The Atheist Lobby’s New Executive Director is a Female Republican Strategist Who Used to Work for George W. Bush

… and my interview with her is below.

After Sean Faircloth left his post as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America last September to begin working for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS), SCA leaders have been on the search for their next director.

Today, they’re announcing their selection. She’s a bold choice, sure to grab headlines, and she may just be the ideal person for the job.

Edwina Rogers

Edwina Rogers has spent twenty years working in Washington as a lawyer and lobbyist. She was seriously considered to be a cast member on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of DC” (more on that in a bit). More recently, she was the Executive Director of the Patient Centered Primary Care Collaborative. Perhaps most importantly, she has more than just a foot in the door of Republican circles — not usually thought of as a welcome place for atheists:

From 2001-2002, Rogers served as an Economic Advisor for President George W. Bush at the White House, at the National Economic Council, where she focused on health and social security policy. She also worked on International Trade matters for President George H. W. Bush at the Department of Commerce from 1989 until 1991.

Rogers served as General Counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1994. She worked for Senator Lott while he was Majority Leader in 1999 and she handled health policy for Senator Sessions in 2003 and 2004. She practiced law in the Washington office of Balch and Bingham from 1991 until 1994.

She’s also appeared on several news outlets, including both MSNBC and FOX News Channel (check out the clip below beginning at the 1:42 mark).

So can a “Republican strategist” — a person who worked closely with über-conservative senators Trent Lott and Jeff Sessions — properly lead an organization representing Secular Americans?

I was a little skeptical…

I also had a lot of questions for Rogers and, to her credit, she responded to all of them.

You have an extensive political resume… with the GOP. You worked for Senator Trent Lott when he was Majority Leader. You handled health policy for Senator Jeff Sessions. You were a General Counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1994 (the year Newt Gingrich made headlines for his role in the Republican takeover of Congress). Put very bluntly, you’ve worked for the “other side” for decades.

Why should we trust you now to work for us after a career spent working for people who seem to be actively against us?

I think it’s a misconception that the majority of Republicans are lined up against the secular movement. As someone who has been an insider within the Republican Party, I’m certain it’s not the consensus of the majority of Republicans to have an [overt] influence of religion on our laws. Having said that, no one agrees with everyone they work with on every single issue. In these roles I never worked on anything having to do with issues of religion — I worked primarily on economic issues.

People are going to do a double-take when they hear a Republican strategist is now the leader of an organization working on behalf of atheists… what do you hope the public reaction will be?

I hope it will be a positive reaction and one that gets everyone thinking about the right direction for the secular movement. Often times, problems are arising from the conservative side and that’s one reason why it’s important to include both sides. The majority of the gubernatorial positions and state legislatures are controlled by Republicans. The Religious Right is a segment of the Republican Party — but it’s not a majority within the party and it certainly does not represent a majority of Americans. It’s a very active, vocal part of the Republican base, but it’s a minority.

I do think that for the vast majority of conservatives and Republicans, they are true believers of secularism — the majority of Republicans believe in the separation of church and state. Many of them are simply laissez faire about the issues, which gives us an opening to recruit them to the movement. Just within the last few months, talking to all my Republican conservative friends, the majority of them are in line with our thinking. They can be recruited, they just haven’t been active.

So, there is tremendous potential — in both parties, but especially with Republicans because there hasn’t been a major outreach to them in the past. There are a lot of leaders that would be interested in our big picture message. They may not support 100%, but even if they support 50%, that helps us when it comes to our efforts on Capitol Hill.

I don’t know if you’re an atheist — and I don’t even know if it really matters in your role as long as you can advocate for our cause — but what label do you use to describe your religious beliefs?

I am a nontheist and have always been a strong secularist and a firm believer in the separation of religion and government. I’m not a fan of labels though, because I feel like it creates unnecessary division within the movement. I agree with the mission of the Secular Coalition for America one hundred percent.

What prompted you to apply for the job of Executive Director of the SCA?

I was drawn to the position because of the opportunity to expand the secular movement. This is a segment of the population that is underrepresented and I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for expansion. I think I can make a big difference.

Can Republicans in Congress ever be receptive to our cause? Do you think your own background can help in that matter?

The answers are yes and yes. Last month I participated in SCA’s Lobby Day for Reason and was received very warmly by the offices of several high profile Republican U.S. Representatives. There have been times in my past as a lobbyist, where I was thrown out of politicians’ offices when they didn’t like my message — this wasn’t one of them. There is definitely an opening there, and we are going to work to make our issues known and widely accepted by those on both sides.

My Republican background will help open certain doors. The sky is really the limit. Good work has been done but it’s only a foundation, and now we’re going to build a skyscraper. On the top of my agenda for this year will be meeting with every U.S. House and Senate office, as well as the appropriate committees. We are going to educate them on the downside of allowing laws to be based on religion and faith and not reason and science.

