The Secular Coalition for America was created to lobby lawmakers on behalf of all Americans who believe in secularism. This week they hired a longtime Republican operative, Edwina Rogers, to be their executive director. In this post, I am going to explore the pros and cons of hiring a Republican in general to run this organization. I want to explore what would make for an acceptable or an unacceptable Republican in such a position and look at a few facts we have about Edwina Rogers in light of these criteria to see what light that sheds on the wisdom of her selection.
First, let me be clear, I am not registered with any political party. I am an independent. As a matter of principle I have always been squeamish about aligning myself directly with a party. The primary reason for that is that I don’t want people to hear a label and presume to know what I think on every issue. I also don’t want them to presume to know why I hold any particular position. I like to reason about issues for myself and so even where I share the same views as others, I don’t like people to assume that my reasons are necessarily the same as others’. It turns out I am like most self-declared independents and a pretty reliable supporter of one party over the other. For all intents and purposes, I am de facto a Democrat even if I am not registered as one.
But I resist party identifications because in principle I am persuadable and never want to think merely like a party hack. I even, rather sincerely, long for a Republican party that would give me a legitimate alternative to think about. I long for a Republican party that was not what we see at present—a regressive, authoritarian, Christianist, anti-secularist, paranoid religious party which fetishizes anti-tax/pro-gun/pro-patriarchy absolutism and demonizes women, the poor, immigrants, minorities, gays, scientists, moral progress, and the separation of church and state. I long for a Republican party which did not equate strength with reflexive warmongering and which did not treat the prosperity of the few as morally intrinsically good and the reduction of out of control income disparity as intrinsically immoral.
I could go on and on with the ways that the Republican party disappoints me. And it all particularly pains me as someone who grew up as a conservative and was educated at one of the nation’s most politically conservative undergraduate institutions.
And being from New York I know some moderate Republicans who want nothing to do with the theocratic wing of their party but who are just persuaded that less government involvement in the economy is better for overall prosperity than more, or they sincerely worry that our current welfare system goes beyond aiding the temporarily disadvantaged to creating a disempowered economic underclass of government dependents. Whether or not their views on these issues are correct is to figure out elsewhere. Simply put, there are some sincere, moderate Republicans who just come at facts with different secular interpretive frameworks or value concerns and with a politically workable amount of reasonableness. They can make concessions in debates and they can force me to reexamine facts to make sure my assumptions are grounded.
It seems clear to me that there are enough of these potentially more sober Republicans that the party keeps nominating candidates with histories of pitching themselves as centrists—at least before competing in primaries in which they must reposition themselves temporarily as extreme conservatives. Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and George W. Bush (who was originally perceivable as primarily the son of a moderate president, a “Compassionate Conservative”, and a “uniter, not a divider” who was friendly with the Democratic Texas legislature and broke decades’ worth of precedence as a two-term Texas Republican governor).
The theocratic contingent of the party is ascendent. They have the most vigorous activists, have infiltrated the highest echelons of power, and have shown they have the muscle to knock moderate Republicans out of office by backing “Tea Party” primary challengers. In 2008 the post-Bush losses were so severe to the party that all that remained in the Congress were the Republicans in the safest seats, i.e., those from the most dyed-in-the-wool right wing congressional districts and overall states. And when the evangelicals brilliantly rebranded themselves as the “Tea Party” they very effectively disguised themselves as fiscally focused and diverted attention from the theocratic agenda that serves as their core motivation. With a midterm electorate which already favored right wing gains in the Congress coming up, they made sure the right wing candidates were covertly as extreme as possible (using the code word of “Tea Party”) and the result was the most reactionary House of Representatives we have seen in a long long time. They have employed a cynical and dangerous scorched earth policy, according to which total and complete obstructionism against Obama and absolute allegiance to reactionary evangelical right wing political principles have been the Republican caucus’s only governing philosophy for the last three and a half years.
But the moderate Republicans still exist in sizable enough numbers that they can divide the party if they ever got their act together. They already have gotten their way against the theocrats in the last two presidential nominations of the party (even though their moderate choice last time proceeded to give the hard right the most shameless, ignorant, charismatic superstar representative of their attitudes they could have ever hoped for, as his VP choice).
Republican moderates exist. I want them to exist too. I want them to make compromises possible so that Barack Obama can finally get something positive through Congress on a long list of issues. I want them to give electoral incentives to elected Republicans to stop pandering so absolutely to the most reactionary, unpragmatic, anti-secular wing of their party. I want them even to give Democrats fear that if they don’t deliver on progressive values that sometimes Republican challengers will actually run to their left on specific issues. That gives left leaning voters much more leverage over Democrats than we have at present.
