Like many of you, I was a bit stunned to learn that the Secular Coalition for America had hired a former Republican operative as their new executive director. Considering the extent to which the Republican party is and has been decidedly anti-secular, the appointment of a party insider to this position struck me as strange. However, I decided to keep an open mind and extend the benefit of the doubt. After all, her political savvy and connections could be useful, and an unorthodox choice like Ms. Rogers would certainly shake things up. So she used to work for the wrong people, so what? People change, right?
Yeah… then I read this:
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.
Let’s backtrack for a bit. Ms. Rogers claims that while she worked for the W. Bush Republican party, she was only interested in economic policy issues, and did not get involved in the social side of things. Here’s my response: the Republican economic policies are batshit insane. If you tell me that you worked for Exxon Mobil, but you were only involved in exploring new places to drill (as opposed to all that nasty ‘massively destructive oil spill’ stuff), I’m still going to think you’re an absolute failure as a human being. The Bush policies were, in addition to being a complete antithesis to anything that humanists would agree on as beneficial to anyone besides the wealthiest segment of American society, deeply flawed and contributed to a global financial meltdown. If I had been in any way responsible for that debacle, I’d run as far away from my “accomplishments” as possible.
Ms. Rogers’ claim that the religious right is a fringe movement of a much more centrist, moderate Republican party is absolutely laughable. She notes that a majority of state governors are Republican. Yes, they are. And they’re trying to dismantle the entire social contract in their states, and have spent more time legislating against abortion than they have on anything that could be described as ‘moderate’. Republicans at federal, state and even municipal levels are constantly courting religious voters, and pay absolutely no price for their anti-secular behaviour (unless you count being elected into office as a ‘price’). So we have two possible explanations for her comments here. Either a) she is completely oblivious to the serious, anti-humanist damage that the Republican party is doing at all levels of government, or b) she is lying about the level of influence the religious right has on her party. Neither of these possibilities makes me think particularly highly of her capabilities as a spokesperson.
I can certainly sympathize with those who caution against demonizing her simply because she worked for the Republican party. After all, she’s a hired lobbyist – they work for whoever pays them. If we start requiring people to pass ‘ideological purity tests’ to work for us, we become no better than… well, Republicans. I am part of the atheist movement, and we have our share of decidedly unsavoury characters – would it be fair for me to get lumped in with people who make misogynistic, homophobic and racist comments on atheist comment threads? Am I forever disqualified from commenting on race because Sam Harris is an idiot? Surely not. However, if someone asks me straight up “hey, what’s the deal with the misogyny in the atheist movement” and I respond with “oh, that’s only a fringe group – most atheists are totes cool”, then I have deeply damaged my own credibility. So too has Ms. Rogers – if you want to be a pro-secular Republican, you’ve got to have a stronger answer to that question than “there are a bunch of Republicans who share your ideals, but who just don’t care about them enough to say anything.” Neutrality in the face of immorality is no virtue.
Now I don’t know anyone in the SCA, nor do I have any dog in this fight. I live in Canada, where strange things like this happen. That being said, I do have two questions that I think have largely gone unanswered (and unasked, as far as I can tell). First of all: who the fuck was in charge of this ? If you’re going to make a decision like this that you know is going to be controversial, you line up a bunch of opinion leaders and get them to lend their full-throated support. You put the reasons why you made this choice front and centre. You go on a full media blitz (which, in this case, would mean getting guest posts up on Skepchick and Pharyngula and RDF and CFI and anywhere else you have a bunch of people looking), defending your choice and explaining the myriad of reasons why you found the best person for the job. You have all this put in place before you make the announcement. You know why? Because you have the good sense to realize that a choice like this is going to piss off a bunch of people, and at the very least have a metric fuckton of heads scratching.
Second question: who got turned down in favour of Ms. Rogers? In what possible universe is there not a single person better for this job than a former adviser to the biggest anti-secular force in America? Whose résumés did you reject while you were drawing up the contracts for Ms. Rogers? While I am sure she is insanely ‘qualified’ in the sense that she can exploit close relationships she’s garnered with political insiders in Washington, she has done (perhaps irreparable) damage to the credibility of your organization. Unless your intention is to tack to the right and try to pick up more of these mythical disengaged pro-secular Republicans than you lose from the left (by the way, America, what you call “left”, the rest of the world calls “centre”. Just so you know), then you’ve done nothing more but tell your base that you don’t really care about them. I can’t imagine there weren’t any applicants out there that had political connections and wouldn’t be this alienating.
I don’t know what the process was, and neither do most people who are hearing the news. Those who do know are being very quiet about it, aside from a couple of puff pieces on their website that barely scratch the surface. They would very much like us to believe that there exists a large, untapped well of secular support to be had on the political right, and that Edwina Rogers is just the person to mobilize it. I hope that pans out for them, because they’re at serious risk of losing their momentum and support through a stupid decision that was handled badly.
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Other FTB responses:
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