Arizona Eagletarian

Arizona Eagletarian

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Did anyone ask Rep. Steve Smith the key question?

"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." -- Mahatma Gandhi    

Photo credit AP/Ross Franklin

State Rep. Steve Smith* (Pharisee, LD11) on Wednesday -- perhaps without even thinking about the content of the secular invocation delivered at the start of Tuesday's floor session in the Arizona House of Representatives -- declared that Rep. Juan Mendez had offended God. And he got national attention for doing so.

That day therefore, Smith offered a prayer in repentance.
At Wednesday's session, Rep. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, lit into Mendez, saying if Mendez did not want to offer a prayer, he should have skipped his turn in the traditional rotation among members.
To make up for Mendez's omission, Smith insisted Wednesday on offering a second prayer to start the session, on the heels of the one led by Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, whose turn it was.
Smith's prayer was offered, "for repentance of yesterday," and asked colleagues to stand and "give our due respect to the Creator of the universe."
The flap comes as the U.S. Supreme Court agreed earlier this week to weigh in on the larger question of whether it is even proper to offer prayers at the start of public meetings.

You may ask, why does what Smith did bother me? Here's a little bit of my personal history. Born into a blue-collar Italian Catholic family in Rochester, NY, as a young adult I explored other Christian groups and traditions, spending 12 years in what I considered (at the time) dedicated study of the Bible.

Today, I do not attend a church but remain close friends with a number of people from that religious time in my life. I had grown weary of people who did not seem to walk the walk along with talking the talk.

I certainly am not holier than Steve Smith. But just as certainly, I do not identify with his brand of Christianity.

So, what was Smith complaining about on Wednesday anyway?

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Having known Juan for a couple of years now, I happily worked with other LD26 activists to get him elected (along with Andrew Sherwood in the House and Ed Albeser in the Senate) in the 2012 general election. Since he represents me faithfully (in terms of public policy) in the Arizona House, I am thankful and proud of him.

A couple of months ago, after "sharing" one of those poignant and pithy sayings on Facebook -- one that just happened to come from a group having something to do with atheism -- a friend, a Christian I have known for more than 30 years, asked me pointedly if I was still a Christian. Perhaps a reasonable question. From a person I still very much consider a friend. But for some reason, it made me uncomfortable. So much so that I still remember it a few months later.

To this friend, I responded by disclaiming any connection to the group from which the saying had come while emphasizing that I appreciated the message it conveyed nevertheless.

But why should it even matter?


Back in the early days of our Republic, Thomas Paine wrote some incredibly provocative pamphlets. If not for Paine's Common Sense, the Founders might never have declared independence from the British Crown. However, Paine was not satisfied only with forming a new nation in which all of the rights spelled out in the Constitution applied only to roughly 8 percent of the people.

Over the course of the rest of his life, Paine wrote other essays that challenged the foundations upon which the United States of America were initially formed. Firmly opposed to slavery from the beginning, Paine penned the Rights of Man. Agrarian Justice, first published in 1795 was the initial blueprint for development of what we now know as Social Security.

The pamphlet that earned Paine the most contempt may have been Age of Reason. In it, Paine strikes at the heart of what he believed dominated religion in his day -- superstition. The essay begins:
I PUT the following work under your protection. It contains my opinions upon Religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.
The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

In my opinion, Paine's writings provided the fuel, or rational underpinning for massive changes in American society and all of Western Civilization. His influence may have reached even farther, but I am not familiar with other societies. Paine considered himself a Deist. From the Age of Reason:
The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood, and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.
As several of my colleagues and others of my fellow-citizens of France have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself.
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.
But, lest it should be supposed that I believe in many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

And in this declaration and in spelling out those things which he did not believe -- with his reasons -- one of the most influential writers (maybe THE most influential) of his day, quite literally became persona non grata in much of the world he knew. From wikipedia:
At the time of his death, most American newspapers reprinted the obituary notice from the New York Citizen, which read in part: "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." Only six mourners came to his funeral, two of whom were black, most likely freedmen. The writer and orator Robert G. Ingersoll wrote:
Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death. Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead – on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head – and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude – constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.

