Religious tolerance in Iowa

I was quite interested to see that a Wiccan priestess, Deborah Maynard, was invited to lead the invocation before the Iowa State Legislature last week. She was invited to do so at the behest of  Representative Liz Bennett. According to the Washington Post article I read this in, Maynard is the third Pagan in the United States to be asked to lead an invocation before a state legislative assembly. I watched the video of her invocation, and found it fairly mild. The other video linked to from the article, of an invocation led before a session of the Oregon legislative assembly during the ’90’s, seemed more directly Wiccan. If you are interested, a video of the invocation led in Iowa last week can be found either on the Washington Post article I linked to above, or also this article on the Wild Hunt. Between the two articles, it is possible at this point to view video clips of all three instances where a Neo-Pagan has led an invocation before a United States state-level legislature.

The negative reaction from some some of the attendees was not surprising: one was busy leading a counter-prayer, to ward off any demonic influences on the government; others were praying for the salvation of Maynard’s soul; while another turned his back on the invocation in silent protest because his W-W-J-D bracelet (or at least the one he wears in his mind) said that turning his back on another human being is exactly what Jesus would have done. Pastor Mike Demastus, one of the attendees-in-protest was quoted as saying, “We feel that this is completely out of sync with the traditions of our state and our nation to seek guidance from the occult” – I wonder, has this man ever looked at the back of a one dollar bill? The United States government has, as a matter of tradition, been steeped in the occult from its very inception. If you look at the literal definition of the word and its roots, which simply mean ‘hidden,’ then the United States and its intelligence apparatus is more than likely the most occulted organization the world has ever known. Add to that the fact that the aim of this organization seems to include omniscience and omnipotence, and I think Demastus should seriously reconsider the value of trying to counter a prayer led by someone invoking the elements common to our existence and our peaceful interconnection with one another.

What I also found myself doing, as I read the article and listened to the invocation, was imagining an invocation led by any of the protesters: would they have been as inclusive toward other religious beliefs as Maynard was toward theirs? Would they have been as universal in their approach? Would they have used a Pagan word to conclude the invocation, as Maynard chose to use a Christian / Hebraic word to conclude hers? ‘Amen’ was the very last word in the invocation. How would they have reacted to Pagans protesting their invocations? Then I wondered whether or not any of the protesters would have troubled themselves to think along these lines.

I was happy to learn that a Wiccan had been invited to lead such an invocation. I’m not a great fan of mixing religion with politics; and my personal opinion is that legislature is no place for prayers of any sort … I prefer to think that law makers are (or should be) capable of making moral and ethical decisions without the daily reminder that the gods might be watching. However, if prayers and invocations are to be a part of the legislative process, I think it’s only fair that any and all religions get equal representation; and I applaud Representative Bennett’s decision to try to demonstrate how inclusive and representative the Iowa state government is. Judging by her surprise and disappointment at the negative reactions, her plan may have backfired in her mind … but something like this draws attention to the kinds of intolerance that are simply so commonplace that they might have otherwise gone unnoticed by the majority. Representative Bennett’s plan may not have gone according to her design; but it may serve a much greater purpose in the long run. I also applaud Deborah Maynard for having the courage to stand up before so many people – including her detractors both from within and outside the Pagan community (we are an opinionated community, after all, and would each have done it differently from the comfort of our own desk chairs) – what she did could not have been easy, and I thought she led a fine prayer.

I was asked once, at the spur of the moment, to lead the prayer at a funeral for a relative. The deceased – my grandfather – was a die-hard, ‘old-school’ Christian, and the family / attendees of the funeral included Evangelical Christians, Jehova’s Witnesses, and a few Catholics – almost all of which were over the age of 50 at the time. I was one of two Pagans attending, and had planned only to deliver the Eulogy. The pastor who was supposed to lead the service (including the prayer) put me on the spot, ten minutes before the service was supposed to begin, and said he did so because he could tell that I was someone of deep spirit, and he felt that the prayer would offer more healing if it came from me – I can only assume because I was a member of the family – than if it came from him. I’m quite certain, given the location and circumstances, that the pastor had no clue that he had just abdicated the funeral prayer in his chapel to a Pagan. My solution was to ask the gathered family and friends to observe an introspective moment of silence and individual prayer. After this, I delivered the Eulogy, and then invited attendees to come forward and share stories and anecdotes regarding my grandfather. I like to think, had I had more time to plan and compose my thoughts, that I might have come up with something as eloquent and universally-inclusive as the invocation Maynard used last week. As it was, no one complained about the way I handled the prayer at the funeral that day; and the pastor – who fit the description of the ‘typical’ hellfire and brimstone preacher – told me afterward that he’d never seen a service done that way before, that he felt like it was a genuinely healing experience, and that he would consider doing things similarly in the future … maybe there is a lesson to be gleaned from this experience, after all. If Deborah Maynard really had it in her mind to please everyone, she could likely only have done so by letting everyone else do the talking. Instead, she was invited to speak, and she chose to speak in an eloquent and inclusive manner. I’m highly impressed, and would like to see more occurrences of interfaith working in any government institution that mixes religion with politics, and that around the world.

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