Here, as promised, is a transcript of my interview with Edwina Rogers, the new Executive Director for the Secular Coalition for America.
The recording of the interview can be found in its entirety here. Here is the URL:
The transcription was done by Kate Donovan, who writes at Teen Skepchick and is the incoming president for the Northwestern SSA. (Many thanks to Donovan for doing this: I absolutely did not have time this week to do it myself.) She has eliminated filler words like “umm,” unless they were particularly long breaks — but as far as I can tell, she has otherwise transcribed the interview verbatim. I haven’t had a chance to check the transcription over to make sure it’s 100% accurate, but the places I have checked look right to me. If anyone spots any transcription errors, please let me know, and I’ll correct them ASAP.
GC: Thank you so much for your time.
ER: Thanks, anytime
GC: Sure, okay
Uh, so yes, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with me, but I’m Greta Christina, I write for a blog called Greta Christina’s Blog. It’s pretty widely read in the atheist community, and you know, my plan is to basically put this interview on the internet, on my blog—a recording of it—and then I’ll also post a transcript of it when I have time to transcribe it. So I just want to make sure that you’re good with that.
GC: Okay. Let’s get started. My first question: before accepting this position as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America, ah, how did you participate in the atheist and secular community? I mean, did you belong to atheist or secular organizations? Did you attend conferences? Were you participating in online discussions and forums? And if so, which ones?
ER: Well, I was not an active participant in the movement. I’m, I am now, of course. It was something that I’ve always interested in, but I never had it as part of my portfolio as my position as a lobbyist in any position in the past. I mean, there are a number of issues that I care about that I just haven’t had time to get extremely involved in those particular movements.
GC: Okay, umm [indistinguishable] I’ll follow up with that. If you haven’t been very actively participating in the atheist and secular movement until now, what’s your familiarity with the issues that are important to people in the movement? You know, if you’re going to be representing us and our interests to Congress, to you know, state governments. How, what, is your familiarity with those interests?
ER: Well, I’m very familiar with quite a few of the healthcare issues, because I’ve done a lot of health policy over the last ten years, and more of the international issues. I’ve written about some of the international issues because, ah, worked in foreign countries, I’ve represented foreign governments. And ah, so more on the international side, more in the health side. I;ve ah, worked in tax policy, Ive ah, never unfortunately had the good fortune of handling discrimination issues or education issues. But ah, coming from the international, the health, and the tax side, I’m familiar with the issues.
GC: What do you think that the issues that are most important to the atheist and secularist movement are?
ER: Well, I think they fall in several different categories. We are particularly interested in everything under health and safety, and that ranges from um, the childcare center issue to stem cell research you know death with dignity, substance abuse, concerning matters with ah, Alcoholics Anon associations. We are particularly, interested in education issues, and ah, you know that would have everything to do with public funding of religious schools, school discrimination against nontheistic students, religious influence on public schools curriculum. You know that would ah, get into teaching creationism, etc. And also the whole sex education category. Teaching abstinence versus best practices. And ah, religious coercion of public school students. Things like that. So that would be the public education category. I wasn’t ah, well versed in the military issues with regard to discrimination, but have been recently, and find those extremely interesting, and hoping to work on those. Now with regard, to ah, tax policy, of course we don’t want any kind of privileging to religious institutions that other groups don’t get. The faith based non-profits exempt from non-profit status, where they don’t have to do all the appropriate filing that other non-profit groups do, the tax free housing for clergy would be some examples there.
In the discrimination category, there are two huge categories there. Employment discrimination by religious employers, and you know, sorta general discrimination that happens out in the marketplace, that we’re familiar with but harder to pinpoint, and housing discrimination by religious landlords.
GC: Okay, you said in an interview, I don’t remember offhand where it was, but you said in an interview that you call yourself a nontheist, but that you don’t call yourself an atheist, because you’re not a fan of labels, and you think they’re unnecessarily divisive. Now there are many people in this movement who do call themselves atheists, are you going to be comfortable working with these people and when you are representing them, will you be comfortable using the word atheist to describe them, that is, not to describe yourself?
