May 9, 2012

Edwina Rogers: The Secular Coalition's New Republican Lobbyist

Edwina Rogers Secular CoalitionI hadn't planned on writing about Edwina Rogers. Others in the atheist community seem far more concerned with her hiring and far better positioned to put the tough questions to her than I am. But I've been asked about how I, a politically progressive atheist, feel about Rogers' hiring, and so I thought I'd share a few thoughts.

In case you are not familiar with the controversy over Rogers, here is how Adam Lee (Daylight Atheism) summarized the issue in a recent post:
The Secular Coalition for America has hired a new executive director, and their choice is going to raise some eyebrows: Edwina Rogers, a Republican lobbyist and attorney with a long history of supporting conservative causes. Among other things, she's worked as an advisor to George W. Bush's National Economic Council, served as a general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and donated to Rick Perry's presidential campaign.
As you can imagine, this quickly became controversial because the Republican Party has been extremely hostile to secularism since the rise of the Christian right in the late 1970s. But as Adam noted and many others echo, this is not even the primary source of the controversy around Rogers.

What has many people in the atheist movement upset is how Rogers has responded to some of the questions she has been asked in interviews with atheist bloggers. Her responses have led to concerns about her qualifications and her appraisal of the Republican Party and how it conflicts with the goals of the secular movement.

Although I believe that bipartisanship is highly overrated in American politics today, there are some potential advantages of having a Republican lobbyist in the Secular Coalition. Perhaps Rogers can find an audience that others have not been able to access. But I agree completely with Adam Lee when he says of Rogers:
All she had to do was say, "I realize that there are a lot of people within the Republican party who are hostile to gay rights, to science, to choice, to the separation of church and state, but I believe we can change their minds, and I'm here to try." That's all! I would have been satisfied with that answer. But if she's seriously claiming that the Republican party as it's currently constituted isn't hostile to secular issues, she's either lying to us or deeply enmeshed in self-delusion.
Adam has captured the core of the controversy perfectly here. Rogers can ally our concerns quite easily, but she has yet to do so.

From the posts I have read about Rogers, I get the sense that many in the atheist movement are waiting for her to issue an intelligent response to our concerns. Some have even suggested what it should look like, and I believe they are on the right track. If Rogers cannot be accurate in her appraisal of her own political party and is unwilling to come to terms with the record this party has had on secularism, I do not think she can hope to represent secular Americans effectively. I am willing to give her a chance, and I believe others are too. It is up to her now.