Editor’s Note: Russell D. Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The views expressed in this column belong to Moore.
The firing of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran is the latest firestorm in the ongoing culture war between religious freedom and the sexual revolution.
That much isn’t all that new these days, from the Duck Dynasty brouhaha to the axing of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich to the skirmishes over forcing, with state power, bakers and florists to participate in same-sex weddings.
What caught my eye in this case, though, is the controversy over glorifying God.
While many are pointing to passages in Cochran’s book about sexuality, much of the furor, especially in online forums, is directed toward another passage, in which Cochran says that his life and work serve the purpose of glorifying God.
Some see this language as scary and subversive, as though Cochran were planning a theocratic takeover of the fire department and would refuse to put out fires for cohabiting couples or gay or lesbian people or atheists.
Cochran has said that if intentionally seeking to glorify God is a violation of his oath of office, then he should have been fired immediately for, well, taking his oath of office, ending as it does with “so help me God.” True enough. Behind this, though, is a deeper issue of religious ignorance that has serious consequences for the common good.
Cochran’s statement is hardly surprising, and it is exactly the opposite of some sort of tearing down of the boundaries between church and state. Every Christian would say the same thing about his or her life and vocation. The Apostle Paul told the church at Corinth, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
The Bible’s argument is not that all the food and drink ought to be “taken over” by coercively Christian manufacturers and distributors. In fact, the argument is exactly the reverse.
Paul is telling believers to eat the food sold in the marketplace without having to interrogate about its religious pedigree, and only to refrain from eating something if it would cause a problem of conscience for someone else.
The “glory of God” is about living with thankfulness, in ways that are consistent with the ways of Christ. Christians believe they glorify God by loving our neighbors, by serving the poor, by helping the sick and the lonely, by showing honor and kindness to everyone.
The fact that some would find this statement controversial demonstrates ignorance of a basic tenet of mere Christianity, ignorance with public consequences.
It’s akin to a journalist covering the New Hampshire primary speculating about the suicidal tendencies of the voters, given the fact that so many of them have “Live Free or Die” on their car license plates, or a city council investigating the terrorist inclinations of the Fourth of July picnic singer because she once sang a song about “bombs bursting in air” at the ballpark, or a soldier dismissed from the Army for lying about his background because he claims he was born not just once but twice.
Of course the chief wants to glorify God in his job. That doesn’t mean annexing his fire department for the Southern Baptist Convention. It means living with integrity, respecting other people, dealing honestly, as one who will give an account for his life.
That’s hardly surprising, just as it is hardly surprising the chief holds to a typical evangelical Christian (and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish and Muslim) view of marriage and sexuality.
Now, I don’t expect the American people to enroll in Sunday school en masse to understand biblical references (although we’d be glad to have you).
I do expect that when we are castigating and caricaturing and firing each other that we will do so with at least some inkling of what we’re talking about.
Many of the fights over religious liberty have to do with this precise point: secular people who don’t understand why these issues matter to the religious consciences involved.
What does it matter, Planned Parenthood wonders, whether the Little Sisters of the Poor have to pay for contraception? It’s just a small amount of money, after all.
Why should that Muslim woman insist on wearing a head-scarf to work, the employer asks? No one else gets to wear hats.
This sort of religious ignorance leads to a quick and easy paving over of consciences in ways that will do damage not only to religious communities but also to the American experiment in liberal democracy itself.