ER: Well, of course. The reason I said that it is probably best for me not to be labeled to the nth degree in subgroups is that as someone who is trying to represent the whole group, it is better for me not to be coming from one sector within the movement, and that competing groups might feel like they somehow have lost control, or they’ve lost a voice. So just because of that was the main reason that I didn’t want to be, you know, labeled five or six different ways.
GC: Okay. Now you said that you are pro-gay, pro-choice, and pro-separation of church and state. Is that correct?
ER: Yes, I am, and I have always been.
GC: Now the Republican Party—
ER: That isn’t necessarily a position one would need to take to work on these particular issues because ah, with regard to pro-choice, I happen to be personally pro-choice, but I have run across quite a few people who are atheists, agnostics, etc, who are pro-life, and they don’t see that necessarily as a religion, non-religion issue. You’ve got to be a little bit careful there—we can’t label everyone in the movement and just say that if you take religion out of the pro-life, pro-choice issue, then it’s very clear. Now, as I’m finding out—of course, the majority of everyone who are nontheists they do tend to be pro-choice, but we can’t make that an absolute. Now, the others, which, I think is much, you know it’s easier. On the gender issues, with regard to marriage, if you take religion out, I haven’t, personally, run across anyone who happens to be a nontheist who has some kind of valid argument against ah, homosexuals getting married, for example. But, I’m going to save that, because it might be possible. I just haven’t seen it myself, personally.
GC: Well, I guess my question is, well, one of the main conversations about you, and about your appointment to this, is that you’re a Republican, and the Republican party has been very adamantly opposed to all these positions for very many years. So I have to ask you a question that very many people want to know the answer to. If you’re pro-gay, pro-choice, you know, pro-separation of church and state, why are you a Republican? And why have you worked to promote the Republican Party for so many years.
ER: Well, you know I’ve actually worked in the party, and around the party, and I don’t recall seeing a party line position that says that you have to be pr-life. For example, I remember working at the Republican senatorial committee, that would have been in 1994, and I plainly remember seeing data that showed that people who consider themselves Republican consider themselves, were 70% pro-choice.
Yeah, so that, can’t be a party position. Now there are individual Republicans that have pro-choice positions politically. I have not seen the statistics lately on redshirt republicans with regards to gay rights and with regards to pro life vs pro choice. But I am not aware of it being a blanket party position. I think it lies with each Republican elected official, whether they’re in the Senate or in the House, or at the local level, just like the Democratic party is a big tent party—
GC: –I need to interrupt you for a second. So are you saying the Republican Party is not overwhelmingly anti-gay, anti-choice, and anti-separation of church and state?
ER: Well, I don’t have the statistics, but I would certainly, and I haven’t done the research, but I did explain to you that I did see research in the 90’s on just Republicans , people who vote as Republican and the far majority, the vast majority, with pro-choice vs pro life. I haven’t seen the research on people who consider themselves Republican and if they think that the government, religion should be controlling government. I would think that also, the vast majority, probably, I would hate to guess, but I think it would be a very high number, would think that there should be separation between religion and government. Now with regard to Republican opinions, people who consider themselves Republicans and their position on gay rights, I haven’t seen that data, because I haven’t actually been in more of a party role since 94.
GC: Lets talk specifically about gay rights. I mean, I assume you understand that gay rights are actually a very high priority for the atheist and the secularist movement. You know, issues like adoption rights and same sex marriage and so on. You know, gays in the military and so on, these are very high priority for the atheist movement. You know, politicians and elected officials in the Republican party, have been adamantly opposing gay rights for many decades, so exceptions there are pretty rare. And for the most part, the Republican party and the Republican party elected officials have been putting their opposition to gay rights very much front and center, and using hostility about gay people and fear mongering about gay people to promote their agenda. So I guess the question I want to ask you, the question a lot of people want to know, is why should people in the atheist movement support a leader for the SCA who’s frankly, worked for years for a party that has consistently opposed on of our core values?
