Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 11/19/21 Season’s Greetings. This weekend sort of unofficially kicks off the movie holiday season. From a faith and inspiration perspective, there’s actually a quite a bit to choose from. Here are some options. tick, tick…BOOM! (in theaters and on Netflix now) Pulitzer Prize and […]
Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 10/13/21
A five-alarm blaze threatens the U.S. Constitution. That’s an apt description of the danger ever-expanding Cancel Culture poses to the First Amendment and, by extension, the freedoms we all enjoy and rightfully expect. While the burning of America’s foundational document, at this point anyway, remains a metaphor the danger for Americans is all too real.
Kelvin Cochran has dedicated over 30 years of his life to fighting actual fires. After having worked his way through the ranks – and overcoming racial prejudice along the way – he was named Fire Chief of the Shreveport, Louisiana Fire Department in 1999. A stellar record there led to his hiring as head of the Atlanta, Georgia Fire Department in 2008. A year later, his story and exemplary service record drew the attention of President Barack Obama who appointed him U.S. Fire Administrator for the United States Fire Administration which is to firefighters kind of like being named Surgeon General is for doctors. After having served in that post, the City of Atlanta was eager to have him back so he resumed his post as Fire Chief there in 2010.
It was not long after that Cochran unexpectedly found himself caught in a metaphorical firestorm over his orthodox Christian beliefs that resulted in the loss of a job he loved and his current role as a Senior Fellow and Vice President at the Alliance Defending Freedom. He writes about the transition from battling literal fires to metaphorical ones in his new book Facing the Fire: The Faith That Brought “America’s Fire Chief” Through the Flames of Persecution (Salem Books, October 12, 2021). Our Q&A follows the ADF backgrounder below.
JWK: So, let’s start from the beginning. What led you to want to become a firefighter in Shreveport, Louisiana, when did you become one and what were conditions like for African-American firefighters at the time?
Kelvin Cochran: When I was five years old as I watched Shreveport firefighters across the street from where I lived fighting a fire in Ms. Mattie’s house. I was so excited and taken in by what I saw, I told my mom and siblings that day, “I want to be a fireman when I grow up.” We were taught as children that all our dreams would come true if we believed in God, got a good education, respected grown-ups, and treated other people the way we wanted to be treated. In February 1981, my childhood dream came true.
As one of the first African-American firefighters, fire station life was difficult. We were not wanted and many of my SFD brothers let me know in no uncertain terms. There were constant racial jokes and slurs, and a designated bed for the black firefighter. I believed that consistent character and respect for my fellow firefighters, despite their disregard for me, would eventually change the environment. I believed that with hard work and professionalism I could make a difference and change their perspective on how they viewed black firefighters.
JWK: How did you rise to become Shreveport’s Fire Chief – and how did your own experiences with discrimination shape your approach to the job?
KC: My path to becoming Shreveport’s Fire Chief came through advancing from the rank of firefighter to training officer (captain), to assistant chief training officer to fire chief. I was relentless in my pursuit of professional development taking management and executive leadership courses at the US Fire Administration-National Fire Academy each year. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in organizational management and leading a two-year strategic planning initiative under my predecessor equipped me and positioned me for the appointment.
JWK: After eight years, you were hired to become Atlanta’s Fire Chief. How did that come about?
KC: My career in Shreveport was thriving. One day I received a call from the deputy HR commissioner in Atlanta. I was asked to serve on a task force to select the next fire chief of the City. My schedule would not allow it. I was serving as 1st Vice President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and had not extra time. However, I did commit to serve as an interviewer on a panel for the final three candidates when they were identified. The deputy commissioner called me to schedule the interviews for the finalist but indicated they were not completely satisfied with the results of the search and wondered if I would take the job. After prayerful consideration and discussion with my wife, I accepted the offer.
JWK: After about a year and a half in that job, President Obama selected you to become the U.S. Fire Administrator – essentially naming you “America’s Fire Chief” – during his term. What was that experience like and how long did you serve?
KC: Serving as US Fire Administrator was, as the Bible says, “exceeding abundantly above all I could ask or think.” Serving under the first African-American President at the highest office in my childhood dream profession was beyond words. It was a part of the history that was unfolding in the Obama Administration. Being responsible for fire prevention, professional development and emergency preparedness for the entire nation was a tremendous responsibility but God had thoroughly equipped me for the work. Going to work in Washington D.C. every day felt as if every morning was Christmas morning. I also had an office at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Maryland at the National Fire Academy. I was now the leader of the very institution that equipped me to be successful. I served for eleven months.
JWK: After that, you were reappointed to your post as head of Atlanta’s Fire Department. How did that go – and how did you go from a three-decade career of highly regarded service, that included standing up against discrimination, to being fired from your job because of alleged discrimination?
KC: After being appointed to the US Fire Administration, my position in Atlanta was left vacant due to a pending mayoral election. After Mayor Kasim Reed was elected, he came to Washington D.C. and recruited me to come back to Atlanta to serve as his fire chief. He wanted Atlanta to be the safest city in America and he felt I was the best candidate in the country to lead the fire and rescue component. We experienced five years of tremendous accomplishments including a reduction in fire deaths and injuries to both civilians and firefighters and obtained a coveted Class 1 Fire Insurance rating reducing fire insurance costs for Atlanta residents and businesses.
Subsequently, my passion for men’s ministry led me to write a book for a Christian men’s Bible study. A few pages of the 162 book explained the biblical order of marriage and sexuality. An openly gay Atlanta city council member complained about what was written on those pages. I was suspended for thirty days pending an investigation to determine if I’d ever discriminated against anyone for my beliefs. Though the investigation exonerated me of any discrimination, I was fired any way.
