Edwina Rogers on Secularism’s Big Year in Washington and the Tough Road Ahead

September 19, 2013

Edwina Rogers is a veteran DC lobbyist who surprised nearly everyone when she became the executive director of the Secular Coalition for America in 2012. (The Council for Secular Humanism, an affiliate organization of CFI, is a member organization of SCA.) Not only was it not common knowledge that Rogers was nontheistic, or even sympathetic to secularist causes, but she’s also a Republican. This, of course, raised all manner of questions (some politely asked, some not) about what role she might play in a movement made up mostly of people who consider themselves progressives.

More than a year later, she and the rest of the Secular Coalition staff have plowed into their work with heightened grassroots activism, intensive lobbying work on Capitol Hill and with the administration, and forming new state chapters. Rogers is set to address the CFI Summit in October, where she’ll give the entire secular and skeptic movement an update on what’s been accomplished, and what the SCA still has in store to broaden our community’s political power.

Rogers was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions for us about the state of things in Washington, and what we can look forward to. One thing that stood out to me about Rogers’ answers was her understanding of relationships, not just between lobbyists and lawmakers, but also between churches and lawmakers, and even among lawmakers themselves, and the influence they can all have over one another.

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PF: One of the things your presentation at the Summit will cover is the lack of scientific understanding in Congress. Specifically coming from the perspective of a lobbying organization, why is this a problem? And is there a bare minimum of knowledge that House and Senate members ought to have?

ER: Unfortunately, there is not only a lack of scientific understanding, but a disrespect for the importance of science altogether. Especially on the House Science Committee, members are actively anti-science, and are in some cases, put on the committee for the purpose of bringing it to a grinding halt. Much of this anti-science behavior comes from a lack of scientific understanding. This means they cannot have basic conversations with the scientists doing cutting edge work about why it is important that work be funded.

PF: So how do we stack the deck to get more scientifically literate people into Congress?

ER: As a community we do a great job showing up to the polls, but we need to do even better and support scientifically literate candidates and hold anti-science candidates accountable.

PF: Mostly we hear about the full-blown fundamentalists in Congress, like John Shimkus saying we don’t have to worry about global warming because the Bible says Earth is safe from any post-Noah floods. Is it just the far-out folks like him that concern you, or is the problem more nuanced?

ER: The clearly anti-science Congress members are concerning not just for their views, but their impact on their peers. Sometimes the least-evidence based idea can sound good on paper and it might bring about doubt or questioning in the minds of more rational members, even when the scientific evidence is soundly in support of the opposite.

PF: You’ve mentioned that one focus of SCA is the general lack of understanding from Congress on all manner of subjects that are not necessarily associated with “science,” such as criminal justice and immigration. To some, this may sound like “mission creep,” as in, why is the Secular Coalition worrying about immigration when there’s church-state separation to defend?

ER: Churches weigh in on a variety of issues, from guns to Guantanamo, and give advice on the “Christianly” way to handle them. To be relevant to the lawmakers looking to the SCA to represent the views of the eight percent of the country that identify as atheist or agnostic, we at minimum must stay educated on these topics.

PF: You were at the first Women in Secularism conference in May of 2012, and you were brand new to the movement at the time—you didn’t know us, we didn’t know you. A year-and-change isn’t that much time, but it’s a lifetime in the political media at least. So I’ll ask this not just about SCA, but the movement as a whole: How we doin’?

ER: We still have a long way to go, but I think the movement has really made some great strides just in the year just since I’ve been with the Secular Coalition. The movement as a whole, but also just the Secular Coalition, have been making progress every day—and I think the movement is on the verge of breaking major barriers.

Just in the last year at the federal level, we successfully worked with a member of Congress who introduced a bill in the House to allow for nontheistic chaplains—the bill got 150 votes—and 173 members voted against another bill to discriminate against humanist chaplains. We saw sitting members of Congress go on the record on the House floor to speak up for nontheists, something we haven’t seen much in the past, if ever—and that was major. This year, for the first time, we had a sitting U.S. Senator and a sitting U.S. Representative address the secular community at our Secular Summit and Lobby Day. At the federal level we’ve successfully blocked school vouchers twice, our suggestions for eliminating religious exemptions in the tax codes were included in the recommendations to the House Ways & Means Committee, and we blocked the expansion of religious exemptions in Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Also in the last year, we’ve launched chapters in all fifty states. Our state chapters are already effecting change at the state level. Our Montana and Colorado chapters were able to halt “intelligent design” bills, and 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.B. 943), which would have diverted public tax dollars to religious schools, the Secular Coalition for Rhode Island successfully urged the Governor to sign a National Day of Reason Proclamation and helped bring marriage equality to their state, and the Secular Coalition for North Carolina worked successfully to get House Bill 494 entitled the “Rowan County Defense of Religion Act of 2013” knocked down. This bill tried to “allow North Carolina to declare an official religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Bill of Rights.”

PF: Is there a particular success you’re most proud of, or has been the most meaningful to you?

ER: We are particularly proud of the formation of our state chapters and the ongoing work we’re doing at the federal level, which is increasing inroads for the community as a whole daily.

PF: How about disappointments or failures?

ER: I like to try to stay positive! Of course we all experience setbacks, but I try not to dwell on them. I try to learn from disappointments and use them to move forward and do better next time.

PF: I’ve met you once in person, and you’re extremely charming and disarming, and that, I have to think, is a useful skill to have honed and developed along with all of your other political skills as a lobbyist. How are you using all of those tools at your disposal, these professional skills, on a day-to-day basis? How are you making your case?

ER: Well, thank you! That must be some of my southern charm, being from Alabama and all. I think a big part of lobbying is being personable because of course, that’s part of building relationships, which is so important to this job—and we will certainly use our charm to get in the door if that helps! But once we’re in, we have to focus on not only maintaining the relationship, but also educating the lawmakers and staffs and providin
g them with valuable resources and materials they can use to make good policy decisions—such as the Secular Model Policy Guide that we’ll be publishing and distributing to all of the offices on Capitol Hill this fall.

PF: So you’ve mentioned to me that you will be unveiling a plan at the Summit to recruit more women and minorities to the movement, which has clearly been a big issue of late. Do you want to avoid spoilers, or can you give us a preview?

ER: We are working on several plans to reach out to various constituencies within the movement—among them are racial minorities, women, and even Republicans. Additionally, we will be working to better educate the mainstream media on the community. We will be increasing attendance at minority events—both inside and outside the movement—but also working on better communications approaches and more targeted materials.

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Clearly, there’s a lot that’s been done, and a lot more that’s in the works, at the SCA. To hear Edwina Rogers deliver her grand plans, make your plans to come to the CFI Summit in Tacoma, October 24-27, 2013.