ER: Well, because they need to be educated, that’s why. And I’m going to go educate them
GC: But I think that’s not the question. The question is why have you been a member of this party. And why have you supported them, given that they are opposed, and very consistently opposed to these positions?
ER: Well, I can tell you, it’s not a party position. It’s an individual position by some members. And it really varies by the member. I have plenty of friends and colleagues who are Republicans, the majority of them, it’s not their position. It’s really hard to stereotype…millions of people: they’re all opposed to gay rights, and everybody in the Republican party is opposed to gay rights, because that’s not true. It’s not true for me; it’s not true for other people I know. Its not true for every republican elected official. It’s not an official Republican Party position. And then you have the Republican Party at the state level and the local level, and you have the national party, the platform of the party that is written and controlled by whoever the president is or the person who is running for president at that time. So I would beg to differ. I don’t think that people should stereotype, everyone affiliated with that party. I have plenty of friends in the Democratic Party and they don’t agree with every position of every democrat who is elected, and I know people in the Democratic Party who are opposed to gay rights and who are pro-life, and who are, not pretty not so friendly to separation of religion and state. And then there’s the Libertarian part, etc, and ah, so we have to get out and educate all the decision makers whether they’re in the Executive Branch, or in the Legislative Branch, in the federal level, and also at the state level, in all 50 states. And at the state level, the majority of them, I believe that there are about 24 states that the state legislature and the governor positions are controlled by Republicans. We shouldn’t write them off. And there are about 12 states that are controlled by a Democratic Party legislature and at the governor’s side. So we’ve got 24 vs 12. So we need to go and get those 24 Republican states and work with them closely and educate them one by one, all members of the legislature and the governors office, and I don’t have the exact number in front of me, but I know that more than half of the current sitting governors are Republicans and there’s room there to work with them, but also the Democratic members that are governors, we need to work with them too.
GC: Okay. I just want to clarify. What you’re stating is that opposition to gay rights isn’t really a Republican issue, that they haven’t been making this front and center, that Republican elected officials, Republican candidates running for office, have not on the whole, overwhelmingly been opposed to gay rights, that this is not a party strategy? Is that what you’re saying?
ER: Well, that’s not exactly what I said. I said—
GC: Well, then clarify.
ER: –stereotype on party on one particular position when it’s not written down anywhere. I mean, I haven’t done a poll of every elected Republican official at the local level, the state level, and the federal level, to see exactly what their position is with regard to gay rights. And then when you get into gay rights, some people are for some issues, within gay rights, and not for others, and then you start splitting at that level also. I would, I certainly agree, and I know that generally there’s a good number of elected officials that are not friendly to the majority of gay rights issues. I mean, I’ll certainly give you that, I agree with that. But, it doesn’t, I don’t think that that means that we should just write all those people off, and not go and try to work with them and educate them and see if there is some kind of common ground that we can carve out with them.
GC: You therefore, think that the reason that a Republican elected official running for office, and people running for the republican party, have so overwhelming been opposed to so many gay rights issues, you think that that’s simply a lack of education on these issues, and if they understood these issues better, they would change their minds?
ER: Well, I think that that is something that we should try to do with every elected official on every issue. Not just on the gay rights issue, but certainly that one also.
GC: Right. I guess my question is, do you think that the reason they have been so opposed to these issues is simply lack of education on the facts about the issues?
That all we need to do is educate, and then they’ll change their minds?
ER: Well, part of it. I’m not sitting here saying that if we just go and educate people who are opposed to every position, that we’re going to simply win them over. Of course, I want to be optimistic, and I want to at least try, versus not trying at all, but I think there’s going to be a lot of factors involved. It’s going to be educating, it’s going to be also changing the opinions of the culture. There’s going to be some time involved. There’s going to be quite a few changes that are going to be needed. It’s not going to be something that we’re going to do overnight.