Back to the issue of my religious tradition(s). Though I very strongly have identified and fellowshipped with Christians and Christian groups for many years, I currently am quite comfortable also considering myself Deist. Of course, I don't hang out with or engage in activities or projects focused on Deism. But I have come to realize and recognize that there is so much outside of what any human can perceive or know.

The Bible still holds important insights on many things for me. Most importantly at this point in my life and in our society, that book does not even come close to meaning what Pharisee-like ministers of the Religious Right claim it means. I do not see a vengeful God looking to punish anyone who refuses to toe the line.

On the other hand, stories in the Old Testament and New expose hypocrisy of small-minded preachers and politicians... like Steve Smith.

Though I long ago ended all association with the Roman Catholic Church, I have to appreciate the new Pope. Francis I on Wednesday (is there such a thing as coincidence?) -- the same day Steve Smith demonstrated his small-minded religiosity -- as reported by USA Today:
Atheists and other nonbelievers largely welcomed Wednesday's (May 22) remarks by Pope Francis that performing "good works" is not the exclusive domain of people of faith, but rather a place where they and atheists could and should meet.
In a private homily, Francis described doing good not as a matter of faith, but of "duty, it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us, because he has made us in his image and likeness."
Then, referring to non-Catholics and nonbelievers, he said, "if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good." 
As to Steve Smith, I can't know what goes on between his ears, but what I can see from his words and deeds, he doesn't seem to represent his God very well.

By the way, what is the key question and did anyone pose it to Smith?

What would Jesus do?

Again, I might be presumptuous to predict an answer, but I can point to some related things Jesus said, as recorded in the Gospels.

Matthew 22:34-40
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 7:1-5
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
And how about this one? It can be a tricky one for sure. Because if the reader forgets the lesson in Matthew 7, he (Steve Smith) might be inclined to use it to judge Juan Mendez, rather than himself.
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
13 Now all has been heard;    here is the conclusion of the matter:Fear God and keep his commandments,    for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.
Oh, and a bit more insight on just who were the Pharisees and why is Steve Smith like one of them.
A politico-religious sect or faction among the adherents of later Judaism, that came into existence as a class about the third century B.C. After the exile, Israel's monarchial form of government had become a thing of the past; in its place the Jews created a community which was half State, half Church. A growing sense of superiority to the heathen and idolatrous nations among whom their lot was cast came to be one of their main characteristics. They were taught insistently to separate themselves from their neighbors. (emphasis mine) 
Can you say, "Build the dang fence?"

My hunch is that Steve Smith has plenty in his own life that he would do well to get right with his God. I don't think he has legitimate standing to tell me that what my state Representative said when offering the daily invocation was improper. And from what I see, even if Smith didn't give much thought to Mendez' words, a whole lot of other people did and find them full of wisdom that believers and non-believers can and should agree on.


*Note that prior to redistricting, which took effect for the November 2012 election, Smith served in the state Senate from LD23.


  1. The big question I have is: Why is there even a daily opening "prayer" or "invocation" of any legislative body in the United States? Why should a city council, county board, state legislature, etc be involved in invoking their idea of a higher power in a purely secular setting? Why must their "god" be invoked? Why not just go about the business of the people?

    1. All I can say to answer your question (it really is only one question, ultimately, isn't it) is, "tradition."

      That tradition, no doubt, goes back to the very beginning of our country. Which then points to the issue of why Paine ended up being so hated and vilified by the time he died.

  2. Also, before I was confirmed in the Methodist Church, my pastor took my confirmation class to a Jewish Synagogue, a Lutheran Church, a Baptist Church and a Catholic Church so as we could be 100% sure we wanted to be Methodists. He was the best pastor I have ever had. He was a true man of his faith. A faith so strong, he was willing to challenge it and have others challenge it.

  3. Enjoyed reading Saturday's post. I'm an agnostic, but don't think about religion very much. I just try to do a bit of good.