Two Years Ago, a Republican Became Director of the Country’s Largest Atheist Lobbying Group. How Is She Doing? May 3, 2014

Two Years Ago, a Republican Became Director of the Country’s Largest Atheist Lobbying Group. How Is She Doing?

Two years ago today, the Secular Coalition for America — the largest lobbying group in Washington, D.C. representing non-religious Americans — announced that its new Executive Director would be a Republican who had worked under President George W. Bush and conservative senators Trent Lott and Jeff Sessions.

While Edwina Rogers focused on health and economic issues with those politicians, her GOP background rubbed a lot of atheist activists the wrong way. They wondered if someone who had worked for social conservatives could really be a reliable voice for Secular Americans. Rogers was optimistic that her background wouldn’t hinder her new position — in fact, she believed she could get her foot in the door in places where liberal lobbyists might have been shut out. Still, my initial interview with her provoked a lot of skeptical (and harsh) feedback from readers and other bloggers.

Edwina Rogers

But that was two years ago. Has Rogers changed her mind about the Republican Party’s ability to appeal to atheists and agnostics? Has the backlash died down?

I emailed her a list of questions earlier this week and her responses are posted below. (I added links where I thought they would be helpful and made slight edits for the sake of clarity.)

What do you think have been the SCA’s biggest accomplishments over the past two years?

We’ve accomplished a great number of things in the past two years, but I think the single most important accomplishment — that will help us to effect long-term change — is the formation of our state chapters in all 50 states. That’s because in our training we are arming Secular Americans with the tools they need to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government at the local level. This is so important because some of the worst legislation comes from the state level and we need our secular warriors there to fight these bills when they come up. These state chapters have already earned some big wins. For example:

  • The Secular Coalitions for Montana and Colorado successfully halted “intelligent design” bills.
  • The Secular Coalition for Arizona organized the first secular-oriented “invocation” on the House floor, during which a state legislator “came out” as an atheist.
  • The Secular Coalition for California successfully halted a bill that would have allowed tax credits that would have diverted public tax dollars to religious schools.
  • And for the second year in a row, the Secular Coalition for Rhode Island successfully urged the governor to issue a Day of Reason proclamation, helping to draw attention to our issues.

There are so many great examples of the work our state chapters have been able to do already, and we’re just getting started.

Some of our other proud accomplishments were defeating an amendment granting a religious exemption in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — that was a major victory for the Secular Coalition for America. Religion is never an excuse to discriminate, and we lobbied hard against the amendment. We are also preparing to launch the Global Secular Council, the first secular policy and research center. The GSC will provide commentary and research by the world’s leading thinkers, including distinguished scholars [like] Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, [and] Steven Pinker. There is so much information and evidence out there that shows how secular governance is the best solution for a just, progressive society. We are bringing the best minds together to use this information to amplify the secular voice in the policy world.

When you first took the position, the fact that you were a Republican was a point of controversy. Do you still get pushback from atheists who can’t see past that label? If so, how do you respond to it?

Not too much anymore. I think the secular community understands that secular issues are bipartisan. I have demonstrated through my work with the Secular Coalition for America that I am driven by my secular values. Instead of focusing on issues that divide us, I choose to focus on how we can all come together to effect change for the growing demographic of religiously unaffiliated Americans who deserve to be heard. The Secular Coalition now has 16 voting member organizations (up from 10 when I first started), 173 endorsing organizations (up from 35 when I first started), and six [associate] or allied organizations — and we are continuing to grow each and every day. We are focused on building a big-tent coalition because that’s how we can be most effective.

What doors have been opened to you as a Republican insider that might not have been opened for other secular leaders?

I think my Republican credentials have helped to get us meetings or invitations we wouldn’t have gotten previously. For example, I was personally invited to attend the CPAC conference this year and was introduced to the board members of the conservative coalition that organized the conference. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to talk to conservative leaders about their nontheistic and secular support base, who deserve to have their values represented.

Unfortunately our movement is sometimes misrepresented as partisan. As a Secular Republican leader, I have helped us overcome that misconception by building bipartisan bridges and dispelling the myths about our movement to fellow Republicans. And it’s working slowly but surely, for the first time this year on our Congressional Report Card. Although no Republicans received A’s, three Republican Senators received B’s for the first time since the Secular Coalition began compiling report cards.

What role will the SCA play in the 2014 midterm elections?

We will be publishing Secular Voter Guides for all House and Senate races this fall. The Voter give constituents a well-rounded assessment of each candidate’s ability to represent secular values, while the Report Cards offer a snapshot of each U.S. Representative’s voting record on the most important issues to secular Americans.

What political issues [should] Secular Americans pay the most attention to in 2014?