GC: Okay, let’s move on from that. I might want to come back to gay rights in a bit, but let’s move on from that. In the interview with Hemant Mehta at the Friendly Atheist blog, you said that you think the majority of Republicans believe in the separation of church and state. Now this seems very much contrary to what most atheists have experienced. When we’ve pushed for state/church separation on a national level, and also on a local and state level, we almost always get very serious pushback. And this pushback normally comes, primarily, though not entirely, from conservatives and Republicans. So when you say that you think the majority of Republicans support separation of church and state, what makes you think that that’s the case?
ER: Okay, well I’m just, I’m drawing that, and we don’t have research, until we have better research, then we’ll all know, what the answer is. But I’m drawing that on my 20 years of experience being in and around Republican officials, elected Republicans, and I have not, I have not seen, to the degree that I’m hearing some people state, that there is some type of interest to comingle religion and government. I mean, this is basically my personal experience. Now I would love to have, I would love to have the research, because the research we have, then we can target exactly where the issues are with regard to the opposition. But I simply do not buy into the theory that every single Republican does not like the separation of church and state. I totally disagree with that. Cuz it’s just not true
GC: But I didn’t say every single republican. I said the majority of Republicans. You had said that you thought the majority—
ER: I totally disagree with that. I don’t think it’s the majority. I think that some people, who are more fundamentalist on the Christian side, who are active in the Republican party, might not want to see such separation of church and state, but outside of that, I just, I haven’t seen it.
GC: So what you’re saying is that the, that it’s primarily just the Religious Right that’s advocating for the mingling of church—of religion and government—and that outside of that, most Republicans are, or support a more secular government. Is that an accurate statement of what you’re saying?
ER: That’s my opinion. You know, without scientific, without proper scientific research, to back it up, I do believe that, for sure, yes
GC: Okay, well, assuming, for the sake of argument that that is so, I mean, that certainly contradicts the experience of a lot of atheists, who have a lot of experience with this, but assuming for the sake of argument that this is the case, why have so many ah, elected officials inthe Republican party been so openly hostile to separation of church and state issues, and why have they promoted things like you know, teaching intelligent design in the schools, and school prayer, and having In God We Trust on the money, you know, and so on? If it is the case that most Republicans support separation of state and church, why has the republican party been working hand in glove so closely with the Religious Right for so many years?
ER: Well, once again I disagree. I don’t think the Republican Party is working side by side with the Religious Right, with regard to teaching intelligent design or creationism. Some of those issues are happeing at the state level. It’s certainly not happening at the federal level, that would be unconstitutional. So we just need to track down where it’s happening and ah, bring it to the light of day. You know, if it takes litigation through the courts, then we need to do that. You know, I;m sitting here, trying to find the best, most egregious examples around the country of some of the things we’re talking about, and to highlight them, so we need those tools. We need that information. And I do agree. It’s happening. But it’s definitely not the majority of Republicans that want that to happen. Since it is already, generally unconstitutional to teach creationism, I think that is something that we just need to go and sorta take care of, take care of these fires that are coming up, kinda state by state, would be the plan there with regard to that.
GC: Okay, let’s move on from that for the moment. I wanna move on to Another topic that’s been raised a lot regarding your position as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America, and that has to do with the donation that you made to Rick Perry. Perry has supported state-sponsored prayer. He’s opposed same sex marriage and gays serving in the military. He;s supported anti-sodomy laws and that has been counter to the agenda of atheists and secular Americans. And a lot of people are wondering how you could donate $1,000 to a candidate with these positions. So what’s your comment about that?
