The biblical book of Acts tells a story about the Apostle Paul, known as the greatest church planter in the history of Christianity, walking through the streets of Athens and encountering people from diverse faiths and belief systems.
If you’ve read any of Paul’s letters, you know he was an intense and passionate man, dedicated to evangelizing as many people as he could. Yet, his approach to the Athenians, a people living in a pluralistic society, was not one where he set out to negate or repudiate the value of other religions being practiced.
Instead, he talked with – and even debated – some of the philosophers and leading thinkers. Paul didn’t denounce current religious beliefs but affirmed the opportunity to share what he believed. He didn’t try to force closing other religious or philosophical doors; he simply opened a new door for the Athenians to consider.
This is what evangelism should be about. This is why evangelism, as practiced by Paul, actually thrives in a pluralistic setting; a space where a number of beliefs – or the refusal to believe in anything – is allowed and encouraged to be practiced. And this is why it is mystifying to me, and I would argue it would be mystifying to Paul as well, that Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives (many of whose members I am sure are devout Christians) would refuse to allow people who hold non-theistic beliefs to offer invocations.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives allows members of faith-based religions to offer invocations to open House sessions. For some odd reason, they are not giving this same opportunity to members of non-theistic groups as well, leading Americans United and American Atheists to sue.
The House is engaging in discrimination, pure and simple. Like Athens, the United States is pluralistic. Any government body that represents people of many different faiths, as well as people of no faith, is legally and morally required to treat them all equally.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives should be willing to accept a non-theistic invocation.
An invocation is simply an opening statement that offers thoughtful and reflective ideas before a meeting or event of some kind. I have done this dozens of times. The practice of invoking means literally to beseech or earnestly call for something to happen. Commonly used at the beginning of meetings or events, invocations attempt to bring people together and help establish a mindset for cooperation and effective work.
In an age where many legislative bodies have become bitterly partisan, we need all of the cooperative spirit we can get! In the case of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, the proposed involvement of non-theistic people in giving invocations is a helpful reminder that government serves people of many backgrounds and if some are allowed to offer invocations, then all must be given that same opportunity.
So, here is a proposed invocation offered by one of the plaintiffs in the suit against the Pennsylvania House that is not being allowed to be shared:
Thank you for inviting me to speak today.
Our commonwealth was founded on the principles of tolerance, respect, and equality. As we gather, let us fully consider each citizen of this commonwealth as equals in the eyes of the law. May reason and rationality guide our decisions, and may those decisions be considered to be in the best interests of all of us.
We are a commonwealth of many different people working together. We are a commonwealth of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, agnostics, atheists and many, many others. We may disagree in many respects, but we can all agree here that our laws are the foundation of our civil society. To that end, I ask that those gathered here today remember that the reason that society works is the fair and judicious application of those laws discussed here.
To close, I would like to offer the words of Albert Einstein: “Nothing truly valuable can be achieved except by the unselfish cooperation of many individuals.”
Why would we not want this spoken? How is this something so appalling to the religious expressions of people of faith that it should be banned and not shared? In reality, there is much in this non-theistic invocation I find inspiring and encouraging. The Pennsylvania House would do well to not only allow this invocation (and others) to be shared, but they should earnestly seek to live into the power of its promise.
The refusal to allow non-theistic people to offer invocations does not do anything to promote Christianity. Again, Christianity thrives when pluralism is practiced and embraced. And this means allowing all people to express their beliefs, or to express no belief, in whatever way doesn’t cause harm to anyone else.
When people of non-theistic beliefs are shut out of participation and are blatantly discriminated against, as is the case in Pennsylvania, it does no one any good. Indeed, it creates unnecessary harm. Discriminating against people with non-theistic beliefs is a denial of who we are as United States citizens and it is a denial of some of the best thoughts and practices from some of the most faithful followers of Christ.