Friday, 4 May 2012

US secularists appoint former Republican lobbyist to make their case in Washington

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Former Republican lobbyist Edwina Rogers has been
appointed executive director of the Secular Coalition
for America
In what looks like a surprising move, the Secular Coalition for America – an umbrella group that represents a number of American secularist, humanist and atheist organisations – has appointed a former Republican lobbyist as its new executive director.

The appointment of Edwina Rogers, who has worked for both Bush presidents and four Republican senators, has raised eyebrows among US secularists, who view the Republican Party as particularly hostile to their values, but, as spokesperson for the Coalition told the Washington Post, there is a belief that Rogers' connections will help broaden support for secularism:
“She can reach out to segments of the population that may be receptive to our message but maybe never heard of us before or maybe associated us with one particular political party. She can help this organization grow beyond its traditional reach.”
While Rogers' appointment is likely to divide opinion, there's certainly wisdom in seeking to broaden the appeal of secularism in the US. As Jacques Berlinerblau, author of the forthcoming book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, points out in our current issue, American secularism is currently beset on all sides, encountering not just outright hostility from Republicans, but a lukewarm reception from the Democrats traditionally associated with its defence. In Berlinerblau's view, the blame for this lies, in part, with the secular movement itself:
"Aside from conservative religious reaction, there is a second explanation for secularism’s crack-up: a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders.

Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund. As I demonstrate in my forthcoming book it is exceedingly difficult to figure out exactly who was steering the good ship secularism while the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons and Ralph Reeds of the nation suited up and took to the pitch. My own research indicates that in the waning decades of the past century, there was little in the way of effective direction and guidance provided to the secular base.

Then again, who was the base? And with that we arrive at one of the most debilitating ironies afflicting American secularism, if not secularism itself. If one looks at the history of this movement it is exceedingly difficult to gain clarity as to what precisely it stands for and what types of people it represents."
We've interviewed Berlinerblau for our May podcast (which is due online this afternoon), and in that he suggests that the key to increasing support for secularism in the US lies with building coalitions between atheists and religious moderates who can agree on the benefits of separating church and state. If Edwina Rogers can use her experience to build such coalitions, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats who understand the importance of secularism, the Secular Coalition for American will surely have made a sensible move in selecting its new director.

You can read more about the appointment on the Friendly Atheist blog, which has a detailed interview with Rogers. For a dissenting view, see PZ Myers, who is unconvinced that secularism stands a chance of gaining a sympathetic hearing among Republican politicians
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