In a startling reversal, the mayor of Lancaster, California—R. Rex Parris—held an interfaith press conference to walk back this comment, which he made twelve days previous to a gathering of 160 people:
We’re growing a Christian community, and don’t let anybody shy away from that…I need (Lancaster community) standing up and saying we’re a Christian community, and we’re proud of that.
According to Lancaster’s local newspaper, the Antelope Valley Press (February 9, 2010), the mayor was persuaded by some of his closest friends to change his position:
“It was about a week and a half ago that I spoke to the Christian ministerial association and said I wanted to grow a Christian community,” he said during a City Hall news conference. “But in talking to my friends of 30 years, it was clear that a lot of people felt excluded.”
Surprise, surprise. Lancaster is, afterall, in Los Angeles County, the most diverse county in the United States (maybe the world). It’s not Boise, Idaho.
Still, I give the mayor credit for not being a rigid person, and exercising some emotional flexibility and good sense. Here’s the Antelope Valley Press again:
Mayor R. Rex Parris issued an unequivocal apology to groups of any and all faiths who he said might have felt excluded by his remarks 12 days earlier to Christian ministers about “growing a Christian community.”
Any and all faiths? I don’t like that R. Rex Parris’s “unequivocal apology” to the diverse members of Lancaster’s various faith communities seems to have rendered atheists, agnostics, and the religiously unaffiliated invisible. As an agnostic living in Lancaster, I say that Parris’s newfound ecumenism has a blind spot:
“For us to have a vibrant and healthy community requires vibrant and healthy synagogues, mosques, churches and temples,” Parris said. “If we’re going to be a city of light, we need to be a Baptist light. Dr. Farrukh, we need a Muslim light. We need a city where we are free to be as bright as we can be.”
City of light? How about just a city with a bookstore? Ironically, Walden Books, the city’s only nonsectarian bookstore, closed down just this past month. That’s right. Amidst all the religious wrangling, Lancaster silently slipped into the dubious status of being a city of over 150,000 people without a general purpose bookstore. And as for something else that might make for a vibrant and healthy city: how about doubters as well as true believers? Doubters are bright too. If R. Rex Parris was going to mention Baptists and Muslims, he might also have said this: If we’re going to be a city of light, we need to be an atheist light.
Now that’s inclusive.
I think I’ll try to reach Mayor Parris and ask him if he meant for his unequivocal apology to include the tax paying atheists, agnostics, and religiously unaffiliated of Lancaster, and if his answer is “yes” I’ll ask him this follow-up question:
Why didn’t you say so?
I’ll keep you posted.