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.