Article  Human Dignity  Religious Liberty

TRANSCRIPT: A conversation with Erick Erickson on religious liberty and the Atlanta Fire Chief

Welcome to Questions and Ethics. This is Russell Moore, host of the program and president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have been away for a couple of weeks. We went on our family vacation and then had a sudden death in our family, and so I have been occupied down south in my homeland for a little while. And while I was gone, some interesting things happened in Georgia. It seems that Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta has suspended the fire chief there, Kelvin Cochran, who is a Southern Baptist, who wrote a book, Who Told You You Were Naked? in which, according to commentaries about the book, people are accusing it of being homophobic because he said that he believes that homosexuality is a sin. And he has been suspended. He’s been taken out of his responsibilities right now. And there is a firestorm going on of controversy about this, including what probably interested me more than anything today, an editorial in The New York Times called “God, Gays, and the Atlanta Fire Department,” in which they said that there’s no issue here, that the mayor was right in getting rid or dealing with Chief Cochran. And also The New York Times says that Cochran’s claims of having freedom of speech and religious liberty in these issues, that those things were not really issues because according to The New York Times, here’s what they say, “It shouldn’t matter that the investigation found no evidence that Mr. Cochran had mistreated gays or lesbians. His position as a high level public servant makes his remarks especially problematic and requires that he be held to a different standard.” And so, I immediately wanted to talk to my friend Erick Erickson who is, of course, the editor of, Fox News contributor, and also the host of The Erick Erickson Show there in Georgia, because he knows Atlanta. He knows the scene. And he also knows the issues of religious liberty going on around the country right now. And so, Erick, thanks for being with us today.

EE: Thanks for having me.

RDM: What in the world is going on in Atlanta? This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in Georgia, is it?

EE: No. It’s not. People are taken by surprise. The fire chief suspended, now fired, and the reasons for the firing, the Mayor says, is because of his bad judgment in writing the book, his bad judgment in speaking out once he was suspended, which he didn’t actually do, and his chance of opening the city to discrimination. Well, interestingly enough, today, in addition to The New York Times editorial, the city released the internal review, and they found that not only did the fire chief not discriminate, and not only were there no instances of him making homosexual employees feel uncomfortable, but, in fact, there was a situation while he was fire chief where a fireman in uniform posed in front of a Chick-fil-A to support Dan Cathy’s comments about gay marriage, and he had them disciplined for being in uniform and taking a stance for traditional marriage. Now, the argument from The New York Times is that well, he was the fire chief who wrote the book. But he didn’t do it as the fire chief. He didn’t do it in uniform. The whole thing is just really bizarre. People are caught off guard.

RDM: And the union chief, of course is saying that that instance of disciplining those fire fighters is why he should have been fired because he ought to be held to the same standard as his employees. But the point you are making is it’s not the same thing. He is writing a book as a private citizen.

EE: He was not in uniform, and he also says that he asked the ethics officer of the city if he could write the book. She said yes, and he went back to her and asked if it was okay for him in the bio to mention he was the fire chief, and she said yes. She now denies that she did this, but Kelvin Cochran has been very consistent throughout the investigation that that happened. There is kind of a he-said/she-said situation. But the overwhelming issue here is how it came about, and based on the public information out there, a retiring fire captain, who happens to be a lesbian, complained to a gay advocacy group in Georgia as she was retiring, about the book. The book was written more than a year before she complained. She did it on the way out, and that led to this. The investigation found that he gave his book to nine employees of the city. Six of the employees said that they had asked for copies of it. Three of the employees said that they did not ask for it. Kelvin Cochran says he does not remember giving it to anyone who did not ask for it.

RDM: Well, you know, what’s interesting to me about this entire case is if you just step back from the specifics of the case and look at the broader question, I mean, it seems like we are dealing with this sort of thing happening all the time, and it seems as though the circle of tolerance and the circle of liberality on these things keeps getting smaller and smaller because when we were talking about Hobby Lobby, for instance, we were being told, well, you can have your private beliefs, but your private beliefs can’t work their way out into the way that you live. Now, they are coming in and saying it’s not only the actions that you are taking, because as you say, the internal investigation shows that Chief Cochran wasn’t discriminating against people as fire chief or mistreating people or doing anything untoward. It’s all about his private beliefs and the fact that he has these beliefs about sexuality—which I haven’t read the book yet; I have it ordered. They don’t have a digital copy, but I have it on order coming to me. It seems to me from what I can see his views here aren’t anything different than what classical Christian views across the spectrum would be about sexual relations outside of marriage, but even having those views disqualifies him from being in public office. That is certainly what The New York Times editorial report is saying today.