The recent string of successful legal challenges in states with same-sex marriage bans has captured the attention of many of our constituents. Secular Americans have been advocating for marriage equality side by side with the LGBT community for years now, and for us these have been major victories for secularism and social justice. I am optimistic that this trend will continue, and we will certainly continue to advocate for marriage equality nationwide.

Another major issue that got our supporters and allies to take action was the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, Inc. case brought to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby is trying to use religion as an excuse for employers to discriminate against their employees and dictate the health benefits that their employees are entitled to. We were out there in the snow and freezing cold in front of the Supreme Court making sure our voices are heard. We will continue to fight to make sure that employers are not entitled to impose their religious beliefs on employees via their health care.

It has now been more than seven years since Pete Stark publicly declared his non-theism. There are currently no openly non-religious members of Congress. Will any of them be coming out as non-religious in the near future? Will SCA be working to make that happen?

Gallup has been conducting a poll since 1937 asking Americans how likely they would be to vote for President depending on a range of background categories, and atheist was added in 1958, when only 18% said they would. That number has certainly increased over the years, but unfortunately atheists still remain the least likely to be voted for President (54%) behind Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and Mormons.

There are certainly a number of members of Congress who are closeted atheists, as they have disclosed it to us off the record and I imagine there are many more. When they are ready to come out, we and all Secular Americans will be here to support them.

Unfortunately, it is still considered the political kiss of death to be openly atheist. I am optimistic that this will change with time, and very soon. The percentage of young people who identify as unaffiliated are increasing and they are the least likely to disqualify a candidate for being an atheist. We will continue to fight negative stereotypes and advocate for a welcoming political environment where non-theists can participate without facing discrimination.

You initially had a goal of beginning SCA chapters in all 50 states. How is that project coming along? What have been the biggest accomplishments of some of the state chapters?

As I mentioned above, our state chapters have been one of our crowning achievements. Each state now has a chapter and a website, although some states are more fully operational than others. We are working closely with the states that still need some help getting off the ground.

But new achievements are happening every day within our state chapters. For example, the Secular Coalition for Hawaii got a bill recognizing Darwin Day introduced in the Hawaii State Legislature where it is currently in committee. Our California chapter is holding its second Lobby Day this year in conjunction with the National Day of Reason. South Carolina is also organizing its first Lobby Day on May 30th.

Our Oregon and Texas State Chapters have developed tremendously, building broad coalition of groups and stepping up their grassroots organizing to gear up for the 2015 Legislature. We are currently helping the state chapters in Tennessee, Utah and Georgia, to grow, which is very exciting. We are working on finding people in some key states like Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, and Louisiana to start getting on our State Calls and help us on the ground to find local support. We still have much more work to do, and there is always more room for people to get involved.

As a female leader in our movement, what do you think are some of the biggest issues we must address as a community in regards to sexism?

We must continue to fight efforts to legislate away women’s rights on the basis of religion, especially the right of women to make their own health care decisions. Harmful legislation passed in many state legislatures this past year making it difficult or nearly impossible to get an abortion. Supporters claim they want to protect women, but in reality they are assaulting women’s bodily autonomy.

Our society needs to stop trying to control women’s sexuality. A woman’s right to a health care plan that includes contraception and abortion coverage is her choice, not her employer’s, not the government’s, and not the churches’. We also need to make sure we are teaching medically-accurate sexual education in our schools and eliminate the so called “slut-shaming” culture and damaging gender stereotypes that often come along with it.

On a personal note, I think Rogers has done as good a job as we could’ve expected in two years’ time. She’s proven her dedication to our cause. A lot of SCA’s accomplishments don’t make headlines because they’re behind-the-scenes, but the coalitions with like-minded groups, weekly conference calls with secular leaders across the nation, and on-the-ground statewide lobbyists have had an impact. They’re setting the stage for a stronger movement in the future.

More importantly, I have yet to hear any reason that Rogers’ political affiliation has done any damage. While some of her responses still sound awkward (getting the attention of CPAC board members won’t win her many atheist fans…), I still believe there’s a benefit in getting Republicans to hear our message. It’s not like our side’s more progressive leaders will get GOP members to change their minds about atheists, so if anyone can, it’s her. (And if they don’t change their minds, well, it’s not like we were making any headway in the first place.)

I also appreciate that she hasn’t allowed herself to get dragged down by criticism that doesn’t affect her organization. She appears to be focused on her job — and doesn’t get distracted by commentary from Internet critics (for better or for worse). Her staff, in my experience, has worked in a similar way. They’re dedicated to their work and, while they hear what we’re saying, they won’t be getting into online wars anytime soon.

I’d love to hear from anyone who criticized Rogers’ appointment two years ago. Has your opinion changed since then? If not, what’s holding you back?

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