News & Politics

True Nonbeliever

Can Republican lobbyist Edwina Rogers help a group of left-leaning atheists reach across the aisle?

As executive director of the Secular Coalition, Rogers is working to take God out of government and politics. Photograph by Stephen Voss.

The Secular Coalition for America, the 11-year-old lobbying arm for Americans who want religion out of the public square, is a mostly left-leaning group. The people on its staff and in its member organizations would like to take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance and in god we trust off of US currency. They support gay marriage, think contraception should be more broadly available, and work against school vouchers that use public funds to support “religious indoctrination.”

All of which makes the Secular Coalition’s choice of a new executive director so surprising. Her name is Edwina Rogers, and she’s a lifelong conservative Republican. The walls of her office at the coalition’s small suite near K Street are decorated with, among other things, a huge framed Christmas card signed by George and Laura Bush, a memento from her years as an economic adviser to the former President.

Wealthy, soft-spoken, as polished as glass, and fond of pearls and teeteringly high heels, Rogers, 49, was for years a commentator on Fox News, defending Bush’s record in the war on terror and suggesting that Democrats were pushing a “secret agenda” during the 2006 midterm elections. She was general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, served on the board of an energy company, and raked in money as a lobbyist. She was, in short, the progressives’ natural enemy.

And if you think Rogers is an unusual choice to head a group of gay-marriage-promoting atheists, rest assured that the Secular Coalition did, too. She was leading a bipartisan health-care coalition when a headhunting firm brought her in. During one of several interviews for the job, the room was packed with staff and advisers who were, in the words of coalition bigwig Woody Kaplan, “flabbergasted” and “incredulous” at Rogers’s presence.

“My purpose was not to interview Edwina to see if she was right for the job,” recalls Kaplan, an adviser to the coalition, “but to destroy her.”

Yet Rogers “turned the entire room around,” Kaplan says. He’s been a civil-liberties lobbyist and donor for decades, schooled in the art of political sausage-making—but he’s still slightly awed by Rogers’s powers of persuasion: “She walked out and we voted 100 percent for her.”

• • •

The story of how Edwina Rogers won over all those people and what she’s done in little more than a year since becoming executive director is one of those consummate Washington tales about strange bedfellows making good allies.

The genius of having Rogers at the helm, Kaplan and others realized, was that they could at last talk to both sides of the aisle. Her experience on the Hill meant that people in power would take her seriously. As the number of Americans disconnected from organized religion grows, secularists hope her hiring signifies the maturation of a fledgling movement.

It’s “a very shrewd move,” says Richard Dawkins, the renowned evolutionary biologist and atheist who advises the Secular Coalition.

“It is wise for the secularists to participate in politics on the different sides,” says anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who has known and hosted Rogers for years at his conservative Wednesday meetings and admits to being surprised by her latest career move.

(This may be the first and last time these two men are quoted in anything approaching agreement.)

Rogers is, it turns out, a “nontheist”—or nonbeliever—operating within a party whose religious base regards such terms as code for “immoral heathen.” She is a libertarian-leaning economic conservative who is also “laissez-faire on social issues,” she says. (She has given to Planned Parenthood several times over the last two decades.) Rogers sees herself as part of a “silent majority” of Republicans dismayed that their party has become beholden to what she calls a shrill, “moralizing” minority.

“I don’t want to be silent anymore,” says Rogers, whose soft voice and sly smile have served her well during the awkward conversations she’s been having on both sides of the aisle, with those on the left who fear she could be a sleeper agent for the enemy and those on the right who think she’s torpedoing a long conservative career. “I want to be involved with updating humanity.”

• • •

The House these days is thick with professed believers. Once upon a time, Barry Goldwater, the conservative’s conservative, could declare himself pro-choice and decry the political influence of Pat Robertson. Now the party has people like Georgia congressman Paul Broun, a doctor on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee who has said that “evolution, embryology, big-bang theory” are all “lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”

Pete Stark, the only openly atheist member of Congress, retired this year after losing his seat, though Kaplan says he knows of many more still in the closet. Regardless, when former presidential candidate Rick Santorum can accuse President Obama of creating a society that’s “anti-God” and the notion of a war on Christmas is a perennial holiday gift of the culture wars and when Americans say they’re more likely to vote for a Muslim or gay presidential candidate than for an atheist, it’s not surprising that Republicans and Democrats alike invoke their faith, real or not, in knee-jerk fashion.

