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According to former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, he was fired for being a Christian. According to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, he was fired for insubordination and poor judgment. And according to the New York Times’s recent editorial, he was fired for speaking of his subordinates as “second-class citizens.” But the argument over the motive for Cochran’s firing and its effect on civil and religious liberties obscures a deeper disagreement over Christian conceptions of sin and the consequences of those ideas in a public work environment. More than a mere difference in theology, this disagreement has dramatic implications for pluralism.

In November of 2014, Mr. Cochran was suspended when it came to the attention of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed that the fire chief had published and distributed a book that included references to homosexuality as “vile” and “vulgar.” Mayor Reed condemned the book and launched an investigation into its publishing and to determine whether Mr. Cochran had discriminated against his subordinates. After a month-long investigation, Reed offered Cochran the choice to resign or be terminated. Cochran chose to be fired. 

According to the mayor, Cochran was fired for bad judgment. He didn’t get proper authorization before publishing the book, he distributed it to subordinates who did not ask for the book, and he talked publicly about the investigation while it was ongoing. But Mayor Reed’s press conference to announce the termination suggested that more than just poor judgment led to his termination. Reed adamantly declared that this wasn’t about religious beliefs, but he began his press conference by reading the city’s strict non-discrimination policy. If Cochran was terminated for poor judgment, why bring up “discrimination” at all? Notably, the mayor’s own investigation found no evidence of discrimination.

Cochran’s perspective is that he was fired for expressing his Christian faith. To support this claim, Cochran points to the lack of any evidence of discrimination and he has publically stated his commitment to treating all subordinates with equality. Then there is the fact that much of the mayor’s response has focused on distancing himself from the content of Cochran’s book, rather than condemning Cochran’s breach of protocol. Many of Cochran’s critics also made it clear that his belief itself was grounds enough for dismissal. For example, Glen Paul Freedman, chair of Georgia Equality’s board of directors said:

His views towards the LGBT community are shameful. He will be back in charge and I am sure telling his staff anti-LGBT stuff. I wonder how many LGBT AFD staff were not promoted or held back because of his views and telling his staff his views. The Mayor should fire him!

There is a good amount of contention about the facts surrounding this incident. Did Cochran get permission? Was he obligated to keep silent about the investigation? Was he terminated for breaking procedure or for expressing a religious belief? But most of this conflict stems from two competing conceptions of sin and public life.

According to one perspective, since Cochran believes that homosexuality is a sin, he will discriminate against LGBT subordinates. Even if the record shows no sign of discrimination today, eventually it will occur, or at least those subordinates will have good reason to “fear . . . being discriminated against.” Problematic beliefs will lead to problems. From the Christian perspective, believing that someone is a sinner does not entail viewing him or her as inferior, and therefore Cochran’s statements are not an indication that he has or will discriminate.

Freedman’s statement about Cochran’s suspension epitomizes the first perspective. Based on a few passages in Cochran’s book, Freedman wonders “how many” people Cochran discriminated against as fire chief. The belief necessarily leads to abuse. It’s just a matter of figuring out how many people Cochran harmed. This way of understanding how Christians respond to sin in others also appears the editorial published by the New York Times’s Editorial Board:

Imagine that Mr. Cochran, who is black, were an adherent of a religion that avowed the inferiority of white people, and that he distributed literature to that effect. He would not have lasted another day in a job that requires him to manage and protect the well-being of a large and diverse work force.

Note that Cochran calls homosexuality “vile” and “vulgar” in his book, but in the New York Times analogy the description is changed to “inferiority.” In the shift from sin to inferiority, the Editorial Board assumes that if Cochran believes that homosexuality is sin, he must believe homosexuals are “inferior” or “second-class citizens,” as the editorial later claims.

It is understandable why the New York Times’s Editorial Board would conclude that Christians view sinners as inferior—the tragic history of Christianity, even within our own country, offers many examples of Christians who have used sin as an excuse to dehumanize, discriminate, and hate others. However, these abuses are not the proper consequence of Christianity, but a disgusting distortion of that faith.

Contrary to the Editorial Board’s portrayal of sin, the tradition Christian teaching is not that certain people are “inferior” or “second-class” because of sin.

According to most Christian traditions, all humans are subject to inherited sin, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” as St. Paul writes. What is true of Cochran and equally true of each of his subordinates is that they are sinners in need of God’s grace. St. Paul, one of the greatest figures in Christianity, gave the most powerful example of this by referring to himself as the “chief of sinners.” People, all people, are sinners, people who commit “vile,” “vulgar,” and “inappropriate” sins. This is reflected in Cochran’s book, where he actually includes having multiple sexual partners and sex outside of marriage as sins that are also vile, vulgar, and inappropriate. “Lustfulness” and “anything tending to foster sexual sin and lust” are condemned too, which undoubtedly includes every member of the Atlanta Fire Department, at one time or another. We are all sinners.

And yet what is equally true is that we are each made in the Image of God, which means (among many other things) that our worth as humans is never diminished by our actions. It also obligates us to treat each other with love and respect. There is no excuse for mistreating anyone based on his or her sins, according to Christian teaching.

When Mayor Reed first heard about Cochran’s book, he immediately suspected that the fire chief discriminated against his subordinates at some time. And when there was no evidence found in the investigation, Reed assumed there would be discrimination in the future. What he did not seem to consider was that Cochran understood sin as Christians have traditionally understood sin, and that the lack of discrimination was not a fluke, but a consistent, Christian response. 

To some extent, then, this fundamental difference in conceptions of sin is responsible for the conflict in Atlanta. If the city assumed that Cochran’s beliefs would continue to lead him to treat his subordinates with the love and respect taught by his faith, perhaps his impropriety in publishing the book could have been dealt with in a much less severe manner.

What is most striking about this episode is that by all appearances, Cochran’s department functioned as a model of principled pluralism. Cochran and his subordinates could differ profoundly on morality (difference), while working together with full respect and love as fellow humans (unity). In a pluralist culture such as this, the key to communal flourishing will be the ability to treat one another fairly despite our differences. Christianity offers a model for this kind of pluralism, but it cannot be effective if our differences are perceived as necessarily incompatible with unity.

Alan Noble is an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and a managing editor at Christ and Pop Culture.

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