The Atheist Lobby’s New Leader is an “Unaffiliated Christian” Who Wants to Reach Across the Aisle

In May of 2012, the Secular Coalition for America hired a new Executive Director who certainly made a lot of heads turn because of her resume. Edwina Rogers was a Republican who had previously worked for some very conservative politicians. It was an odd choice, at least on paper, to represent mostly liberal atheists on Capitol Hill. But if she could do her job effectively, open doors previously closed to us, and convey the thoughts of millions of Secular Americans to politicians, then her label, I felt, could become an afterthought.

Many of you disagreed. A lot of atheists I’ve spoken to simply never warmed to Rogers in large part because of her political affiliation. Then, in mid-2014, for reasons that are still being debated, Rogers was unceremoniously fired from the SCA. She later sued the organization for wrongful termination and defamation; the lawsuit still hasn’t been officially resolved.

For the past year and a half, the SCA has been under the leadership of interim director Kelly Damerow as its board looked for a new Executive Director. Today, they’re announcing their selection: Larry T. Decker.

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Decker comes to the SCA after two decades of working in Washington, most recently spending eight years with the American Red Cross.

In an email interview, I was allowed to ask Decker anything I wanted — and he answered everything. There wasn’t enough time for follow-up questions, but there’s certainly enough to give us an introduction into how Decker thinks and what he believes the SCA can accomplish in the near future:

What’s your background with lobbying and politics?

I have a near 20-­year history of lobbying and political work in D.C. in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Like a lot of people who come to Washington, D.C. after college, I started my career working on Capitol Hill. I was a political appointee in the Clinton Administration and then spent nearly eight years at the American Red Cross, serving both as the chief congressional lobbyist and then as the Director of Government Operations, which means I was managing Red Cross operational relationships with Federal agencies and state/local emergency management.

I also lobbied on behalf of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. I have provided pro-­bono government relations services to a number of local and national nonprofits, including the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC), and have been involved in a number of coalitions throughout my career.

You used to lobby for Enron, a company that’s obviously best known for corporate fraud. Why should we trust you when you were willing to vouch for such a corrupt business?

After serving in the Clinton Administration, I followed a mentor of mine who asked me to join her at Enron, where she was leading the government affairs office. I wasn’t at Enron very long before the company went bankrupt, and like tens of thousands of former Enron employees, I was shocked and disappointed in what happened. The nine months I spent there were a tremendously difficult time for me.

Since my time at Enron, I have almost exclusively worked for nonprofit organizations. I take governance and management very seriously. For example, I served as the Red Cross representative to the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector, which was convened to strengthen transparency, accountability and governance within the NGO sector. Within that role, I worked closely with other nonprofit organizations, the Senate Finance Committee, the Treasury Department, and IRS officials on the creation of 21st-​century governance​practices for nonprofit organizations.​

What lessons did you learn from working on behalf of the American Red Cross?

One of the most important lessons that I learned from the Red Cross is that relationships are tremendously important. I served as the chief congressional lobbyist for the Red Cross during Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean Tsunami (our largest domestic and international responses, respectively, in the 125-year history of the organization). There was a great deal of pressure from members of Congress to investigate the Red Cross response. Cultivating and maintaining those relationships were key to our ability to effectively communicate with lawmakers. The best way that I was able to do that was to be open, honest and transparent with members and staff. I developed a strong reputation as a fair broker and members and staff recognized that they could trust me — mostly because I was the first one who shared “bad news” with them so that they heard it from me first.

Atheists haven’t had much success getting representation on Capitol Hill and our access to politicians is limited when compared to religious organizations. How can you change that?

I have established relationships and a respected reputation on Capitol Hill that will serve the organization and the movement well. The other important fact is that we have the Constitution on our side. We have a growing movement. Almost one quarter of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. That isn’t something that lawmakers and candidates for office can easily dismiss.

I will make it clear to members of Congress, sitting and prospective, that when this voting bloc is unified, it will have the potential to change the political landscape. We have issues we care about, values we stand for, and a deep interest in preserving the separation of church and state. Any candidate or elected official who compromises this fundamental freedom will have to answer to them.

What are your short term and long terms plans for SCA?

As someone who is new to this movement and to the Secular Coalition, I am amazed at the amount of work the Coalition and its dedicated staff produces each year. I hope to build on those successes. More specifically, I want to see our organization and our partners have more success in becoming a part of the national conversation. That means really honing our messaging, being strategic, and soliciting media opportunities as well as establishing relationships with mainstream reporters. Our mission is as much about lobbying our lawmakers as it is about changing the hearts and minds of everyday Americans.

Going into this election year, I think it is tremendously important that we be the leading force holding our current elected officials and those running for office accountable to our constituency. We need to respond loudly and quickly when politicians attempt to silence our voice and privilege religion — and we need to remind them that abuses like that are violating the constitutionally protected civil liberties of others. But we can’t just be a megaphone going after our detractors. We also need to be a resource and a unified force in standing with members of Congress and candidates when they do the right thing by standing up for us and our values.

I want to see us develop more campaigns like Put Kids First and Openly Secular — I think there is a tremendous amount of value in campaigns like these to find common ground with organizations and groups that may not otherwise relate to the secular movement. Openly Secular in particular makes a lot of sense for us as a movement. I know that when I came out as gay to my friends and family, by simply knowing me, it helped to change their preconceived notions and stereotypes about gays and lesbians. It is much harder to hate a community of people when you love someone who identifies as a member of that community.

