Iowa Wiccan priestess displays amazing power

to make other people act like idiots.

I didn’t think anything could top some people’s freak-out over atheist ads on Des Moines buses, but the reaction to yesterday’s Wiccan invocation in the Iowa House is a contender.

Before this week, how many people knew that a short prayer often kicks off daily sessions in the Iowa House? Even those who follow the legislature’s work closely have to dig through House Journals to find out who offered the invocation, or whether guests performed a patriotic song instead before someone led House members in the Pledge of Allegiance.

You could smell trouble a mile away when news broke that first-term Democratic State Representative Liz Bennett had invited a Wiccan, Deborah Maynard, to lead the opening prayer. Bennett invited a Christian pastor just last week, as well as a Cedar Rapids rabbi. Why a Wiccan too?

[Bennett] said inclusion is her goal.

“I think there are people across the nation who don’t realize how diverse Iowa really is, and so I’m proud that this is another first for us,” Bennett said. […]

“It’s not about endorsing one religion over another,” Bennett said. “It’s the fact that the Iowa Statehouse is the people’s house and that there’s room for everybody under the dome.”

Cue wailing from the usual suspects on the religious right wing.

Chuck Hurley, a former legislator who is now vice president of The Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization, said some legislators tell him the situation makes them uncomfortable and they may get to the capitol a bit late next Thursday, to avoid being in the House when Maynard speaks.

“We have religious freedom in this country, but it works both ways,” Hurley said. “You can’t be forced to participate in something that violates your conscience.”

Dude, check your privilege. Do you have any idea how often non-Christian Americans politely sit through your faith tradition’s prayers? If I can listen to the invocation of an evangelical pastor who thinks I’m spending the afterlife in hell, you can handle a short message about “God, goddess, universe-that which is greater than ourselves.”

Bob Vander Plaats, the public face of the FAMiLY Leader, described the Wiccan prayer as a “stunning development (that) many Christians across the state recognize has spiritual ramification.” Heather Clark of the Christian News Network reported on the group’s response to Maynard’s scheduled invocation.

But approximately half of lawmakers chose to skip out the invocation because they did not wish to join a witch in prayer, and the Family Leader organized an alternative Christian prayer gathering at the capitol as a counter to Maynard’s presence.

“We feel that this is completely out of sync with the traditions of our state and our nation to seek guidance from the occult,” Michael Demastus, pastor of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, told reporters. “We believe it is just not a good idea.”

He said that as Maynard spoke, “I was praying for her salvation. I was praying that she would come to know the one true God.”

Whether half the Iowa House members deliberately boycotted the invocation is questionable. The House calendar for April 9 included no floor debate on any bills and only two scheduled committee meetings. Many lawmakers had no reason to come to the Capitol yesterday.  

To his credit, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen “shook Maynard’s hand” after her remarks. GOP State Representative Dave Heaton sounded utterly sensible as he told Radio Iowa,

“If we want to make a stink about who can do this and who can’t, we’re liable to lose the whole thing,” Heaton said. “So let’s just move on and continue to have our prayers to open our sessions and we’ll be o.k.”

Sad to say, some other lawmakers didn’t rise to the occasion. Republican State Senator Dennis Guth watched Maynard from the House balcony before speculating that God’s hand was in the fog covering downtown Des Moines yesterday morning.

The award for most ridiculous reaction goes to State Representative Rob Taylor, who literally turned his back as Maynard was speaking.

Rep. Taylor said he prayed often the past several days about how to respond to the Wiccan prayer. “I thought to myself, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Jesus would be in the chamber from my perspective. He would passively protest and then he would seek that individual out and have a peaceful conversation with them about why his way was the best way, and so that is what I did today.”

Taylor told reporters that he “met briefly with Maynard and invited her to have coffee to talk further.”

Nothing says “I’m open to hearing your views” like showing your back to a person at one of her proudest moments.

Seriously, far be it from me to claim to know what Jesus would do in this situation, but I ask Taylor: If your faith is strong and your God is big, why were you so worried about a Cabot witch speaking in the House chamber?

I would have more respect for him and the FAMiLY Leader types if they publicly complained about eggs, bunnies, and chocolate as ubiquitous symbols for a holiday that’s supposed to be about the resurrection of Jesus.

The cynic in me can’t help but wonder whether Taylor seized this high-profile chance to score points with evangelical Christians. He might have caught heat from social conservatives after being the only Republican to vote against the ultrasound abortion bill that cleared the Iowa House last month. No, Taylor didn’t accidentally press the wrong button when House File 573 came up for final passage. He also was the only Republican to vote no when the House Human Resources Committee considered the bill, and he supported Democrats on a few votes on amendments or procedure during the March 12 floor debate. (Belated thanks for those votes, Rep. Taylor.)

Back to the main point of this post. A representative of a small religious minority speaking to Iowa House members for 70 seconds could have passed without much notice. But as with the conservative Christian outcry over atheists advertising on Des Moines buses a few years back, the overreaction to Maynard’s appearance at the Capitol was as counter-productive as it was small-minded. The offended ones helped spread her Wiccan message to tens of thousands of Iowans who otherwise would never have heard of her.

Final note: I didn’t see any Iowa House Democrats speak out yesterday against Maynard’s appearance, but rumor is that many in the caucus grumbled about Bennett creating a “distraction.” Some of her colleagues may even have boycotted the invocation. I thought we were past the days when statehouse Democrats could be intimidated by the likes of Hurley and Vander Plaats. Sorry to hear I was mistaken.

  • Moving

    Her invocation was actually quite beautiful, and I’d love for someone to ask the fundamentalist nutjobs to point out what was so scary about it — the part where we should passionately work for the people we represent, the part about finding thoughtful solutions, or maybe it was the call for justice, equity and compassion?  

    • my guess is

      they weren’t listening enough to absorb anything she said. They were too busy praying for her soul.

      • Old Lon Cheney movie

        I’m seeing memories of the old black and white horror flicks on late Sat nite TV back in the fifties when I was a teen.

        Scared witless residents of some late-medieval (appears to be probably) Southeastern European village below the castle being terrified by the horrid villian of the movie and holding up their crosses in hopes of gaining protection from the evil of the villain.

        And if this gets read by any really serious old-movie trivia buff, please don’t hold me to my involving Lon Cheney. His was merely the first name that quickly came to mind and I really don’t remember which villian was played by which actor. Heck, over a couple years of Saturday mites we must’ve watched fifty to sixty of those old B/W’s.

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