Who may be the oddest bedfellow at the Republican National Convention that opens Monday? No, it's not Log Cabin Republicans, that group of gay Republicans who assiduously ignore the "unwelcome" mat the party has put out for them. It would have to be Edwina Rogers, the new head of the Secular Coalition for America, a nonprofit group of atheists, agnostics and humanists. In addition to being a non-theist (her term for herself), she's a lifelong Republican. I hope for her sake that no one remembered the tar and feathers.
As an atheist myself, I have great hopes for Rogers' windmill tilting. Her organization represents a nascent but vital effort to give non-theists a voice in the halls of power at the state and federal level.
And if anyone can bore from within the Republicans, it's her.
Hailing from Alabama, with a law degree from Catholic University, Rogers was once general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. She spent time working for prominent Republican Sens. Trent Lott and Jeff Sessions.
The convention will be packed with her people, except many of them probably think she's going to hell. Several times within the last year, her evangelical family and friends ambushed her with full staged interventions trying to save her soul.
So far, no go.
Here is a Q & A with Rogers about atheism in public life, her organization and her plans for the convention and beyond:
There seem to be almost no atheists in public office. Do you know any?
Yes, the coalition knows personally of 28 nontheist members of Congress, although only one, U.S. Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., openly identifies as an atheist.
The reality is there are nontheists everywhere. We are your neighbors, your friends, your family members, and yes, possibly even your politicians. Just recently the United States, France and Canada joined Ireland on the top 10 list of countries that have experienced a "notable decline in religiosity." Since 2005, the number of people in the U.S. who self-identify as religious dropped a whopping 13 percent — now a full 40 percent of Americans don't consider themselves to be religious.
Another recent poll shows that 5 percent of Americans now openly identify as atheists — that means that atheists outnumber many religions in the United States, including Muslims, Jews, Mormons and Hindus.
Why, then, is it nearly impossible to get elected as an atheist?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that atheists lack morals and "believe in nothing." I think this misconception leads to the general distrust many Americans have toward nontheists. The reality is that we don't base our morality on ancient religious texts, but rather on reason, science and compassion for our fellow humans. Almost every major religion is founded on ethics and morals like not killing, stealing and treating others as you wish to be treated. In our view, that is a humanistic outlook, not just an inherently religious one.
We are working toward a day when all lawmakers are elected on the basis of their stances on the issues, and not their personal religious beliefs — as our founders intended.
How do you propose that the coalition go about making inroads with Republicans, a party that has made common cause with the Religious Right?
If we are going to affect legislation on Capitol Hill, we need to work with both sides. The fact is there are millions of Republicans that feel the way I do about these issues and if those millions of Republican voters have a voice, the politicians will listen.
What I am trying to do is increase the influence of secular Americans. At the convention I will attend every event that I possibly can and speak to anyone who is open to hearing more about our mission.
Good luck, Edwina.