EE: That’s the position of the mayor and gay rights groups in Atlanta as well. Now, I have read the book, and it is a very Christian book. It is about his worldview, and it is directed to young black men and to people in leadership that they need to turn their life over to Christ, and they need to live in a biblical, godly way. I will tell you the most shocking thing to me actually is that the single greatest complaint was not what he said about homosexuality—now, that’s what the national media has focused on—but if you follow the conversation online, what people are outraged about is that in his book the fire chief says that because he is a Christian his number one job in life, including as fire chief, is to glorify God, and he must glorify God by being the best employee he can be and living in a godly manner. The number of people who have said in Atlanta and around the nation that this means that he would not put out the fire of a gay person’s house because he wants to be a godly fire chief, I have been blown away by the complete ignorance of how people view that statement.

RDM: Yeah, I mean that would take not only complete biblical illiteracy, I mean along the lines of the reporters who were saying in 1976 now, when Jimmy Carter says he was born again he is not meaning that he is receiving audible messages from God, not only that sort of illiteracy when it comes to religious faith, but also a complete lack of knowledge about what the minimal level of what Christian believers think. I mean every Christian would say that everything about his life ought to glorify God. Whatever you do, eat, or drink, do all to the glory of God. That doesn’t mean some sort of theocratic takeover.

EE: If you listen to a lot of the conversations among gay advocacy groups in Atlanta, that is the way they view it, that by glorifying God it is precluding him then from, because of his views on gays, from taking care of their houses, from treating them as good employees. Never mind, none of that is in evidence. The investigation showed that wasn’t the case. This really is about their agenda to silence Christians on this issue. It seems very clear. The mayor today came out with an email to his supporters saying they needed to read The New York Times, that this was not about faith. He was of faith too. This was about him making people uncomfortable, but the report showed there was no evidence of him making people uncomfortable. They are trying to have it both ways.

RDM: Well, The New York Times editorial was chilling, I mean, especially coming right after an op-ed on Sunday that essentially said religious liberty, that’s just a license to discriminate, and we ought to pay no attention to it, despite the fact that the issues that the op-ed writer is talking about are Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in the states that just a few years ago were being supported by Chuck Schumer, by Bill Clinton, across the spectrum as not being controversial ideologically. You have that—

EE: Well, therein is the problem. Georgia is considering a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and it’s interesting that the politics of this—the firing of the fire chief now makes it more likely that Georgia will pass this law, but it also gives more fundraising opportunities to the groups opposed to it. The mayor—it should be said we can’t leave politics out of this unfortunately— the mayor of Atlanta did not aggressively back the democratic nominee for governor, Jason Carter, this past year, and a lot of people have said that he would need to get the urban, white, wealthy, liberal coalition in his camp. And a lot of people, myself included, are speculating one of the reasons he was happy to have this fight is because it does get those people back into his camp, and so it was a political move as much as anything else.

RDM: Well, and it just shows us what we are dealing with in American culture right now that this actually is a political wedge issue for some people to say that religious freedom is a problem to be stamped out. We see that repeatedly. I mean the thing I immediately thought about when this happened, I thought back to Chick-fil-A, I thought back to Duck Dynasty, but also to Louie Giglio, another Georgian, another Atlantan, that happened when he was invited to pray at the inauguration of President Obama, and then after someone found a sermon that he preached a few years back that was completely in line with what every orthodox Protestant, every Roman Catholic, even every orthodox Jewish or Muslim person would believe, he was axed from the program because he’s toxic. And I think that shows us things have really really changed since just a few years ago when Bill Clinton was signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

EE: Very much so. I say all the time—I guess I coined this phrase, “You will be made to care.” There are a lot of people who think they can sit on the sidelines, that this issue won’t affect them, and more and more people are seeing they are going to be made to care about these issues. In their job, if they say anything, if they hold a Christian worldview, if they are public about their faith, they risk termination with these precedents.

RDM: And not only that. I had some people talking to me. They were talking about their church. They live in a part of the country that is not very friendly to religion at all, and they said you know we are deacons at our church, and we are wondering about whether or not—because they work for civil service, for government in various ways—and they said we are wondering whether or not our pictures ought to be on the website of the church as deacons because we are afraid we are going to be fired because the supervisors there for the local government will say well, we see what your church believes, and we don’t want you around here. I mean, that would have sounded like a ridiculous concern just a few years ago.