ER: Okay, well what I would say about Rick Perry is that one, he was a Democrat, and now he’s a Republican. So it’s probably not so much a party issue. He was the chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association. Governors, are you know, a large block of people and very important, very important in coalition building, and I did not contribute money to him based on his votes with regard to separation of church and state. It was more because I was particularly interested in working with the Republican Governor Association, which I was doing some work with them at the time. Also, getting healthcare reform programs implemented in all 50 Medicaid programs, along with Medicare. And I’m really embarrassed that I haven’t contributed money to every governor, every Republican governor, everywhere I’ve worked and all the issues I’ve worked on. Now everywhere I’ve worked and every issue I’ve worked on, we also have plenty of Democrats who are sitting side by side with me, who are also working on implementation. Whether it be healthcare reform or secular issues, they’re doing what it takes in order for us to be able to be visible and be included on the Democratic side. And you know, yes, people do look to me to be responsible for looking after the Republican side. The Secular Coalition for America is also looking for me to do that. Now, if you look at the staff, if you look at the board members, the advisory board, it would be 90-98 percent Democratic leaning, and we’ve got that side pretty covered. And so now we’re hoping to also do the best we can on the Republican side.
GC: Okay, well I guess the question that is, that is on, that all these questions are leading up to, and that is a question that a lot of people are asking, a lot of people are concerned that you don’t, a lot of people in the atheist and secularist community are concerned that you don’t share our values. Either that you don’t share them, or that you don’t place a very high priority on them. That you know, either you don’t share our values of prioritizing things like gay rights, you know, pro-choice, pro birth control, pro separation of church and state or so on, which aren’t universal values in the atheist community, but are largely our values. And so, people are concerned that either you don’t support these values, or that you don’t place a very high priority on them, that you prioritize other things, and that only when you got this job, have you decided that theses issues are a priority. Um, I guess the question I keep coming back to is, why should we a follow leader who has not been, until this week, apparently prioritizing our values?
ER: Well, I have plenty of values that are a priority to me. Some of them are priorities to some of your members. Some are not priorities to some of your members. Like, you mentioned pro-choice. Well, I;ve been extremely pro-choice. I’ve given money to pro-choice groups for 20 years. You know, that’s not a new issues for me. You know it’s not, it’s not top-of-the-list in the secular movement either, as we discussed previously. And in the past, I have mainly focused on, and worked on, economic issues. I have done a lot of work in the healthcare arena, and I have always been promoting comparative effectiveness and best practices, which would take care of a lot of the separation of church and state issues with regard to healthcare. You know, as I mentioned, I just haven’t worked in education arena or the military arena in the past, but certainly on tax policy. So, I mean, it’s not that I don’t care about these issues. I mean, yes it is true, it has not been a full time position of mine, but the Board was certainly convinced that I have, in my path, everywhere possible—Like, for example, I wrote articles about the HPV vaccine, and how a number of conservatives were particularly wrong on that issue. And the Board looked at those articles. And then also, I’ve written quite a few articles about the treatment of women, and women’s rights in other countries, everything from Tunisia to Yemen, to Myanmar, and they have access to those. So I have been strong on women’s rights, on healthcare issues, everything from AIDS and contraception to prochoice. I haven’t had the opportunity to go to a pro-gay march, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel strongly about those issues. Now if I looked for only decision makers in the Republican or the Democratic Party, that believed everything that I believe, everything that I cared about, well there probably wouldn’t be anybody that I would vote for, speak to, or have anything to do with, which is kinda a problem. If I only had clients, as an attorney, and a government affairs expert, if I only had clients that aligned perfectly with all my personal values and opinions, then I would be self employed and I would never have a client. So I don’t look at it that way. Like for example, I’ve done work for foreign governments. I’ve done work for India. Does that mean that I promote Hinduism? I’ve done work for Turkey. Does that mean that I’m a big adovacate for Islam? I’ve done work for Korea, where many people there are Buddhists. So I would hope that the people in the secular movement would understand that as a government affairs expert, and as a lobbyist, I have my personal views, and I stay true to those, but I cant take them so far as I can only work with or speak to people who completely align with everything that I care about. As I, like I mentioned to you, I would just be talking to myself.