JWK: The specific part of your book Who Told You That Were Naked? that apparently got you fired pertained to your views on homosexuality which I gather are in line with traditional conservative Christian beliefs – and that you reportedly distributed the book to your employees. Is that true – and what do you have to say about that?
KC: The views expressed in the book did not single out homosexuality but included all sexual sin. It is true that the views expressed in Who Told You That You Were Naked? were all based on and supported by scriptural references. References like: God made them male and female. A man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife. The two become one flesh in holy matrimony. Procreation can only occur between a man and a woman and to do it God’s way is through marriage. These biblical and traditional truths are what cost me my childhood-dream-come-true-fairytale career.
It is also true I gave copies of the book to certain employees. Only those who requested it and a few who had privately and personally shared their Christian faith we me on occasions.
JWK: Now, as I understand, you were cleared by a City of Atlanta investigation of ever having actually having discriminated against anyone for any reason, including sexual orientation – and I gather you don’t approve of such discrimination. Is that true?
KC: To be true to our faith we must love everyone. I have lived this core truth of Christianity throughout my life. Even in the racist Jim Crow South, we were taught that only love can conquer hate. Having experienced the horrors of hate and discrimination as an African-American firefighter, I vowed to lead in such a way that no one would ever have to go through what I experienced no matter what their difference or demographic might be—including sexual orientation and gender identity. As a Christian leader, I was obligated to create an atmosphere where everyone looked forward to coming to work every day and to eliminate any barriers that would hinder them from giving the very best they had to offer the citizens and their fellow firefighters.
JWK: You sued over your termination. There were constitutional issues raised over the city’s right to fire you for not getting permission to write the book and the city, I understand, eventually settled your case for $1.2 million plus court fees. So, where does that leave us?
KC: The victory gained through the excellent ministry of Alliance Defending Freedom was not just for me. It is a victory for all government employees who seek to live out their faith in the calling God’s has for them in their profession. Writing a book or any other expression of religion or speech in our personal lives are fundamental freedoms of all people of faith protected by the U.S. Constitution.
JWK: Your new book is called Facing the Fire: The Faith That Brought “America’s Fire Chief” Through the Flames of Persecution. Tell me about that and what you hope readers take from it.
KC: Facing the Fire is a God-sized story. What makes this story special and unique is that it resonates with people. A child raised in abject poverty had a childhood dream to become a firefighter, to not be poor and to be a faithful husband and father—the American Dream. It’s a story of how faith and patriotism is the key to a productive prosperous life in America. I share the details of how all my dreams came true. It’s special also because of the uniqueness of how it all changed in a moment when I wrote a book for a Christian men’s Bible study and was fired because a few pages spoke about biblical marriage and sexuality.
JWK: How do you recommend we – as a society – strike the proper balance between personal religious beliefs and public non-discrimination policies?
KC: One of the virtues of America is our diversity of faiths, ethnicities, races and even opinions. We have many success stories of how, despite our differences, we can still experience unity. It’s called tolerance. Tolerance is a two-way street. The balance is formed by our collective resolve that our differences do not equate to hate. We can disagree without being vengeful. We can and should honor laws and policies that govern proper conduct at work and in the marketplace and still be true to our beliefs. When there is a law or policy that conflicts with core beliefs, we can still stand for what we believe in the spirit of love and tolerance.
JWK: How has your personal encounter with Cancel Culture changed you – and what would you say to those who would see your firing as merely a “consequence” of expressing an unacceptable idea? Surely, there are some opinions that cross a line. I guess the question is where is the line?
KC: Cancel Culture has changed the definition of tolerance. Tolerance is no longer a two-way street. Disagreement is deemed “hate speech.” The consequences of disagreement in Cancel Culture are to destroy your capacity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
There are fundamentals of our faith that should provoke a believer to take a stand. Biblical standards on marriage, family, life, sexuality, and the gospel are the line for me. My personal encounter has taught me that there are worldly consequences for standing on biblical truth and for Christ. However, I have also learned there are kingdom consequences for standing on biblical truth and standing for Christ – and the kingdom consequences are always greater than the worldly consequences.
JWK: How is the principle of religious liberty – which does seem to be under fashionable assault these days – intertwined with the concepts of freedom of speech and thought that affect every one of every religion and no religion?
KC: Religious liberty is an inalienable right. Everyone human being has the right to seek a sovereign God and to know Him for themselves and to experience and express God in their own way—especially in the United States. One of the most significant ways is through conscious thought that leads to the expression of speech. Whether posting it on social media, texting it, preaching it, teaching it, or writing it in a book, every person of faith, even those of no faith should have the freedom to express it without fear of consequences imposed—especially from the government who is charged to protect our freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
JWK: Any closing thoughts?
KC: God always prepares us for Facing the Fire. Be assured that we would not be going through it if He had not deemed us prepared for the fiery trial. As 1 Peter 4:12-13 says we should not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you, but rejoice! In as much as we are partakers of Christ’s suffering. It’s hard to imagine rejoicing while Facing the Fire but that’s exactly what God’s tells us to do. Why? Because, on the other side, God will be glorified if we have the courage and grace to stand. When we stand, those who were against us get to see a side of God they would have never seen. Here’s the best part. When we have the courage and grace to stand, we get to see a side of God that we would not had seen. In other words, there is a side of the glory of God we only get to see when we demonstrate courage and grace to stand while Facing the Fire.