To that end, I will also spend some considerable time and energy in making our movement more diverse. Throughout my career I have worked on issues relating to diversity and it will be a top priority of mine to ensure that the Secular Coalition reflects the demographics of our country. I am thrilled that our newest member is the Ex-­Muslims of North America. I’m looking forward to working with and bringing in new organizations representing a diverse spectrum of racial, gender, and LGBT identities. This is not just to benefit the Secular Coalition, but to benefit the movement at large.

What drew you to this position?

The number one reason that I was drawn to this position is that I believe wholeheartedly in the mission of the Secular Coalition and my personal values are absolutely in line with the values of the secular movement. I have always believed in a secular society with a clear delineation between church and state and an individual’s right to their own beliefs or lack thereof.

Like millions of Americans who can delineate between their own personal sense of faith and our government, I have been disgusted by the rhetoric of so­-called “faith values” in a country that is founded on secular principles. As a gay man, my own character has been attacked by people who — although they have never met me — are willing to forfeit my civil rights and liberties in the name of their God. Without separation of church and state, people like me in the LGBT community, nontheists, minority faiths, and other vulnerable groups, are subjected to the whim of the religious majority. I can’t imagine anything more contrary to the founding principles of our country.

What religious or non­-religious label do you use to describe yourself? (And if you’re religious, can you advocate for atheists effectively?)

I was raised Christian but for years I have been unaffiliated because I cannot reconcile my values with traditional Christianity, including their concept of God.

Right now, if I have to put a label on it, I would say that I identify as an unaffiliated Christian. And like millions of people in our country, my belief system continues to evolve and is entirely personal to me. There are components of my beliefs that I can’t articulate because it is not in my nature to discuss my personal beliefs publicly. However, I understand why my religious identity is important to the Secular Coalition’s supporters and, because of the position I was just appointed to, I’m willing to do so.

It is a reasonable question to ask; can someone who will not call himself a nontheist represent this movement and its values? I can. I feel very strongly that the nontheistic worldview is valuable and needs to be respected and represented in both the political conversation and in society at large. I have no problem going toe­-to-­toe with anyone who dares to invoke their religion in an effort to silence nontheists.

In 2015, Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey showed that nearly 23% of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. They refuse to define themselves with a religious label. One third of them say they do not believe in God. The remaining two thirds, where I fit in, have varying degrees of belief in God. This is the majority of the “nones”. I want them to find a home in our movement, brought together not just by their lack of affiliation, but by their shared secular values.

Is it possible to win over Republicans to our cause?

Politically speaking, all Republicans have to do is look at the changing demographics in this country, including within their own party. More than one out of every 10 Republicans identify as a “none.” We do not have to look too far back in campaign history to remember Republican leaders talking about their need to reach women and minorities following the defeat of former Governor Mitt Romney in 2012. A news flash for Republicans: it’s not just gender and race that they need to be concerned about. This is a community — a growing community — that they also cannot alienate.

I have good news for them, however. The Secular Coalition for America will be here for any one of them who has the courage to stand up and do what they know is right.

And we have made some traction already. This past session, the Secular Coalition worked with Republican offices on issues relating to the rights of the nonreligious abroad. Rep. Joe Pitts introduced a resolution calling for the repeal of blasphemy laws that specifically talks about how these laws affect our community. This is one of the first bills that talks about the nonreligious in the larger conversation of international religious freedom, and it represents how our coalition can work with legislators from both sides of the aisle. I think Republicans can be particularly receptive on the issue of international religious freedom, and I look forward to building upon the valuable relationships that have been cultivated so far.

A few years ago, the SCA began creating chapters in all the states, but only a handful of those chapters are currently up and running. What will you do to expand and strengthen this program?

I think that — if done right — our state chapters, together with our partner organizations, can become a real powerhouse for our movement. One of the things that benefited me greatly in my position at the American Red Cross was that we had chapters in every single congressional district in the country and we were able to keep members of Congress informed about what the chapters were doing in their communities.

We can see the tremendous efforts of religiously based organizations to sponsor legislation at the state and local level that works to limit civil liberties, particularly of those who do not identify as religious. We also see it in civil rights ordinances, anti-­choice legislation, and in proposals that harm our young people, like abstinence-­only sex ed bills.

We need to have boots on the ground to fight against these measures and to stand up for the issues we are fighting for here in Washington. I want to strengthen our work in the states and I believe we can. It is going to require increasing our membership, identifying funding to better resource state chapters, and working with our affiliate organizations to engage their membership in our grassroots advocacy efforts.

What do you see as the most important issues affecting Secular Americans?

I think the overarching issue for secular Americans is acceptance. By that, I mean a better understanding of the rights and protections that many religious Americans take for granted every single day. It’s one reason I am so fond of the Openly Secular campaign, because it gives visibility to a struggle that’s invisible to so many. Being open isn’t just about telling people you don’t believe in God — it’s also about the self-­worth and pride that comes from living one’s life free from fear. Our First Amendment protections do not just apply to the religious — many Americans need to be reminded of that far too often.

The SCA, of course, endorsed Decker in a press release:

Founder and President of the Board of Directors, Herb Silverman, praised the Board’s selection. “In addition to Larry’s impressive background and accomplishments, his passion for our mission made him stand out as a leader. His vision for reaching the full spectrum of the religiously unaffiliated is bold and forward-thinking, and I think he is the right person for the job.

Departing Interim Executive Director Kelly Damerow said, “I have the utmost confidence that Larry will succeed in building on the momentum our organization gained in 2015. He has a strong commitment to our mission and the wealth of experience we need to grow our influence and membership.”

Decker has a lot of work ahead of him. Given the political environment we’re in right now, Secular Americans need to be louder than ever before. We’ll find out soon enough if he can amplify that passion on Capitol Hill.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.