GC: Right. And I think that people certainly understand that. People understand that when you’re working in politics, you can’t, that you can support somebody even if you don’t support them 100%, you don’t support every single one of their issues. It’s just that these particular issues, that the Republican Party has been, many of the issues the Republican Party is so adamantly opposed to, commonly, not uniformly, but overwhelmingly, are very high priorities, for most atheists and most secularists. There;s a question of, you know, yes we understand that you can’t agree with everybody about everything, but that there’s a point at which you say ‘these values are my priority’. For instance, I’m gay. Bisexual, actually. I could never support a party that was adamantly oppose to gay rights. And for a lot of people, then again in the atheist and secular movement, gay rights are a very important, and you know, a primary issue for a lot of people in this movement. And they would have a very hard time aligning themselves with somebody who was opposed to that issue, because it’s a high priority for them. And I guess, this comes back to the question, things like gay rights, being pro choice, pro birth control, separation of church and state, you say you support them, but you supported the republican party for other reasons… Well, what are those reasons? Why are those issues more important to you than these issues that are of primary interest to the secularist movement?
ER: I know, but we, the problem is that I don’t agree that the Republican party is pro-life. I don’t agree. And we’ve been over that, and we can go over it again. But I don’t agree that the position of every Republican in the Republican Party to be pro life, to be against gay rights, and I–
GC: And I’m just going to interrupt for a second. I’m not saying that every single Republican, I’m saying overwhelmingly, I’m saying–
GC: –I’m saying overwhelmingly the party and the positions of most Republicans who are elected officials. That’s what I’m saying. I’m not saying all Republicans, and Republicans who are elected officials I’m saying that as a body, the primary, you know. So are you in fact, claiming that on the whole, most republican politicians are not pro-life, are not anti-gay, you know, is that your position?
ER: I’m not saying that. What I said to you is that I have seen research when I actually, within more of a party position, I saw research that talked more about the position of registered Republicans. I remember seeing it clearly that the majority of registered Republicans were pro-choice.
GC: Okay, well that just kinda begs the question, which is—
[both talking, indistinguishable]
ER: –research that—you know I’m sure it’s out there, and I can try to dig it up. So okay. So let’s say that what you’re saying is true, that the majority of every elected Republican, state, federal, local level, are all pro-life, anti-gay. So, well, what about the ones that aren’t? They only ten percent—should we go
[interrupted by battery]
ER: So say that there’s only ten percent left. I haven’t seen these numbers, but say that someone has done the research, and there’s ten percent, in theory, which I totally disagree with. Then we need to go and work with those ten percent, and then the 90 percent that perhaps might be, which I totally also disagree with, why not go and educate them, and try to see if there’s some kind of common ground and work together?
GC: The question that people are asking is, why support that party? And why put years of your life and work into supporting that party, rather than supporting a party that supports you on the issues?
ER: Well, I was a Democrat, because I was born and raised in Alabama. At one point, in the 80’s, when Reagan came through, the majority of Alabama switched and became Republicans because the idea of working hard, and getting ahead, and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps really resonated with people in Alabama. And I am a Republican. I’m a conservative Republican, and I definitely don’t have any plans to change parties, and I don’t think that the Secular Coalition for America would be as interested in me if I was another person who was closely affiliated with the Democratic Party. They’ve got that covered. They’ve got that covered very well. So the plan is not for me to try to go and be, operate in a party that I have not been. The plan is for me to try to work with Republicans and also with Democrats, and build common ground. Now the coalitions I’ve worked with in the past, they were bipartisan, and this one actually is bipartisan. And you know, that’s what the leadership thinks, that’s what the leadership wants, and they had no problem with the fact that I happen to be a Republican, and we’ve been over my personal position. But for people to think that there are people with in the Republican party that are the opposition and they have opinions that are different from my opinion and that that is somehow my fault. I totally disagree with that. Because I don’t think that it is. I think I’m just going to go out and do what it takes to win over any groups and as many decision makers as possible to the movement, and make them allies, and I’m not planning on sitting here and writing everybody up. I’m going to go and work hard and educate and persuade and have the best advocacy positions that we have hand have the best written materials and be tenacious and get our foot in the door and get a seat at the table and move beyond our traditional reach, is what I’m planning on doing.
–end of questions–