An Atheist Member of the Arizona House of Representatives Delivered a Godless Invocation Today

Juan Mendez, a 28-year-old Democratic State Representative from Tempe, Arizona, got elected this past November. Somehow, this bit of information on his Facebook page slipped under our community’s collective radar:

Say what now?!

But if his atheism wasn’t publicly known before, it is now. Earlier today, Mendez did something we’ve rarely seen from any elected official in any state: He delivered an invocation before the House began its afternoon session in which he honored his Secular Humanism:

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.

I’m sure that went over well in the Republican-controlled House :)

So how did all this happen?

The Phoenix New Times doesn’t go into much detail, but it’s no coincidence that members of the Secular Coalition for Arizona were in the gallery today.

A couple of weeks ago, the SC Arizona’s Executive Director Seráh Blain set up a meeting with him to talk about her group’s issues and get his take on them. That’s nothing unusual. But when Blain saw that he was an atheist on his Facebook profile, she asked him about it and they ended up discussing the state’s vibrant secular community (in addition to the other issues) and planned to stay in touch.

Cut to last week. Mendez was scheduled to deliver the opening prayer in the House — all members are expected to do it at some point — and he asked Blain for advice on what to do. Should he decline the opportunity? No, she told him, adding that he should use his time to challenge religious privilege by showing that atheists, too, have “beautiful, powerful beliefs and convictions.”

So Mendez gave the invocation. And he even acknowledged the SC Arizona’s presence in the gallery. That may not have even been the highlight of the event. According to Blain:

When we all said the Pledge of Allegiance, there was poignant silence on the word “God” in the gallery. One nation, indivisible. Amazing.

Agreed. Truly amazing.

Just to top it off, a press release from SC Arizona included this wonderful comment from a former leader of the Arizona House:

Former House Democratic Leader Phil Lopes added, “As a Humanist I am delighted that a secular message opened today’s House session. The challenges our state faces can only be solved if we welcome and encourage the ideas and views of all Arizonans. We do ourselves a disservice if we continue to exclude or ignore the concerns and interests of 20 percent of the population.”

Video of Mendez’s speech will hopefully be available tomorrow.

Incidentally, this is the same state House that Kyrsten Sinema (who is believed to be an atheist though she no longer talks about it publicly) was in for six years before being elected to the state senate and (now) the U.S. House of Representatives. The New Times points out that “many of Mendez’s constituents also call Sinema their Congresswoman.”

After the invocation, Mendez called himself one of just one of 1.3 million Arizonans not affiliated with a religious tradition or organization.

“I hope today marks the beginning of a new era in which Arizona’s non believers can feel as welcome and valued here as believers,” he said.

Secular Coalition for Arizona Executive Director Seráh Blain, Rep. Juan Mendez, and SC Arizona Chair Matt Schoenley, after Mendez’s invocation

Rep. Juan Mendez, surrounded by representatives of many of the 17 nontheistic groups making up the Secular Coalition for Arizona

(Thanks to Zachary for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Yay.

  • Pepe

    This is awesome!

  • http://www.facebook.com/skeptic1970 Tim Van Haitsma

    That is so awesome. Makes me want to move to Arizona.
    BTW According to the media all hispanics are very religious, what is up with this guy?

    • RepMendez

      You should visit Arizona, there are more non believers than you would think. The numbers that were shared with me from the Barna Group has Tucson ranked 12th and Phoenix 18th as among America’s most secular cities.

      And actually my mother was raised Protestant

      • eonL5

        And that was a beautifully worded invocation, Rep. Mendez.

      • gigi_girl

        Dear Rep. Mendez:

        Your invocation was lovely; so beautiful. Thank you!! Thank you!! I am filled with joy and surprise to see others like me, who share my (non)belief, in the public sector. My heart swelled when I read the transcript of your words. I hope that in my lifetime it becomes so common to hear speeches of this type from public servants and elected officials that it doesn’t bring tears to my eyes.

        Thank you!!

