It’s Different When They Do It

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 23, 2013 — 25 Comments

Earlier this week I reported on how the Supreme Court of the United States will be hearing a case about sectarian prayers before government meetings. Defenders of various inclusive sectarian models say that it promotes a healthy discourse in which all citizens are able to fully represent themselves. The truth is that when pluralistic-on-paper invocation models are tested, the results are usually far from ideal.

Rep. Steve Smith. Photo: Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

Rep. Steve Smith. Photo: Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

“An atheist lawmaker’s decision to give the daily prayer at the Arizona House of Representatives triggered a do-over from a Christian lawmaker who said the previous day’s prayer didn’t pass muster. Republican Rep. Steve Smith on Wednesday said the prayer offered by Democratic Rep. Juan Mendez of Tempe at the beginning of the previous day’s floor session wasn’t a prayer at all. So he asked other members to join him in a second daily prayer in “repentance,” and about half the 60-member body did so. Both the Arizona House and Senate begin their sessions with a prayer and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

“When there’s a time set aside to pray and to pledge, if you are a non-believer, don’t ask for time to pray,” said Smith, of Maricopa. “If you don’t love this nation and want to pledge to it, don’t say I want to lead this body in the pledge, and stand up there and say, ‘you know what, instead of pledging, I love England’ and (sit) down. That’s not a pledge, and that wasn’t a prayer, it’s that simple,” Smith said.”

I’d say that this was an isolated incident, but it isn’t. Time and again, when a non-Christian dares to speak in a space some Christians believe is theirs alone, the result is outrage and protest. What did Rep. Juan Mendez say that was so offensive that it required a Christian do-over the next day?

“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.'” 

Shocking, right? The fact is that any deviation too far from the (theologically conservative) Christian default setting provokes these reactions. We can comfort ourselves by saying this is a symptom of changing demographics, that we are becoming more pluralistic and these are the last gasps of a increasingly reactionary rump, but that’s a cold comfort when such changes happen slowly over the course of generations. The simple fact, the message sent to religious minorities and non-Christians is: it’s different when you do it. That’s true whether you’re talking about prayers in America, or even legally binding Pagan wedding ceremonies in the UK.

Sir Tony Baldry doesn't like Pagan weddings.

Sir Tony Baldry doesn’t like Pagan weddings.

“If we can just go to the Scottish example … we have seen in Scotland pagan weddings celebrated, spiritualist weddings celebrated and weddings celebrated by the White Eagle Lodge. I think this is a question that ought to have been properly consulted on with our constituents. I can’t speak for other MPs, but I have had enough problems in my constituency with same-sex marriage. If I go back to the shires of Oxfordshire and tell them that Parliament’s now about to endorse in England pagan marriage they’ll think that we’ll have lost the plot completely. If they think then that Labour is supporting pagan marriage and masonic marriage then they really will think that we’ve lost the plot.”

In a culture that has been dominated by a distinct form of monotheism for hundreds of years, real pluralism is radical. Real pluralism acknowledges the vast imbalances in privilege and power and acts accordingly. If you pretend that power and privilege is not there, you end up with the legal case now heading to the Supreme Court where pluralism-on-paper resulted in an overwhelming affirmation of Christian power.

“The town’s process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint. Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town’s prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter. In the town’s view, the preponderance of Christian clergy was the result of a random selection process. The randomness of the process, however, was limited by the town’s practice of inviting clergy almost exclusively from places of worship located within the town’s borders. The town fails to recognize that its residents may hold religious beliefs that are not represented by a place of worship within the town. Such residents may be members of congregations in nearby towns or, indeed, may not be affiliated with any congregation. The town is not a community of religious institutions, but of individual residents, and, at the least, it must serve those residents without favor or disfavor to any creed or belief.”

Real change is hard, because it effects real changes. Cosmetic changes are easy, because they ultimately change nothing. You cannot simply declare a space pluralistic and fair and then expect it to be so. If Christians want the public square to be a multi-religious space, it has to come with real concessions, or else it’s simply another tool to enforce the majority’s power, because it’s always different when the “other” does it.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Wintersfrost

    the link ‘that required a Christian do over’ to the second article is pointing to the first article.

  • paganheart

    Bravo, bravo. Thank you for saying this.

    Either all expressions of belief (or non-belief) must be welcome in the public space, or none are welcome at all.

    If that means that a few Christians have to be made uncomfortable for a few minutes while a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Buddhist monk, a Wiccan priestess, or an atheist/humanist like Rep. Juan Mendez gives an invocation or whatever-you-want-to-call-it, then so be it.

    Frankly I do not care if they are uncomfortable. In fact, I hope that they are. Too many so-called “Christians” have been making non-Christians uncomfortable for decades, with their hell-bent (pun not intended) insistence that their path is the only right path, and all other paths are wrong. I am so sick of that attitude, and the smug, self-righteous mindset that goes with it, that makes too many Christians treat those with other beliefs with nothing but disdain and disrespect. Too many so-called “Christians” are simply bullies, using their bible as a bludgeon.

    I do not regard my belief system to be superior to all others, and I do not try to shove it down anyone’s throat. If asked, I will talk about it. But I will *never* try to convert anyone, despite the fact that nine times out of ten, the person I am talking to will try to convert me. And I am sick of it.

    It is time that Christians had a little taste of what that feels like. And if they really just hate that it’s “different,” then let’s just abolish this silly practice altogether. Please.

    And on another note…I live in AZ. Steve Smith, is, unfortunately, my rep. And while I won’t go into detail, let’s just say he’s got a lot of f—cking gall to call himself a
    “Christian”, given the practices of the “Talent Agency” he runs. He should be seeking redemption for himself.