Yet within the American populace, something is happening. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 20 percent of the population identified themselves as religiously unaffiliated in 2012, up from 15 percent just five years before. While two-thirds of these unaffiliated “nones” say they believe in God, they rarely attend church and they tend to feel alienated from traditional religion. Almost 6 percent of Americans consider themselves atheist or agnostic, meaning there are considerably more nonbelievers in the US than there are American Jews, Muslims, or Mormons.

The Secular Coalition wants to harness all of the unaffiliated around the idea of keeping government secular. It wants the public to know that just because a person doesn’t believe in God doesn’t mean he or she isn’t moral. And in response to those who speak of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, the secularists quote Thomas Jefferson, the modern-day atheist’s idol, who once wrote, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

• • •

But how do you craft a political movement nearly from scratch? The Secular Coalition—which represents organizations such as American Atheists, the American Ethical Union, and the Secular Student Alliance—has a full-time staff of just six. Many politicians in Washington have never heard of the group; many of their staffers have never met “out” atheists before.

“A lot of people who meet with us don’t want their constituents to know that they’re meeting with us,” says Lauren Anderson Youngblood, the coalition’s spokeswoman.

Still, Rogers believes there are areas of overlap between, say, conservative economic principles and the Secular Coalition’s efforts to make churches subject to the same financial rules as other nonprofits. Half of the nation’s “nones” believe in smaller government, she points out. So she has lobbied the House Ways and Means Committee, the Republican National Committee, and a staffer for Senator David Vitter after the Louisiana Republican’s office issued an Easter message to constituents reminding them that “God gave his only Son for our salvation.” Under Rogers, the group is establishing state chapters to combat local religiously influenced legislation, such as the teaching of creationism in schools.

She has tried for months, without luck, to get a meeting with the office of Senator Marco Rubio, the probable Republican presidential candidate, who last year gave a speech in which he told Americans, “You cannot have your freedom without your faith.”

“I’m probably more concerned about him than anyone else at moment,” says Rogers, who describes Rubio as operating in a religious “fog” and “blinded by religion.”

There’s a bleak truth in Washington, and at the Secular Coalition’s annual summit in April, Senator Tom Harkin, one of the event’s speakers, invoked it. While praising the group’s efforts to strive for “rationality,” Harkin said, “We have a saying up on Capitol Hill: If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”

As the secularists see it, up till now Washington has been picking its teeth with their bones.

• • •

Edwina Rogers grew up poor in rural Alabama. Religion never spoke to her—she says church was a privilege for those with fancy clothes and spare cash for the collection plate. While her parents called themselves Christians, the family never attended services. Her home life was troubled, Rogers says, and at one point she, her mom, and one of her siblings lived in a women’s shelter.

She worked hard to get herself out of what she calls that “ditch,” attending the University of Alabama on scholarship and going to law school at Catholic University while working several jobs. She got involved in politics, and the GOP’s message of minimal government appealed to her.

Being a professional politico meant going along with certain causes even when she didn’t believe in them. In 2007, when Rogers was vice president of health policy for the ERISA Industry Committee, a trade association for large companies, Rogers testified in the House against a bill mandating more generous mental-health coverage, even though she personally favored the legislation. And she handled health-policy issues for pro-life senator Jeff Sessions despite being pro-choice herself.

She married Ed Rogers, a disciple of Machiavellian political strategist Lee Atwater. Her husband served in two administrations and founded a lobbying shop with former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. The couple lived in an 18,000-square-foot mansion in McLean, had two children, and named their son Haley.

