After a 34-year career, Atlanta fire chief and former U.S. fire administrator Kelvin Cochran was terminated from his position in January, 2015. The reason? He had written a 162-page book on his personal time that touched on issues of marriage and sexuality from a biblical perspective.
Despite facing devastating racism in his early career and working his way up to being the first African American fire chief in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, Cochran was fired by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed even after a city investigation determined that he did not actually discriminate against anyone. Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith, is currently fighting to reinstate him.
“There are worldly consequences for standing for biblical truth,” Cochran testified during the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission 2016 National Conference during a special post-conference session about religious liberty August 27. “Kingdom consequences are always greater than the worldly consequences.”
Alliance Defending Freedom partnered with the ERLC for the free post-conference session entitled, "The 2016 Presidential Race, Religious Liberty, and the Future of the Church,” aiming to educate pastors and other evangelical leaders on how to handle religious liberty issues happening now and in the future.
The political climate: How we got here
National Review staff writer David A. French launched the session by offering a context for how the U.S. has found itself in the current political climate. Overall, he offered, the juxtaposition of the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns come from an understudied culture of rage, ignorance and lethargy; the pursuit of Fox News fame among the political subculture; and the popular view among those paying attention that politics is mostly entertainment.
“If this election isn’t humble pie for conservatives, I don’t know what is humble pie,” French said. “We substituted a set of policies for just a dude, the dude, who he alone can change your life. How? No idea. No clue.”
To combat the lethal combination of lethargy and anger, conservative leaders need to teach people to fight for themselves, French said. “We need energy instead of lethargy,” he said.
In a panel about the future of evangelical politics, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Erik Stanley offered a reminder that “there’s a lot of down ballot stuff that’s happening,” as local judicial decisions and the role of local politicians are often eclipsed in the excitement of the presidential election.
ERLC president Russell Moore said that he believes “politics in American life, across the board on the far left and on the far right, has become a religion. It has become a kind of transcendent source of authority and a transcendent source of identity.”
The political climate: A way forward
If the Christian “Moral Majority” is declining in American political life, what is the role of Christians in politics, and what does religious liberty actually mean?
“Whatever you think the solution is, when you see people who are targeting and demonizing immigrant communities themselves, or refugee communities themselves – anyone who is in a place of vulnerability – our answer cannot be silence,” Moore said in a roundtable titled, “Questions and Ethics.”
“Even if you hold to a different position on how to address that, fundamentally we have to be the people that say, ‘these are persons created in the image of God, and when you come after them, you come after me.’”
Moore added that religious freedom is a worthwhile fight because all liberties are “endowed by God” tied together.
“Once a liberty becomes too politically toxic to uphold or to maintain, and that means you toss it aside, other liberties that are going to go down the pipe,” he said.
Education on what religious freedom is, its biblical foundations, and how to fight for it is key, he said. It’s not special leverage or control in society.
“Not everything that offends me is a violation of my religious freedom,” he said. “I don’t have a right not to be ridiculed on TV. I don’t have any right to say that everyone has to agree with what I’m saying about the Bible. But there is a very genuine threat and we see all around us and heard some of that today … peoples whose very freedom to live out their faith is being restricted.”
And Christians, he said, should stand up for freedom of conscience “even for those with whom we completely disagree. Because what I want to say is, religious liberty means not to have government shut down arguments about all that matters. Religious freedom means the government doesn’t have the right to be the referee or the bully in those arguments about ultimate matters. It needs to give space to let people plead with one another and persuade one another and argue about what these ultimate matters mean. As Christians, we believe that’s how people change.”