Can a Republican be an atheist?
Can a long-time operative in the Republican party be an effective executive director of a national atheist/ secularist organization?
That’s a different question.
And can a long-time operative in the Republican party be an effective executive director of a national atheist/ secularist organization… when they respond to serious questions about whether their values are in alignment with the atheist community by evading, spinning, telling flat-out falsehoods, and generally treating with contempt the very community they were hired to represent?
That’s a very different question indeed.
When I first heard that the Secular Coalition for America had named a long-time Republican political operative, Edwina Rogers, as their new Executive Director, my first reaction was extreme skepticism. To put it mildly. Actually, my first reaction was the top of my head blowing off. But then I thought, “Calm down. Maybe this is one of those ‘only Nixon can go to China’ things. Maybe a Republican could be uniquely effective at pitching secularism to Congress, and to America. The people who hired her aren’t idiots. This is worth considering. Keep an open mind.”
But I did have some serious questions about her. I knew that other people in the community had serious questions about her — many of them the same questions I was having. And the materials I’d read about her seemed somewhat dodgy, not addressing any of these questions in any serious way. Ditto the interview she did with Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist. So when I was given the opportunity to interview Rogers and ask her these questions, I took it.
And I have come to the conclusion that this is a disaster.
There are two problems here. There’s the fact that Edwina Rogers is a long-time operative in the Republican party. And there’s the fact that she responded to questions about this history with evasion, spin, and outright falsehoods about obvious, easily-checked facts.
The fact that Edwina Rogers is a long-time operative in the Republican party is a real problem. If she’d been running some other advocacy organization and happened to vote Republican every four years, that would be different. But for over twenty years, she has made a career of advancing a political party whose agenda and core values are diametrically opposed to those of the atheist and secular community. She has made a career out of advancing a political party that’s been systematically working — among other things — to dismantle women’s right to control our reproduction, to keep LGBT people as second-class citizens, and to advance the political agenda of the Religious Right. That is a big problem.
The fact that Edwina Rogers responded to questions about this history with evasion, spin, and outright falsehoods? That is much more than a big problem. That is unacceptable.
She was talking to her own community here. She was talking to the people she was hired to represent. And she treated us with contempt. She treated us like children, or fools. She treated us like gullible, easily manipulated sheep, who would swallow whatever she told us without question. She treated us, not like members of a community who she was hired to represent, but like targets of a PR campaign who she was hired to dupe.
The most glaringly obvious example of this: Her repeated insistence that the Republican party isn’t really anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-church-state-separation. Anyone who’s paid even half-hearted attention to politics in the last few decades knows what a laughable claim this is. And anyone with an Internet connection can Google “Republican platform 2008″ and show irrefutable evidence for how laughable it is. As many people in the conversations about her have been pointing out: Either she believes this absurd claim — in which case she’s so delusionally out of touch with the reality of her own party that she’s grossly unqualified for this job on that basis alone — or she doesn’t believe it for a second. In which case, she’s lying to us.
But the problem isn’t just her denial of the political reality of the Republican Party. The problem is also with the way she denied it. The problem is with the slippery tack she took on these questions: the whole “some individuals in the Republican Party are pro-gay/pro-choice/ pro-church-state-separation… so it’s not fair to say that the Republican Party on the whole opposes those positions” line that she kept repeating throughout the interview. That’s not just an evasion. It’s an evasion that insults the intelligence of anyone listening to her. And when asked direct questions about her own values, and how they could be consistent with both her participation in Republican politics and her position as Executive Director of the SCA, she consistently dodged them — even when these questions were asked again, and again, and again.
And this didn’t just happen in this one interview. It happened in the interview she did with Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist (although to a lesser extent, since that was apparently an email interview, without the opportunity for back-and-forth and for pressing her when she evaded direct questions). It happened big time in the “Ask Me Anything” she did on Reddit. In her first week of introducing herself to the atheist and secular community, this same pattern appeared with disturbing consistency.
All this shows two things — both of which are entirely damning. Edwina Rogers does not share our core values. And she does not understand us in the slightest.
I’ve been saying throughout this piece that the atheist community places a high value on LGBT rights, the right to birth control, the right to abortion, separation of church and state. That is generally the case (although of course there are exceptions). But more than that: The atheist community, on the whole, places a high value on truth. The atheist community is a community of people who are willing to risk alienating friends and family, risk losing jobs and homes and custody battles, in some cases even risk our physical safety… because we’re not willing to pretend that we believe in God when we don’t.
Edwina Rogers does not seem to understand how highly we value the truth. And she does not seem to share those values.
What’s more, the atheist community is, on the whole, very skilled at seeing through bullshit. I’m not saying we can never be manipulated or deceived: we’re human beings, of course we can. But on the whole, we’re very well-versed in non-sequiturs, moving goalposts, self-serving re-definitions, changes of subject, emotional manipulations, “Shut up, that’s why” arguments, and other evasive maneuvers of discussion and debate. We deal with them all the time. There was no way we were going to be pacified by the obvious spin tactics Rogers used on us in this interview. There was no way these tactics were going to do anything other than enrage us.
Edwina Rogers clearly understands neither of these things. She doesn’t understand that we won’t fall for the ridiculously transparent spin tactics she tried to use on us. And she doesn’t understand that we give a damn about the truth.