At times, Rogers showed a tin ear for her public image, making a guest appearance on The Real Housewives of D.C. and demonstrating for another television crew her signature gift-giving style, which involved cutting up sheets of dollar bills and using them as wrapping paper. (She says she started doing this years ago, as a “cheap” and “unique” way of wrapping inexpensive gifts while still complying with ethics rules governing gift-giving in Washington. On camera, of course, it read as pure Washington debauchery, and Rogers was skewered on The Colbert Report.)

The couple divorced last year amid mutual allegations of infidelity. She now lives in Bethesda.

When the Secular Coalition was considering Rogers for the job, her interviewers asked a lot of questions about the gift-wrapping incident as well as the fact that she’d donated $1,000 to Rick Perry, the Texas governor and former Republican presidential candidate who once held a prayer rally in a stadium. She had given money to him, she told the group, because as head of the bipartisan health-care coalition she was trying to get changes enacted at the state level and he was chair of the Republican Governors Association. Rogers objects to characterizations of this donation as nakedly transactional; rather, she says, this is how political relationships are cultivated and causes get heard.

The donation underscored a gap between the way the coalition operated and the way she did—the difference between idealism and professional politics, in which a paycheck is a paycheck, money greases relationships, and compromise is the end game. Depending on your perspective, professional politics either is what makes Washington work or it’s what’s so wrong with this town.

• • •

In hiring Rogers, the Secular Coalition announced itself ready for compromise for the sake of clout. Even so, there have been growing pains.

One member of the board of directors, Amanda Metskas, says Rogers had to learn to use terms like “gay” and “LGBT” rather than “homosexual.” And both this summer and last, Rogers has brought in interns sponsored by the Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow Program. The archconservative, ultra-wealthy Koch brothers, Charles and David, are reviled by many rank-and-file secularists, and it’s fair to say that if these interns were more widely known about within the movement, there would be considerable outrage.

Rogers has signed on for five years at the Secular Coalition, and it’s likely that over the next few years the group will continue to struggle with the issue of what alliances it can and can’t make.

At a 100-person summit for secular activists in April, one attendee was hostile to a panelist representing Catholics for Choice, an ally of the Secular Coalition on contraception access. “I think there are a lot of us in the Secular Coalition who believe that Catholicism enslaves minds,” he said. “I’m not really comfortable being in a coalition with a group that does that.”

Rogers jumped in. “The whole point of being in a coalition is to try to be as diverse and as large as possible,” she said. “We get success that way.”

Her new position as a high-profile nonbeliever hasn’t been without personal cost. Several loved ones have been disappointed and confused to learn of her lack of faith. One born-again relative to whom Rogers had been close now rarely talks to her, she says, aside from sending texts that say things like “Fear God.” A senior GOP congressional aide, who agreed to brief the Secular Coalition on the conservative Republican agenda because he has “known and trusted” Rogers for years, wonders why she took the job. “This may tarnish her personal brand,” he says.

But the long odds don’t seem to undermine Rogers’s relentless cheer. She says this position appealed to her ego—both the difficulty of it and the potential to create a lot of change in a short time: “I’m the go-to girl if you have a problem, a difficult lobbying job. If you have an easy situation, then you really don’t need me.”

The challenge doesn’t intimidate her, she explains, because “I started from nothing,” and once you’ve had nothing, “you’re not afraid of nothing.” Besides, as a loyal Republican, Rogers says she’s doing her party a favor by pointing the way toward a new, flourishing demographic of voters.

Her style is on display during a meeting with a staffer for Republican congressman Sam Johnson, whose office is decorated with a large in god we trust sign and a stone plaque of the Ten Commandments. She refers to her time in the George W. Bush White House and peppers the staffer with questions and praise. This is how the Secular Coalition’s influence will be made, if it’s to be made at all—through personal connections, one conversation at a time. Every handshake is an opportunity to be at the table instead of being the meal.

Which is why one afternoon, lobbyist Kaplan interrupts a meeting in Rogers’s office to buttonhole Youngblood, the coalition’s communications manager, and tells her that political consultant and former Obama adviser David Axelrod is sitting downstairs at a cafe.

It’s the quintessential Washington moment. Youngblood rises and goes to introduce herself, in hopes of changing what’s on the menu in this town.

This article appears in the September 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.