Monday, January 30, 2012

193 unrepresentative representatives

It's truly rare that I find myself wrapped up in politics, but over the past 24 hours I made it my goal to communicate with each member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

You see, last week, all 193 of them voted unanimously to name 2012 the "Year of the Bible" in PA House Resolution 535. Read that resolution and you'll find references to "the value of voluntarily applying the teachings of the scriptures in the lives of individuals, families and societies" and "our knowledge of and faith in God". Now, I can't speak for you, but that certainly does not apply to me.

So last night, I drafted a letter and emailed it to every one of the representatives. So far I've gotten the following responses:
  • Eli Evankovich emailed me back promptly last night to say "I could clutter this response with any manner of justification for why we disagree but I think that my vote will suffice." Entirely unhelpful. I emailed him again in the hopes of getting a real response, and he replied asking me to contact my own representative. Unfortunately, my district - District 186 - is currently unrepresented.
  • Tonya, Chief of Staff for Rick Mirabito, was kind enough to call me and explain a few things about the resolution. She told me that resolutions like this are deemed "noncontroversial" from the outset (as printed on the resolution), and that the goal of these resolutions is simply to honor and recognize different people, cultures, etc. She likened it to naming February Black History Month. Which is very nice, but to my knowledge, the effort to name February Black History Month did not include any implication that we are all African American. In the meantime, the wording of Resolution 535 implies that we are all Christians - an obvious untruth.
  • RoseMarie SwangerTodd Stephens, and John Lawrence also asked me to contact my representative. I've emailed them back to tell them that I don't have one, and am hoping for a response.

I'm not the only one communicating with the representatives about this - Dan Barker and Annie Laurie-Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a beautiful rebuttal to many of the points made in the resolution. You really should check it out.
In the meantime, here's what I wrote:

Representative __:

This weekend I learned that on my behalf, you have resolved (in House Resolution 535) to declare 2012 the "Year of the Bible." I am writing in protest as a voice for those who you have failed to represent. Additionally I want to remind you that you have violated the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

In writing this letter I find myself compelled to outline and defend the idea of separation of church and state - a sad state of affairs when the people I am writing to are those who have been elected by me and my peers to uphold this and our other national values. So rather than arguing on the constitutionality of your decision (the clearest argument and likely the one you are hearing about the most), I will inform you about the harm in it.

Yes, Christians are the majority in this country. This does not mean that Christianity is our national religion. By endorsing your holy book in a political forum, you have devalued the teachings of other beliefs systems, thereby reinforcing divisiveness and alienating many Pennsylvanians. To Christians, you are saying "Your beliefs are more valid." To non-Christians, you are saying "Your beliefs are not worthwhile." In the meantime, the language in Resolution 535 - such as "our knowledge of and faith in God" - presumes that all of your constituents share your belief. I'm one who does not.

As an atheist, I have on occasion been presented with the question of how I determine what is right and what is wrong. The assumption behind this question is that humans are incapable of distinguishing what is moral and what is immoral without a superimposed set of values (a depressing worldview, I think - and one that I don't adhere to). What follows that assumption is a belief that we require strict guidance in every action we take.

When people seek guidance from an archaic piece of literature rather than weighing facts and potential consequences, they are more likely to make harmful decisions simply because they have neglected to consider the real-world consequences for their actions - consequences to others and to themselves.

Sadly, you have chosen to glorify a book rife with internal inconsistencies as well as inconsistencies with our modern world's developing ethics (see this article). In the meantime you have wasted valuable time and effort by presenting an undefined problem with a vague solution - time and effort that I had hoped you were spending on finding tangible solutions for real problems.

I urge you, from here on out, to approach real issues with real solutions. In the hopes that others will join me in holding you accountable to this, I will be posting this letter as an open letter on my personal blog, Becky Lee Dreams. You are invited to visit my blog to learn more about how a person can find joy and value in life without turning to religion.

Rebecca L. M.
GED Teacher
Philadelphia Resident

Oh. Yeah. That's right, I plugged my blog to the whole PA House of Representatives. And you know what? Since I started sending the emails last night, I've had an otherwise inexplicable spike in hits :)


  1. As we say in Ireland "Fair play to yeh Becky!" We're just shaking off the grip of the Catholic Church and joining the more enlightened, secular countries of Europe and it is incredible to see the USA going backwards.
    I bet some of these representatives take exception to the Islamic Republic of Iran and other sectarian states.

    1. Thanks! I don't imagine this little resolution to be quite as dangerous as much of the other religious persecution that happens around the world - but I do see it as a step in that direction. I find it immensely sad to hear people calling the US a Christian nation, then swatting lazily at any dissenters like pesky flies - which is exactly what this whole experience has felt like to me.

      So far today, I've heard back from a total of 5/193 of the people who I emailed. Only one of those (well really, his staffer - Tonya from Rick Mirabito's office) bothered to have a reasonable conversation with me. All other responses were:

      "I do not represent you in the PA House." (Nobody does, so I'm holding them all accountable)

      "I could clutter this response with any manner of justification for why we disagree but I think that my vote will suffice." (Explaining that he chose to vote that way because he chose to vote that way - awfully circular)

      "This measure passed unanimously without debate." (Right, that's a major problem)

      "We pass several dozen resolutions each year and normally do not have people complain about them." ("So shut up and let us do what we like!")

  2. Here's what I came up with:

    I am writing to tell you that I am troubled by House Resolution No. 535, which declares 2012 to be the "Year of the Bible" in Pennsylvania. I understand and appreciate the great value of the Bible as a religious text, and have spent much time studying it in recent years. I believe there are many lessons to be learned from the scripture.

    However, I also understand that many Americans do not feel the same, and many Pennsylvanians as well. I find this resolution to stand against the spirit of religious freedom which has made America great, and in particular the state of Pennsylvania, which I know was originally founded by William Penn in an effort to create a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution.

    It is understandable to draft a resolution to honor the Bible, which has undeniably shaped the history of America. However, the text of this resolution seems to assume that the people it represents are of a homogeneous religious community, which is not the case; and it seems to urge all citizens to model their lives on the teachings of the scriptures, which is disrespectful to individuals of other religious backgrounds. For this reason, your resolution seems to represent mainly the Representatives who drafted it, and not the constituents you were chosen to represent.

    1. Yeah, but just to my representative for now (since I apparently actually have one). No response yet.

  3. Who is your State Senator? That's more important right now.

    1. Larry Farnese. Let me get on that.

  4. Well said!! Thank you for voicing this! As a fellow atheist, it's reassuring that there are others out there.

    1. Thanks! Usually I stay away from talking about religion, but lately I've been doing it more. Good for me to be open, and good to get other viewpoints out there :)

  5. Great letter. What really irks me, even more than the initial affront of the approval of the resolution, is the fact that the few reps who have responded to you seem completely astonished that you are offended by this. You are absolutely, completely, perfectly right to be pissed off by this. How they cannot see this is beyond me. And it's kind of inconceivable to me that they never imagined that they'd piss people off before they went ahead and did it. I'm pissed off, and I live in California. I'm pissed off for you. Not sure how helpful that is but I'm in your corner anyway, saying fight, fight, fight!