      • gimpi1

        I want to offer more praise for your lovely invocation. Well done.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ammon.dowis Ammon Dowis

    Looks like his FB page could use more likes, we should help change that.

    https://www.facebook.com/mendezforaz

    • http://www.facebook.com/mendez.juan Johnny Mendez

      Thanks man!

  • DougI

    How long until he starts receiving death threats from loving Christians?

    • sleet

      And your comment puts you on the same level with those to whom you refer…

      • El Bastardo

        Well if you say so it must be true.

      • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

        A person expecting Christians to make death threats to atheists is equivalent to Christians who make death threats to atheists. Does this accurately represent your implication to Dougl?

      • DougI

        Oh, so I committed a crime did I? If you don’t report me to the police then you are a liar. So call 911 now and report me or shut your beyoch ass up.

        • Name

          so you are pretty dumb, right?

          • DougI

            Death threats are illegal so if you say I committed a crime then you best put up or shut up. Making yourself look like a bigger moronic troll isn’t going to help you case.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        sleet: And your comment puts you on the same level with those to whom you refer…

        Because accurately perceiving bad behaviour puts you on the same level as those who commit bad behaviour. I think you skipped a couple steps somewhere. Probably because you;re a moron.

      • Charles Honeycutt

        Amazingly dumb comment you made there.

    • sleet

      First of all I do not wish death threats on anyone…I suppose my point did not come across the way it was intended. I was trying to say that you think ill of Christians when they speak badly about someone (because it’s not very Christianlike, and I agree with that); but then you feel it’s okay to speak badly about Christians. That attitude does not make you any different. We should all try to get along, speak only kind words about one another and lead by our own example.

      • slyboots2

        doing bad things and expecting bad people to do bad things are not the same. If you’re saying that ‘Christians’ don’t threaten people with death on the internet you’re being disingenuous at best.

      • DougI

        Big difference is, Christians have a habit of threatening Atheists who speak out. Perhaps you’re new to this site, scroll down a few stories and you’ll find plenty of examples where Christians threaten Atheists. Don’t get your undies in a bunch because I point out the fact you lot aren’t terribly friendly to Atheists. I’m just pointing out the facts (which isn’t the equivalent of a death threat, no matter how much you whine).

        • Devil’s Advocate

          And atheists never threaten Christians?

          • DougI

            Please show me the examples that compare with the Christians.

        • TheMechanicalAdv

          No, you’re not “just pointing out the facts”. Someone who sends a death threat is not “loving”. You and sleet can argue all day about what a Christian is, but claiming a death threat is in any way compatible with love is a lie.

          People who make death threats are haters. What evidence do you have that sleet is a hater? All you mention here is that he’s part of a “you lot”.

          And since you don’t seem to get what sleet and I are accusing you of, I’ll spell it out: bigotry, verging on slander. Can’t you see that your comment is going against what Mendez is fighting for?

          • DougI

            Of course they’re haters, it’s Christian love.

            • TheMechanicalAdv

              No! It’s Christian hate. Why are you pretending that hate is love? Why are you propagating the words of a hater? And what does this have to do with Sleet?

              Are you so intimidated by Christianity that you can’t look haters in the eye and say “your claim to be loving is a lie”? Are you so afraid to stand up to haters that you take out your anger on Sleet?

              • DougI

                Christian love, it’s not real love that’s why there’s the word Christian in front of it. Kinda like how Christian science isn’t real science, hence the word Christian in the phrase. I thought you would have figured that out by now.

                • TheMechanicalAdv

                  Why would you want me to? So I can make use of the negativity of the word “Atheist”?

                  The word “Humanist”, if used correctly, like Mendez does, is very positive. It also connotes a responsibility, which Mendez is fulfilling excellently. If you wanted to call yourself something positive, you could’ve taken up that responsibility too, and joined Mendez in his fight for human rights.

                  Instead, you take the lazy road of self-pity and use sarcasm to try to make other group names sound negative as well.

                  You wonder why we wouldn’t vote for someone with an attitude like yours? If you were in charge, you’d have called the Tsarnaevs Muslim peacemakers, and they’d still be on the loose setting off more bombs.

                • DougI

                  Oh gee, are you still here trying to get attention?

