There is something powerful about taking a moment of silence. Time slows down. Your mind settles and you can breathe a bit deeper.
What’s even more powerful is standing with a group of people in silence. If you were present during Monday’s total solar eclipse party outside the Camas Public Library, you understand. Folks who gathered there took 60 seconds to watch as the moon inked out roughly 98 percent of the sun. Even the birds took a break and hushed their songs. Being silent with others, with hundreds of strangers, has a soothing effect on the crowd. Without words, you just feel more connected to one another.
As conversations within the Washougal City Council and the Clark County Board of Councilors turned to invocations this week — to the prayer delivered before those two governmental bodies begin their bi-weekly and weekly meetings — our thoughts go to the power of silence and its relationship to religion.
In fact, whether it’s monks taking a vow of silence, Hindus meditating or Quakers sitting silent in a circle, the act of not speaking runs through most religions and is often considered a means of better connecting to a higher power.
In Washougal and at the county level, the argument about pre-meeting prayer is not “Should we have an invocation?” but rather, “Should the invocation be inclusive to all faiths?” The county councilors voted yes to that second question this week and Washougal mayoral candidate Molly Coston also believes that the invocation should be more inclusive.
We do not see the need to mesh religion with government — we keep local government bodies nonpartisan to encourage city councilors to work together without partisan politics getting in the way, so why in the world would we want to interject religious beliefs, which are often even more contentious, into the mix? But if city and county leaders feel that they need people to pray for them before they can get down to the business of filling potholes and debating the need for an additional police officer, then this invocation should be as inclusive as possible.
One simple way to accomplish a more inclusive and tolerant invocation is to simply take a moment of silence before the meetings. This hits all the bases: Silence is connected to religion, so there is a “higher power” aspect to it; the people who wish to pray for local politicians can certainly do so in silence; and those who are not religious but who still wish to participate in local politics — or who have to attend council meetings for their jobs — don’t have to feel pressured into listening to someone else’s religious beliefs or persecuted for their own, different beliefs.
Local government leaders should be less concerned with giving religious leaders another forum to spread their beliefs and more concerned with attracting a diverse range of people to local politics. You only have to look at the most recent election numbers to see that folks don’t care too much about local, nonpartisan politics — fewer than 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the Aug. 1 primary, which decided who would run in the November general election for city council positions in Washougal and in Camas.
Allowing religious leaders to run the show before a city council meeting isn’t going to attract more people. In fact, it may keep younger residents away from local politics. Across the nation, Millennials are turning away from organized religion, with the majority now saying that, although they believe in an afterlife, they do not identify themselves as “religious” or attend religious services on a regular basis.
If local politicians are wedded to the idea of having an invocation before their meetings, and if they truly care about welcoming everyone and attracting a more diverse audience to their city and council council meetings, we suggest that they get rid of the spoken invocation in favor of a moment of silence. That way, everyone can breathe easy.