When is a prayer not a prayer?

In May of this year, Representative Mendez of Tempe (AZ) led a prayer at the beginning of the daily session of the Arizona Legislature.  On the surface this might not sound like a big deal expect for the fact that Mr. Mendez is an atheist or as he says “from the secular humanist tradition.”  But the story does not end there; the following day Representative Smith of Maricopa (AZ) stood and declared that Mr. Mendez’s prayer was not a prayer at all and in fact Mr. Smith prayed a second prayer for repentance.  So when is a prayer not a prayer? Does a prayer require an invocation of a deity? If so, which deities are on the “approved” list?  I would speculate that Mr. Smith’s preferred deity would be the “conservative evangelical Christian God”, so would a prayer addressed to Yahweh, Allah, or maybe a Hindu deity be concerned a prayer?  Does a call to the common good or our “collective” humanity not count as an invocation? Or could it be that a call to our humanity might be too “close to home” and may require our responsibility towards those who are marginalized in our society.  Could it be that our invocation to a deity is nothing more than saying, we answer to a higher power and not the hunger, the “out-casted”, the mistreated, or the enslaved?

When is a prayer not a prayer? Maybe it is not whom we address but how we address that tells us when a prayer is not a prayer.  Does “bowing our heads and closing our eyes” make a prayer a prayer? What if we do not bow our heads and are asked to “look around and see each other as fellow humans working together for a better world” does that preclude it from being a prayer?

When is a prayer not a prayer? Did the quote by Carl Sagan disqualify it from being a prayer? Here is Sagan’s quote, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”  Mr. Mendez goes on to say, “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 and 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 say to Mr. Mendez, Amen!!!

 —Move beyond just tolerating each other and towards truly appreciating one another.