                • TheMechanicalAdv

                  I was trying to get an explanation for your attitude. But after a cheap shot like that, it’s obvious you don’t have any.

                  And I thought you don’t believe in “gee”.

              • Harry Underwood

                We “pretend” that “Christian hate” = “Christian love” because of publications like this: http://www.amazon.com/Homosexuality-Speaking-Truth-Resources-Changing/dp/0875526837

                They’re not trying to be “mean” or “hateful” or “hurtful”, you see, they’re “speaking the truth in love” as adapted from Ephesians 4:5. The sight of homosexuality “should” be offensive to Christians, but “practicing homosexuals” “should” be told “God loves you, and I love you with the love of Christ, but he hates your sin. In fact, it’s *because I love you* that I’m telling you that your *behavior* hurts God because he loves you and doesn’t want to see you go to Hell. Were you hurt as a child? God can heal you to be whole and sexually happy in the way that God expects of us imperfect beings”.

                If the “practicing homosexual” reacts and says “I am happy being gay. Why are you lying to my face about my sexual orientation? What business is my love and marriage to you?”, the non-”wishy-washy” “follower of Jesus” then must say “I’m not being hateful, I’m not lying. Do you call God hateful? Do you call God a liar? Is God what you call a ‘homophobe’? You don’t believe me? Read the Bible! I’m just telling you the truth – warning you about your sin – and praying that you start doing right before time runs out.”

                This is called “speaking the truth in (Christian/Muslim) love.”

                Feeling intimidated is a reasonable reaction to those who describe your innate characteristics – and exercising autonomy over those characteristics – as a crime and a pathology for which you should seek “healing” and “forgiveness”, especially when their like-minded “brothers and sisters in Christ” laid such views into law, maintain those laws to this day, and will continue to maintain public, dignified exposition for those views long after those laws have been dismantled.

          • DougI

            Here’s one comment from a loving Christian on his FB page:
            “You
            disrespectful ill excuse of a man. Our Constitution was made up from
            GOD’S word. . As a true citizen of this country and I have seen the
            segregation of the the true citizens, you should be put in Joes prison
            in AZ. The only reason u got elected is because of the numerous
            illegals in AZ. Hopefully you will be out of office soon enough.”

  • RepMendez

    Thanks for the great article!

    None of this would have been possible without the Secularist Community. I really need to thank Serah Blain and the rest of the coalition. Please don’t let what the Arizona Secularist Community and I have shared go wasted or get twisted by knaves to make traps for others. We need to keep sharing with everyone we know that we have beautiful, powerful beliefs and convictions.

    Thanks for all your tweets, likes and shares. Sign up at http://www.mendezforaz.com to stay involved or to share your issues and concerns with me.

    • Matt

      Just when I was beginning to think nothing good would ever come out of AZ… #faithinhumanityrestored

      • cr0sh

        Yeah, this definitely was a feel good about my state moment for me as well!

    • MD

      That was a beautiful invocation.

  • Sinfanti

    Reading this makes me feel better about being an Arizona voter. But I’m sure that good feeling will be washed away the next time I see anything about Jan Brewer in the news. Perhaps we have found a worthy replacement.

  • onamission5

    Brave, powerful, positive and direct. Good form, Rep. Mendez!

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    Wow! A surprise atheist on television news in OK, and now this!

    On a side note, I think it’s odd how Facebook displays a user’s dating / sex / whatever-it-should-be-called preference. It appears as though the user is shallow and sex-obsessed, having apparently listed a gender as an interest or hobby, and nothing else.

    • Gus Snarp

      Yeah, that’s because Facebook was created by a sexist college student with the main goal of getting him laid. The fact that the feature has never changed tells you something about Facebook.

    • allein

      You can hide those things if you want. I don’t even have religious preference or political views filled in. I think I filled in what gender I’m interested in, initially, but I later set it so it doesn’t show up on my profile. I think that section only shows my birthday and that I’m female. (And now that I wrote that I think I’ll look at it when I get home to see exactly what it does show.)

  • Cylon

    Wonderful invocation. This makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Keep up the good work, Rep. Mendez!

