Culture Friday: A religious liberty victory

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: Culture Friday.

COCHRAN: To actually lose my childhood dream-come-true profession over my faith, the very faith that caused me to get my job ultimately has cost me my job.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran. The city fired him in 2015 because he’d written a men’s devotional, in which he expressed a Biblical view of marriage and sexuality. The city thought that holding such views meant he was likely to discriminate against those who disagreed with him. Not that he ever had.

It took two years, but by the end of 2017, a federal court ruled the city violated Cochran’s First Amendment rights. The case ultimately resolved on Monday of this week when the city council agreed to damages and voted to pay Cochran $1.2 million, as well as legal fees.

Well, it’s Culture Friday and time now to welcome John Stonestreet. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Good morning to you.

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Good morning, Nick!

EICHER: Oftentimes, we will have a story where religious freedom does NOT prevail or otherwise it’s coming under threat. But in Kelvin Cochran’s case, this is a pretty unambiguous win. Not to mention a real signal to other cities and states that they’re going to need to respect First Amendment rights. They are not like other employers that can fire you for any reason or no reason. The constitution reins governments in and government employers, at the end of the day, are still governments. They need to realize that.

STONESTREET: Well, they are. This was a great story and this is another kind of notch on ADF, the Alliance Defending Freedom’s, belt of wins here. 

But I’ll tell you the best part of this story, for me, I mean, I’m thrilled this story is over. I’m thrilled that he was able to receive the damages that he was able to receive, that there’s a sense of justice being done here. But I’ll tell you what, I’m really grateful for the way Kelvin Cochran handled this. And that’s one of the things we’ve seen with Jack Phillips, with Barronelle Stutzman, with some of the others and I can’t say it’s universally the case. I’ll tell you what, with those three and especially Kelvin Cochran, the character exhibited, the care for the other side, but the unwavering trust in Christ, the precision… I heard Kelvin Cochran speak this summer about this and this is a couple months before we would know about this decision and whether this thing would actually be resolved. At the time, there was still an awful lot of movement taking place and him talking about being thankful for the trials.

Of course, we just saw Pastor Andrew Brunson released and we don’t want to say that the trials he had were the same as the trials as some of our brothers and sisters who are facing physical persecution, who are facing not just the loss of livelihood but in some cases even the loss of health and life, but it was a real trial altogether. And to have that kind of attitude of calm and trust and not alarm. Kelvin was just a real example to the church of the sort of character you need, the sort of things you need to have decided before the trial, if that makes sense, in order to be this sort of person during the trial. And Chief Cochran has just been an example of that, so I’m grateful for him. I thank the Lord for him.

EICHER: Well, John, this week, I got my copy of a book by Senator Ben Sasse.

Actually pre-ordered this one. The only other book I’ve ever pre-ordered was Mindy Belz’s book. So high praise for the gentleman from Nebraska!

Any case, Ben Sasse, I think, is probably one of the most culturally savvy guys on Capitol Hill. The book he wrote is titled “Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal.” The idea is about the problem of political tribalism, and it’s interesting the book should come out so close to the end of the confirmation process concerning Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But Senator Sasse is a lawmaker writing about a problem that is way upstream of his day job, of politics. It’s a problem that politics not only cannot solve but is likely only to make things worse.

He says Americans are lonely, that Americans are isolated, and they’re turning to politics to fill that void. He cites National Institutes of Health figures saying that loneliness is actually the number-one public health crisis, and he quantifies friendship over the last 27 years as having been cut in half in this country. Here’s Ben Sasse from MSNBC this week. Listen to this.

SASSE: We’ve gone from three point two friends per American to one point eight friends, 40 percent of our neighbors have either zero or one confidant. When you have a collapse of nuclear family structures, when you have a collapse of deep friendship, when you have shorter duration jobs — which by the way is a byproduct of great stuff happening in the digital revolution — when you have declining local worshiping communities, people have less ‘we’ at home and they’re looking to politics to fill that void. Politics needs to be about pragmatic stuff like building good roads, but it shouldn’t be about finding community by deciding who the people are you want to hate. Most of our politics right now are anti-politics, they’re anti-tribe because of the collapse of real meaningful traditional tribes and we need to talk about that bigger stuff or we won’t be able to solve what’s wrong in political tribalism.

EICHER: Sasse seems to be calling on us to work to rebuild our communities and stop expecting so much from politicians. And I read, by the way, one political columnist who says, “Why does Sasse even want to be a senator?”

But, frankly, John, I wonder whether these are precisely the voices you need in politics: politicians who are concerned about the culture.

What do you say?

STONESTREET: That’s exactly what came to my mind when I saw this, which is this is exactly the sort of politician you need. I think there are two mistakes that are prominent in politics right now. Number one is that politics is the answer to everything, that politics needs to be solving each and every problem. And, therefore, the second problem is that you kind of draw in political candidates who have these utopian impulses where through this party or that party you’re going to be able to bring about the sort of world that we all want. And I think having someone in the political process who actually knows the limits of politics, and not only can say, “Hey, this is how politics can tackle this problem,” but also say, “Politics doesn’t belong here.” That’s something that is rare in both parties—on the left and on the right. And so I think he’s onto something.

But this isn’t new, really. I mean, I’m glad Senator Sasse has written this and I think he’s written it really well and I think he’s articulate. But this is, first of all, the problem of loneliness. This is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. The fact that more Americans are bowling but less are joining bowling leagues. And I think we can also go down kind of the line of technology where we have technologies that keep us constantly connected, but more people feel lonely. These are realities of the way we live our life. And they themselves might be the effect not the cause and the effect being kind of the loss of those mediating institutions, those fundamental associations we have that are pre-political, that are stronger than politics. 

And that’s the most dramatic thing that’s happened in the American experience over the last several decades has been what we often call around the Colson Center the emptying out of the middle. And that used to be populated and filled and by these mediating institutions that strengthen social bonds, but that’s just not the case anymore.

We have artificial bonds. We have millions of friends on Facebook, but no real friends. So, that’s the real dilemma and it is, as you said, way upstream from politics. But I think it’s also one of the areas in which the church should be licking its chops. I mean, we complain so much about not having a voice in politics and not thinking that church and state relate. Well, good news, the middle is empty and no one’s running in there right now, so the church has kind of this white space to fill out if we would actually get creative and try to build up those social bonds, strengthen the family, reestablish kind of a role of church and bringing about some sort of connection and meaning and purpose, relational bonds, community strength, all of that sort of stuff is sort of there for the taking. If we can get committed to that and not just complain about the ground that we’ve lost.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday, John, thanks so much. We’ll talk to you next time.

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick.

(Photo/Alliance Defending Freedom) Kelvin Cochran

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