EE: It would have. It’s amazing how rapidly it has shifted. And I get the sense that culture itself has not shifted so rapidly, but the people in authority and the opinion leaders in the country have shifted so rapidly. It’s a complete disconnect between what they derisively sometimes call “flyover country” in the leadership in these areas. The black ministers in the city of Atlanta, the Christian community, which it is the majority, does not support what happened to the fire chief, but the leaders of opinion, from the local newspaper, to a lot of the other voices, to the political leaders are willing to turn a blind eye to it.

RDM: Now, when Houston had an issue not very long ago in which the mayor was trying to subpoena churches to send in their sermons, there was enough of a backlash that the mayor and the city council backed down. Do you see that happening in Atlanta at all?

EE: I don’t see that happening, largely because—I said that a lot of the black ministers and the Christian community are supportive, and they are, but they haven’t been very public about their support. In particular, I actually had a caller to my radio program in Atlanta last Thursday wanting to know where were the black ministers in the city, why weren’t they standing up. Behind the scenes they have been supportive of Kelvin Cochran, but publicly they have been very very quiet. And they are going to have to raise their voice for it to be an issue. I don’t think at this point it will be reversed, but I definitely think that Kelvin Cochran, given the report from the mayor’s office—ironically, the mayor said that he was firing Kelvin Cochran because he could potentially open the city up to discrimination—the fire chief may have a claim.

RDM: Exactly, exactly. Well, thank you, Erick Erickson. I really appreciate this commentary. It’s good to talk to you, and grateful for you and your work.

EE: Thank you very much.

RDM: You know, as I think about this issue with Chief Cochran, it reminds me that what we ought to be thinking about when it comes to religious liberty—sometimes we assume that religious liberty is only a government, political issue, and it is; we need to be working in the levels of government and of public policy, but it’s also a cultural issue. If you don’t have the value of religious freedom and religious liberty being worked for in the culture, then the cultural toxicity of tolerance of people of various religious views that goes downstream into public policy actions that end up hurting people, and not only hurting people who are Christians or people who are evangelicals who fit into particular categories, but ultimately hurting all people because anytime that you have a culture that says we are going to restrict the conscience and religious belief in order to just pave over it for something else, for some sort of progress—and these days “progress” always seems to mean sexual freedom—when that happens, that ultimately hurts everybody in a society because religious liberty matters for everybody. And so, we need to be working not only at the level of government and protecting religious freedom, not just for ourselves but for everybody, but also working culturally in order to say why does this matter, why is this important? We need to have churches that are preaching and teaching about why religious liberty matters for everybody, not just for advocates, not just for people who are working in government, not just for lawyers, but for everybody. Why does religious liberty matter to the woman who is working at Walmart? Why does religious liberty matter to the person who is raising crops on his farm? It matters for everybody. We need that being talked about internally within our congregations and also talking externally about why liberty of conscience, religious liberty is a public good, why it matters for everybody, because once this sort of cultural move happens, then it has implications that just go on and on and on in ways that we can’t even see at the moment. As Erick and I were talking about just a few minutes ago, I don’t think anybody would have seen this coming five years ago, ten years ago certainly would have never seen this coming, and there would have been people if you had suggested it, oh well, a fire chief who just happens to believe certain things about a Christian view of sexuality will be fired for holding those views and for putting those views into print even though he is not discriminating against anybody in his employ, people would have said that’s crazy. That’s conspiracy theory stuff. That will never happen. But then it does. And so, I think this has to be a matter of cultural importance as well as a matter of political importance. And these situations show us that we have a lot of work to do. But we are not the first people to be in this situation. The early Baptists in this country had to deal with these sorts of cultural and political pressures all around them, and then of course Christians in every other era and Christians in every other context had to deal with cultures that found their beliefs to be strange and freakish and sometimes even subversive. We just have to be sure that we know how to articulate what we believe and why, and why religious liberty matters for everybody.

This is Russell Moore, and this has been Questions and Ethics, and thanks for listening, and remember if you have a question about any ethical dilemma that you are facing right now, any questions that you have about something you came across reading your Bible or something you came across while talking to your neighbor or a problem that you are facing in your family or community, be sure to send that to me at [email protected]. See you next time. Thanks.

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