  • Wyrd Wiles

    Well said. I think this is part of the message we need to get out.

    “If you belong to the majority, you can avoid thinking about lots of troubling things. ” from 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

    If we don’t bring it up, and make people think of it, it’s never going to be resolved.

    • Luna

      That last sentence can be applied to so many things too.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Christians feeling irked? Good.

    Must say, I disagree with letting Pagan Weddings becoming legally binding in the UK. For a couple reasons – firstly (and this is the major one), I’d like to see a separation between law and religion. Secondly, the way the Pagan faiths are set up, it wouldn’t work.

    Christian priests can perform weddings as they are licensed registrars (they get this as part of their official ordination), but Paganism lacks the organisational structure that would provide us with official priests.

    • NT

      Some forms of Paganism do have Priests, Ministers and the like and others do not. Asatru and Wicca certainly have Clergy, as do many kinds of Druids from what I’ve gathered. For those Pagans who don’t fit any of these groups, officiants who are Pagan or Pagan friendly could work. The separation between law and religion though still stands as a valid point.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        They are not formally ordained, though. Anyone can become a priest/minister. This is both a strength and a weakness.

        As to the whole ‘officiants who are Pagan friendly’, that seems, to me, like going to a Rabbi because the local priest was busy. (Or, one of my many pet hates, getting married in a church just because it looks prettier in the pictures.)

        • Oriana

          Can you define “formally ordained”?

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Essentially an individual is formally recognised, by his (or her) religion (an organisation) to provide ministry on the behalf of said religious organisation.

          • kenofken

            We have some of that going on already, but we shouldn’t have to ape Christian religion or structures in order to “earn” the same rights. In my opinion, clergy performing marriages should have absolutely no official state role in the matter, not “witnessing”, not signing off, nothing at all. People should get their civil marriage done at the county building, and the religious ceremony should stand completely apart. Unless and until that happens however, we have no burden to become congregational or “churchy” to hold the same standing before the law.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            You are pretty much saying the same thing as me.

        • NT

          Well maybe they’re just going to have to get over the “formal” part and accept that some people’s Clergy follow a different sort of training. Sort of sounds like you’re saying “we don’t follow their standards so we shouldn’t be allowed the same rights” and it’s kind of defeatist. I don’t know what the state of things is in Britain but in Canada we have civil Marriage Commissioners and plenty of them are open minded. My husband and I were married by a commissioner who also turned out to be a practitioner of Native Hawaiian spirituality by coincidence. He did a wonderful job during our very Pagan Handfasting in a local outdoor park. The funny thing I’ve learned about laws is they aren’t written in stone but change depending on the circumstances and the mood of the people. If they can change the laws allowing gays to marry and interracial marriage, I’m sure that the laws suppressing Pagan religious rights will eventually change to. We just have to keep battering at the walls until they come down.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I’m saying that, from a legal point of view, they can’t just give out licenses to be registrars to just anyone.

    • cernowain greenman

      What about handfastings that are for a year and a day? Would they be legally binding for a temporary marriage?

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        As I said, I’d say no. Of course, if the law does change, that will be an interesting question. Will we see the rise of the fixed term marriage?

    • BryonMorrigan

      In many places in America, you just have to be a notary public…or here in Florida, “ordained” by “something”.

      Really, all that should be necessary is some kind of official “stamp” that the person has determined that the legal elements have been met. I’m about to get married in August by Galina Krasskova, and when I emailed the County Clerk’s office to make sure she would be “legal”, they said, “The Florida Statutes recognizes all religions and Galina Krasskova would be qualified to do your ceremony.”

      I don’t see why this has to be complicated. The officiate is just performing a religious ceremony (which the State can’t regulate), and then witnessing the signing of a legal document.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        It is all to do with how this country licenses registrars.

      • BryonMorrigan

        What piece of garbage downvoted that post? Do we have Christian lurkers or something?

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          I did wonder the same thing, when I saw the downvote.

        • Franklin_Evans

          Don’t ignore the possibilities that it was clicked by mistake or Disqus belched. 😉

      • harmonyfb

        Bryon, thanks for posting this – I’ve officiated at weddings before, but brought along a notary for document signing, because I was uncertain whether the vague FL law would cover me (I certainly didn’t want the couples in question to have legal issues if the State had problems.)

  • juneberry

    I had to go toe to toe with a military chaplain who used the words church and religion interchangeably. I explained to him that I KNEW Wiccans, Pagans, and Native Americans with traditional beliefs who were concerned about it. I hope he tried to do better, but they are so secure in their own moral high pedistal that I doubt anything improved.

    • cernowain greenman

      The term I really hate is “unchurched” in reference to people who are not Christians. I lot of us chose to be de-churched, thank you, and I do not want you to “church” me.

  • Ishtar

    I live im Germany and i am very amazed about this “small” detail of American culture. In Germany our politicians do not begin their meetings with an official prayer. And I’m very glad for it!

  • Franklin Evans

    In the US, we have a de facto distinction between the religious sanctification of a marriage with a wedding ceremony — I don’t mean to arbitrarily impose semantic choices here, I’m just using the words that seem appropriate — and the entirely civil and legally defined contract entered into with the signing of a marriage license. One can get both from a clergyperson out of a wedding, one can get the license without any further actions, and one can do them separately (getting the license first is the better choice).

    I’m fully with Lēoht on the necessary and legal separation between wedding and marriage. I’m in particular agreement concerning the year-and-day custom, because on its face it violates the open-ended nature of the legal contract. Some customs are just not compatible with the realities of our secular legalisms. You can’t have your cake and eat it, as they say.