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I am definitely liking the “One in Five” meme.
    That should be a powerful message for politicians to take note of.

    • Gus Snarp

      I think everyone should take it up. It may be the best bit of marketing a non-religious group has ever come up with.

  • Tainda

    I’m officially in love with him! That was a fantastic speech!

  • Steve UK

    Respect from an English atheist, over here, it really doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe, our deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg is nominally atheist although finds it politically expedient to attend church. Good luck, Rep. Mendez.

  • Gus Snarp

    So awesome. We need so many more like this.

  • Gus Snarp

    And he’s working to get Sheriff Joe Arpaio recalled? I think I’m in love.

  • C Peterson

    It’s hard to overlook the fact that religious invocations are inherently exclusive, while humanist invocations are inherently inclusive. A religious invocation is out of place not only for the non-religious, but for everybody who shares different religious viewpoints. A humanist invocation includes sentiments that should be appreciated by all, and offensive to none, regardless of their world view.

    • RyanC

      That is so true! Every time I have to listen to a Christian prayer, I do feel excluded from them. Like you said, anyone can be included in a Humanist invocation…it’s what we are!

    • FBG

      Not really. You are viewing his speech and the ideas behind it in the same way the people from Jackson, OH view their portrait of Jesus: there is no way to take offense because it is inherently inoffensive.

      Whereas I do not have faith in humanity or democracy, or indeed the Constitution, in the sense that it must be interpreted and I do not trust the interpreters. Nor do I see the role of government as working to improve people’s lives. So this speech, in addition to Mendez’s political party affiliation and career telegraph to me that he is actively working to create a future I don’t want to live in. It may include me, but I do not wish it to.

      Humanism isn’t terribly embracing of people it views as racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-abortion or otherwise possessing ideas that conflict with its own goals. It’s all in how you look at it.

      • C Peterson

        I think you are confused by what humanism is. Certainly, humanists don’t embrace those who are racist or sexist. They don’t deny people the right to be opposed to abortion or homosexuality, but speak out against those who would deny anybody basic rights without rational reason.

        You many not respect humanity or the Constitution, but as an elected representative, Mendez (along with everyone in the chamber) is sworn to do just that.

        The reason I say that there is nothing offensive in Mendez’s invocation is because there is nothing offensive. Anybody who could take offense at anything in that speech would have to be mentally damaged, a sociopath, a human in genes only.

      • gimpi1

        May I ask, if you don’t think the government should work to improve the lives of its citizens, what do you want it to do?

        If you don’t care for the Constitution, what would you have in its place?

        If you don’t want a world where people’s lives are better, you don’t like humanity, democracy, or apparently much of anything, what kind of world do you want?

  • Seamus Ruah

    Fantastic.

  • Edmond

    I suppose he was well-spoken, and challenged many people’s beliefs about atheists. But, what’s wrong with saying something like “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get to work. Thank you.”? Invocations are a waste of time.

    • Space Cadet

      I hope someday “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get to work. Thank you.” will be the way these sessions get started. That’s not going to happen overnight, though. Delivering sincere, thoughtful invocations that are not religiously based is a step in the right direction.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Very brave man. I wonder how many death threats he gets now? He gives me hope, but I fear for him.

  • David Diskin

    Needless to say, some aren’t happy with Rep. Mendez’s speech:

    http://ktar.com/?sid=1636340&nid=23

    As one of our members put it, “Shut up and pray, you silly
    intolerant atheists!”

  • TOMinAZ

    I’m a Christian, and I found his invocation to be very eloquent.

    • TheMechanicalAdv

      I’m a Jew, and I do too.

  • Jerry Lynch

    I think that you might enjoy this website: intelligentcreationinstitute.org. Just left their meeting and I am still reeling. It shoud be fun to start a rapport.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cheyla-Daedulus/1409741057 Cheyla Daedulus

    Awesome news!!! Now let’s go to the Supreme Court. . .

  • ywilber

    Of course, Christians were humanists and recognized the value of humanity long before secularists arose and claimed it for themselves. This is a fact lost by many (Christians included.)


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