So in this context, my hope about Edwina Rogers is that she is at heart a true secularist, whatever her specific Republican policy ideas about the economy or foreign policy. I would hope she is sincerely pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-secularism. I would hope she believes in the rule of law and would be willing to dissent from, and denounce, the war crimes of the Bush administration for which she worked. I would hope she only supported Rick Perry’s campaign because of some personal connections stemming from working for his close friend George W. Bush, and that she was at the time unaware of the vile attacks on gays and secular governance which he would eventually levy later in the campaign. Even then it is still troubling that she gave money to a figure who was already obviously odious to all secularists I know by last summer. I would hope she was always fervently in favor of science trumping religion in public policy matters. But then I see she either had no such passion or she was willing to ignore it for money when three years ago she backed right wing theocrats over Michael J. Fox on stem cell research.
I believe in the possibility of people who are sincerely conflicted by the sometimes arbitrary alignments of our two parties. Not every policy position that we label as “left” or “right” is one which naturally must be associated with other characteristically right or left issues. Right wing need not mean anti-secular and left wing need not mean pro-secular. It is possible that there can be true social libertarians who are also fiscally right wing and foreign policy hawks. Such people may be forgiven if they hold their nose and join one party over another and only focus on the portion of their political beliefs that that party agrees with. There may be an outspokenly social libertarian but quiet fiscal conservative who aids Democrats exclusively on gay rights or women’s issues or drug policy. My hope is that deep down Rogers was a secularist about a range of issues while she did right wing economics work for Bush. The evidence does not so far bear out my hopes.
But some are saying that none of this matters. She is (as we are learning more and more clearly) primarily just a hired gun. She will serve the interests of the board of directors or be fired. She is in all likelihood not a mole bent on sabotaging the SCA. It will be in her own self-interest to advance the SCA’s goals. She has taken a commendable risk by associating herself so prominently with secularism and by outing herself as a non-theist. She is burning the bridge back to her former career as a Republican party hack. Mitt Romney just fired a gay foreign policy adviser with impeccable right wing credentials because the modern Republican party has no room for gays. I doubt it will have much room (at least outwardly) for Rogers now that she has formally aligned herself in favor of secularism.
Nonetheless, I worry that a hired gun, while potentially more effective in vital arts of strategy and persuasion, makes for a potentially disastrous figurehead. Were Rogers just hired to be one lobbyist among many then that would be far less controversial. We need some people who can adequately engage the Republicans in Congress, even if they are themselves Republicans. Even then I would prefer someone with a clearer history of secularism herself, but it would be less worrisome. Now, however, the executive director of our chief lobbying organization is going to be someone who transparently flips her public positions based on who she works for. It is possible that after a few years she could leave the organization, take with it credibility to speak as a representative of secularists and then, in her next paying gig, try to spend that credibility undercutting us. Think of all the “former Democratic strategists” who work for FOX News and present right wing talking points disguised as “centrist viewpoints shared even by sensible Democrats who are willing to break with their party’s ideologues”. It is troubling to me to wonder whether she could profit in her next advocacy job by giving voice to “how even the former head of a secularist lobbying firm thinks there is a place for faith-based initiatives if only they are done right” or something like that.
One last worry.
In principle Republicans and all religious people should be as committed to secularism as Democrats and atheists are. It is a scandal that in America (of all places) secularism has become a partisan issue and not an unquestioned bedrock of our government. Even worse than just a partisan issue, the word “secularism” itself has become a dirty word in domestic politics. Secularism is only a good thing in the Middle East. Here it is something which one can only implicitly adhere to. The Democrats, while more often secularist in their actual governing style than Republicans, will themselves almost never build their campaigns around secularism as an explicit value or a governing ideal. Rather, when pushed, they will trump up their own religious bona fides to prove they can pass the implicit (though wholly unconstitutional) religious tests for office which the media and the right wing in this country vigorously enforce.
But even though there should be secularist Republicans and secular religious people of all stripes and even though theoretically left wing atheist secularists should welcome this, it is nonetheless unclear that distinctively right wing secularist political thinking leads to the same sorts of policy judgments as distinctively left wing secularist political thinking does. Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have notoriously advanced some dubious right wing policies. And Hitchens has done so specifically on the grounds of secularism in the case of his support for starting a war with Iraq unprovoked. Similarly some atheistic libertarians might interpret political secularism as requiring that we reject all social welfare as crypto-Christian policy which does not meet independent standards of secular justification.
So what exactly someone determines to be the public policy implications of secularist fundamental principles could vary quite a bit. It could reach into economics and foreign affairs as much as into social issues. If so, it is important that we left wing secularists not assume, without due scrutiny, that right wing secularists hired to lobby on our behalf will share our values or will represent our interests.
Elsewhere on Freethoughtblogs:
My follow up posts: The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Republican To Represent Secularists and Edwina Rogers vs. Michael J. Fox
Elsewhere on Freethought Blogs:
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Edwina Rogers: the unanswered questions