Edwina Rogers—An Inspired Choice?

May 9, 2012

I am becoming leery of taking trips overseas. It seems that controversies within the American secular movement tend to flair up soon after I flash my passport in some foreign land.

During the overseas trip I took last summer, about a week into the trip I was suddenly hit with a flurry of emails about what was to become known as “Elevatorgate.” As the remarks that were the proximate cause of the controversy occurred on CFI premises, various people were urging me to do this, say that, denounce this person, defend that person, etc.

This past week, I was on the CFI Cruise (featuring Richard Dawkins and Maryam Namazie—it went well, thanks), when I learned of the controversy over the appointment of Edwina Rogers to head the Secular Coalition for America. A separate controversy over a blog post by Sam Harris also flared up, although it seems to have been largely overshadowed by the Rogers brouhaha.

Anyway, now that I’m back in the US, let me say a few words about Rogers. Later today I may also put up a short post on Harris.

First, although CFI is not formally a member of the Secular Coalition, its affiliate, the Council for Secular Humanism, is, and as the managing officials of CFI and Council are virtually identical, obviously we were aware that Rogers was going to be appointed. (Tom Flynn is the Council’s board representative to the SCA; I’m the alternate.) Neither Tom nor I was involved in the search for a new ED, but we were informed when the Search Committee had reached its decision.

The way the Search Committee phrased its recommendation to the board was that Rogers has the knowledge, skills, and experience to be a very effective lobbyist for SCA because of her legal background, her familiarity with the workings of government, and her demonstrated strengths in managing nonprofit coalitions, fundraising, and lobbying.  Moreover, the Search Committee assured us that she strongly supports SCA’s positions on church/state matters, including same-sex marriage. The Search Committee recognized that her Republican Party affiliation was not widely shared among supporters of the secular movement, but in the final analysis, they considered this an overall plus, as she might be able to expand the reach of the SCA and connect our movement with a new group of political allies.

(By the way, I’m not revealing any secrets by giving the above summary, as everything noted above has since come out through SCA statements, releases, and interviews.)

As I recall, the only questions Tom and I had were whether she was sincerely, 100% committed to the SCA’s mission and objectives. We were assured she was.

If a skilled lobbyist is committed wholeheartedly to the mission and objectives of the SCA, her party affiliation is not necessarily a disqualification, especially as Ms. Rogers was described to us as a “libertarian” Republican, which we interpreted to mean someone generally in favor of less government regulation. Whatever the wisdom of her views on market regulation, for example, this would not directly affect her work for SCA. CFI has libertarian supporters, although they are a minority within our organization and the movement as a whole.

That said, I understand the concern and skepticism that some have regarding the appointment. To say this is an important position is an understatement. SCA is not the only church/state lobbying shop in town (CFI has its own operation, the Office of Public Policy, and, of course, Americans United has a significant lobbying team), but it has a high profile within the secular movement. We want to make sure this appointment is a good fit.

Moreover, a couple of pieces of information about Ms. Rogers and her views that have become known in recent days have concerned me, as well as others. She has described herself as a “conservative” Republican. If she means fiscally conservative, that’s one thing; if she means socially conservative, that’s another. Being a “libertarian,” much less a secularist, cannot be squared with being socially conservative. In addition, although there are undoubtedly some Republicans who are pro-choice, in favor of same-sex marriage, and so forth, the official position of the Republican Party has in recent decades too often reflected the views of the religious right— a fact which Ms. Rogers appears hesitant to acknowledge. There’s also the troubling donation to Rick Perry, which, however one rationalizes it, is a personal contribution to a determined, if inarticulate, opponent of secularism.

At the end of the day, however, no one is going to be able to make an informed judgment about whether this selection was an inspired one or a regrettable one until we see how Ms. Rogers does on her job, including how successfully she communicates SCA’s mission and works with other secular advocates. To that end, we are pleased to announce that Ms. Rogers has agreed to speak at our upcoming Women in Secularism conference in Arlington, VA. She will be speaking on Saturday morning, May 19. Let’s hear what Edwina Rogers has to say, and let’s withhold final judgment until she has had a fair opportunity to articulate her views and carry out her duties as the executive director for SCA. I’m hoping—for the sake of all of us—that she proves to be a smashing success.