Conservatives tend to believe there is room for religion in politics while liberals tend to want them separated. What do you think is the appropriate mix of church and state? (Should the President be hosting prayer breakfasts? Should the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships be expanded? Should invocations be given before city council meetings or Congressional sessions?)

We need to strive to have an absolute division between religion and government, but keep in mind that we need to be respectful and open to people of all faiths and none. No one — religious or non-religious — should be excluded from the conversation. But ultimately, the laws shouldn’t be based on a religious perspective.

On which issues do you think the SCA can get the most traction with political leaders?

I think in the near future, chances are good to make inroads on issues surrounding health and safety (things like stem cell research — because the upside is so tremendous), discrimination (especially in the military), fairness in tax policy, emphasizing a pro-science based education in public schools and tempering religious extremism — these are things the average American can really relate with.

Similarly, what can we reasonably expect the SCA to accomplish with a Congress that continues to move in a more conservative direction?

We can expect a more educated Congress on the core issues that matter to the secular movement. With a strong voice from the nontheist side, voting members in the future will be armed with important information that simply was not accessible in the past. The sad reality is that staff members don’t always have time to research both sides of an issue unless it’s sitting right in front of them. We have not always been there to make the opposition case. In the future, we will be that strong voice coming in and urging them to look at the repercussions and downsides of religiously based laws. I truly believe that once we do that, many members will think twice.

What do you believe the SCA has to do to become a more powerful force in politics?

We have a whole list of specific goals to be accomplished that will definitely produce measurable results with regard to our access and results with decision makers. We will do this in a number of ways, but largely through coalition building and messaging.

By the end of the year, we will have up and running coalitions in all 50 states. And we will unify those coalition members with a master secular calendar, a national weekly secular movement update call, and biweekly legislative and regulatory calls with featured government policy decision makers and speakers. We also have an aggressive plan to greatly expand the participation in the movement by increasing the number of member endorsing organizations and allied organizations.

Additionally, we will begin to establish relationships with all the legislative committees, Congressional and Senate offices, as well as the Executive branch officials at the appropriate departments.

Finally, we will begin hosting policy summits and continue our lobby days. Policy summits will feature legislative and regulatory officials. We will also begin producing persuasive policy issue and advocacy summaries, along with research papers that we can use on the Hill to advocate our positions.

Have you always supported the secular cause? If so, has that ever hurt you in your political career?

I have always supported the secular cause, and I do not feel it has ever hurt my political career at all. I have had disagreements with fundamentalists belonging to most of the world’s major religions, but I am still able to work with them. Even though I may disagree with them, it’s a respectful disagreement, so it hasn’t gotten in the way of anything I want to accomplish.

What was your experience like during law school at The Catholic University of America? With regards to church/state separation and health care, were you ever taught anything there you actively opposed?

The far majority of the law students there were not Catholic and the professors were well known experts in their respective fields. I really only had one troubling situation with one professor — a priest who taught Constitutional Law based on the Church’s interpretation of the Constitution.

You were almost cast on “The Real Housewives of DC” — and made a couple of memorable cameos during the one season the show aired. Now that the series is over, do you wish you had been cast?

The producers of the show courted me to be a full time cast member, but I declined for a variety of reasons, the first being that I did not have time for the rigorous taping schedule. Also, I don’t consider myself a “housewife” — I work! However, they asked me if I would be willing to attend a few of their events and I am always up for a good event!

There’s a video on YouTube of you wrapping gifts in sheets made of real dollar bills… I don’t have a question for that. I’d just love to hear your thoughts on it since it’s been a few years since all that happened. (I mean, you had to realize the PR ramifications…)

The clip on the Internet is a 30 second snippet of a much larger program (and a feature in the Washington Post) that focused on the “gift limit” that all gifts to government employees could not exceed. At the time, the limit on gifts to most government employees was around $20 and we were always looking for unique gifts for government speakers at conferences that represented the United States. Many of us in Washington lived this constant search for finding unique gifts, special to America that are very inexpensive. If you give a gift of a letter opener, or something else with a value of $15, wrapping it in American money makes it a little more unique and memorable, but still keeps it under the $20 limit. Ironically, the purpose of the program was just the opposite of what someone might think by watching that clip on YouTube. Of course, now gifts are no longer allowed to most government employees.

One of the issues the atheist community has struggled with, especially lately, has been getting more women involved in our movement. Do you think your role with the SCA can help change that?

Of course, I think me being female will help recruit women and I am going to make it a priority to get more women involved. I will be speaking at the Women in Secularism conference on the 19th of this month.

There will inevitably a lot more publicity and stories about Rogers in the coming days, but I’m hopeful that her background gives us exactly what we need — a strong voice, coming from an unexpected place, that endorses the visibility and respectability of non-theistic viewpoints.

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