am in favor of the use of nondenominational invocations in a mixed general assembly and believe that there should be a true separation of church and state there are more appropriate times and forums to address such issues than at the rare opportunity to give an invocation at the invitation of those who just barely reached the point of enlightenment and tolerance to do so.

    As far as the primary definition of invocation “The act or an instance of invoking, especially an appeal to a higher power for assistance” I think that the content of the invocation and the goal is more important than the higher power being invoked for assistance with that goal.

    In a popularly famous video on YouTube, Neil Degrasse Tyson rebuked Richard Dawkins suggesting that in order to communicate his message better to his audience he should temper his message with a sensitivity towards where his audience is mentally and emotionally. Likewise, I believe that this atheist might have achieved more had he focused more on offering an invocation that leads by example and less on rebuking the committee for praying publicly. If he felt that approach was too subtle to be effective he and his organization could find better ways and opportunities to discuss the issue while seeking other opportunities to be invited to give invocations in which to continue to lead by example.

    I am not a particularly religious person, frankly I’m an agnostic. I am thankful, however, to live in a country that has as in its basic charter, freedom of religion and separation of church and state. These are good ideals and I feel that it is a worthy goal to try to ensure that our government lives up to those ideals. Freedom of religion is not the same as freedom from religion, however, which is what many atheists seem to require so as not to be offended by the religious. It is ironic that what those sorts of atheists hold against religion is the intolerance of some of its followers which is not characteristic of the religions but a human trait that most religions try to overcome.

    I saw it simply as a statement, not a specific rebuke. Your mileage may vary. -rc

  6. Brent, Tampa, FL August 12, 2014 at 2:48 am #

    This “Ten Years Ago” item was of particular interest to me, as one of the writers of the invocation!

    Specifically, the sections:

    When an invocation takes on the form of public prayer, it is also a violation of the very principles upon which our country and Constitution were founded. Although we are dismayed that the practice of public prayer by governing bodies charged with representing all citizens still continues in violation of the Constitution, we also recognize that this practice has become deeply embedded in the national psyche.

    Elected and appointed leaders who wish to seek the guidance of a deity can do so in private, as is their right. But not in the public arena where the establishment of religion is an assured end-result.

    And as the author of those sections I have to correct you: It was indeed intended as a rebuke. And not everyone agreed with having it in there. But having viewed several previous prayers and noting that they were not only non-sectarian, but often called for more religious entanglement in the governing process, I felt it was necessary to make the commission aware that the Constitution was being violated and we had indeed taken notice.

    I remain a life member of the Atheists of Florida, have served as a board member many years and a president and vice president as well, also as co-host, host, and panel member on our award-winning public access TV show, and though schedule difficulties have prevented my active involvement at the same level, I was recently asked if I would consider being on the BOD (I had to decline) and I remain involved as often as possible. The organization has now been in existence 22 years, and I have been a member the same!

    I love how small the world is sometimes, and that you were able to clarify the record here. Though I didn’t say it wasn’t a rebuke, just that I hadn’t seen it that way myself. -rc

  7. Dave, Utah August 14, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    One minor detail, especially for commenter Brent, who takes responsibility for the reference to the establishment clause. The real clause actually mentions “an establishment of religion.” This is very different than “the establishment of religion.” The first uses establishment as a noun, the second uses it as a verb. The constitution prohibits only laws favoring one religion over another. A misquote like this shows carelessness in something that should have been carefully considered and worded. In doing so, it reduces the possible impact of the message.

  8. Jim, New Jersey September 6, 2014 at 7:47 am #

    I would like to comment on Dave of Utah’s comment that the phrase “an establishment of religion” necessarily uses establishment as a noun. I have never viewed it that way. To me, it was always a verbal form. So, not only does the Constitution prohibit laws favoring one religion over another, it also prohibits the favoring of religion over non-religion.

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