#1 Scott Maddox (Guest) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 10:58am

She’s gotta be an Ayn Rand follower. That’s the only explanation.

Is she the ONLY lobbyist they’ve got or just the only Republican one they’ve got?

#2 Mykelb (Guest) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 11:07am

Ya’ll just hired a snake in the grass.  Thanks.

#3 Matt Dillahunty (Guest) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 11:08am

Is the video of her talk at the Women In Secularism conference going to be made available online - and soon after the event?

(I’d come to the conference, but I had already been booked to speak at the Imagine No Religion 2 conference before I heard about it.) :(

#4 Melody Hensley on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 11:11am

To be clear, Edwina Rogers is not CFI’s lobbyist. She is the lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America (SCA). One of our affiliates, the Council for Secular Humanism, is a member organization of SCA. CFI has its own lobbyist, Michael De Dora.

#5 Melody Hensley on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 11:15am

Matt, I hope that the entire conference will be filmed. I’m going to defer to the person that does our media/filming.

#6 dangeroustalk on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 2:05pm

Great article. I support the “wait and see” approach. Let’s give her a chance.

#7 John Gay (Guest) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 4:56pm

This is absolutely a positive development. A Republican spokeswoman will have far more reach than a Democrat would, for the same reason that only Nixon could go to China—a Republican secularist simply cannot be smeared in the ways any other secularist would be. Secularism was—and remains—in danger of transforming into a partisan issue simply because the public face of secularism has been overwhelmingly left-liberal. If we allow ourselves to be boxed in, to be branded as a collection of Dennis Kucinich Democrats and Ron Paul libertarians, the Republicans will continue to stir up hatred against us and the Democrats will continue to avoid us as too controversial—they know we’ll vote for them in the end, anyway, so why fight for our support? We have to be coy with the parties, to show that we are diverse.

I think the inquisition that Ms. Rogers has faced from our community is a bit shameful. There are legitimate critiques, of course—her lack of prior presence in the movement, for instance—but the community has instead grilled an openly pro-choice, pro-gay woman on whether she’s really pro-choice and pro-gay if her party tends to not be (conveniently ignoring Republicans like Olympia Snowe on the former issue and Dick Cheney of all people on the latter). There’s a real danger to our movement here—some seem more concerned with ideological purity (and on issues that are commonly but not intrinsically linked to secularism!) than with actually making life better for secularists. Strong and credible secular voices in Washington will do far more for people like Jessica Ahlquist than a witch hunt for people with uncommon ideas. What matters is not that Ms. Rogers is a Republican. It matters that she has experience and a track record of effectiveness.

#8 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 5:05pm

I’m not sure I agree that we can’t yet make an informed judgment about whether this selection was an inspired one or a regrettable one. We can’t make a completely informed judgment until she has completed her tenure and moved on (in whatever sense), but we can think it’s been regrettable in some ways already. This insistence that the Republican party really isn’t anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage because most Republicans aren’t is itself regrettable, because it looks like word-juggling or cluelessness.

#9 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 5:09pm

John Gay: what critics are worried about is not that she’s a Republican, it’s that she has been a Republican operative. That’s a big difference.

#10 Tom Rafferty (Guest) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 5:12pm

Just watch her like white on rice.

#11 Randy on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 5:32pm

“no one is going to be able to make an informed judgment about whether this selection was an inspired one or a regrettable one until we see how Ms. Rogers does on her job,”

How someone performs AFTER being selected tells us nothing about the appropriateness of the selection, and neither does inspiration or regret.

The people doing the selection cannot possibly be in the business of knowing the future.  So no, the evaluation of whether the selection is a good one can only rely on information that was known, or should have been known, PRIOR to the selection.

#12 John Gay (Guest) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 5:35pm

Ophelia, precisely. Nobody can credibly accuse her of being a bad Republican, because she has been a professional advocate for Republican causes. If she’s an infiltrator, the GOP is wasting its time—we are presently far too small a political force to be worth undermining.

#13 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 5:42pm

So even better would be to hire Rick Perry as the executive director of the SCA. Nobody could credibly accuse him of being a bad Republican either.

#14 John Gay (Guest) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 at 6:08pm

You could credibly accuse him of being a bad atheist, though!

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