If the SCA had hired her as a lobbyist, I might be reacting differently. I don’t expect a lobbyist to share my values. It’s like hiring a lawyer: I don’t much care if they agree with me, I just care if they effectively represent me. But an Executive Director is different. An Executive Director is more than just a hired gun. An Executive Director is, among other things, the public face of an organization. When it’s an umbrella organization, as the SCA is, the Executive Director is the public face of a movement. They’re who we trot out when we want the public to see who we are… and they’re who we trot out when we want the community itself to be inspired by who we are. The Executive Director of an organization has to share the vision of the community they’re representing. They cannot be someone who’s devoted their career for over twenty years to undermining that vision.
And I am entirely baffled that the SCA board didn’t see this.
It makes me intensely sad to write this. I’ve worked closely with many of the member organizations of the SCA, and with many members of the SCA board of directors. Some of the latter I even consider good friends. I respect their intelligence, and I know they care passionately about this movement. So I’m willing to chalk this one up to a rookie mistake. I know the SCA board aren’t rookies to organizing and activism — but I think all of us are new to atheism being a major national movement with real clout, and mistakes like this are going to happen. Hell, I can even see why they would make it. I can see how they’d be excited at the prospect of pulling up a seat to the big table. I can see how they’d be excited at what a bold, dramatic, unexpected move it was. (Has anyone else seen “Game Change?”)
But this hire was a disaster. The preparation for it was a disaster; the roll-out was a disaster — and the decision itself was a blunder of epic proportions.
The SCA board should have realized what a huge problem this would be in the community. They should have realized that at best — at best — this hire would be hugely divisive, and would likely create the “deep rifts” in the community that we’re regularly accused of having and that we so often joke about. They should have realized that, at worst, the community would overwhelmingly reject her — and be furious at the SCA for insulting us by hiring her.
And the timing of it was dreadful. In recent weeks, we have been riding a huge wave of excitement and inspiration from the Reason Rally. Now, this excitement and inspiration have been seriously dampened. People are angry, disappointed, disillusioned. They’re losing interest: not necessarily in atheism, but in the organized atheist movement. They’re withdrawing donations — not only from the SCA, but from its member organizations as well.* They feel like they’ve been lied to, insulted, manipulated, treated with contempt: not just by Rogers, but by the SCA board, and its own attempts to pretend that the obvious isn’t true, and to spin bullshit into gold.
They feel that way because it is that way.
And they deserve better.
I have been underwhelmed by the choices of the SCA board of directors: in making this decision, in announcing it, and in managing the responses to it. But I have been deeply impressed and inspired by the response of the community. The conversations about this matter have, on the whole, been informed, insightful, passionate, thoughtful, perceptive: not just on this blog, but everywhere I’ve seen this matter discussed. The people chewing this over in public have shown a strong sense of investment in this community and its future. They deserve better than to be represented by leaders who treat them like fools.
In the conversations about Rogers, some people have been saying, “I’m really angry about this, I’m really pessimistic about it, I just hope it works.” I’m going to be honest: I do not want this to work. I do not want this woman representing me. I do not want her representing the atheist movement.
I want the public faces of atheism to represent the values of the atheist community. I want the public faces of atheism to freaking well share the values of the atheist community. Including, above all else, the values of honesty and truth. I do not want the public image of atheism to be a series of Machiavellian plays for power at the expense of the things we actually care about. I do not want atheism represented by someone who is so transparently willing to deceive, dodge, and flat-out lie.
This is a disaster. The SCA board needs to bail.
My personal best-case scenario is that soon — very soon — the SCA board makes an announcement saying, “We goofed. We made a mistake. It was a well-intentioned mistake, based on our sincere desire to do well by the atheist community — but we seriously misjudged the priorities of that community. We have let Edwina Rogers go/ asked for her resignation, and have begun a new search for a new Executive Director. We wish her the best of luck.” This is a community that values honesty… and it’s a community that respects the ability to admit mistakes, the willingness to change your mind when confronted with new evidence that contradicts it. If the SCA board takes this step, I think it would go a long way towards mitigating the bad feeling they’ve created with this move, and towards quickly re-gaining the momentum that this disaster has been squelching.
My next-best-case scenario is that they hide her under a rock for a few months, declare that it isn’t working, and let her go/ ask for her resignation.
My worst-case scenario is that they double down: refuse to admit that they made a mistake, entrench themselves in rationalizing this decision, and continue to convince themselves that we’ll all really like Rogers if we just give her a chance. We gave her a chance. The community’s reaction to this announcement was, in my opinion, entirely appropriate. People on the whole were highly wary at first — with varying degrees of wariness of course — but generally willing to give it a shot and see what she had up her sleeve. It wasn’t until they heard and read my interview with her – and Hemant’s interview with her, and the AMA she did on Reddit — that they became enraged, disgusted, and insulted.
We gave her a chance. We gave her multiple chances.
She blew it.
* (For the record: I can see why people would withdraw membership from the SCA. Ingrid and I have done so ourselves [although I'm not in any way asking anyone else to do so]. But I implore you to not withdraw support from the member organizations. I’ll quote Matt Dillahunty on this, since he said exactly what I want to say: “Even if your objections to this appointment are strong and sound, it’s not the fault of the member organizations and we need people to work together toward solutions. The students who benefit from the SSA, had no part in this and the same is true for people who benefit from all of the other member organizations — withdrawing support is the wrong way to react to this situation.”)