Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Religious liberty, erotic liberty and '50 Shades of Grey'


Earlier this month, the Rev. Bryant Wright made headlines when he used the morning devotion at the Georgia House of Representatives to warn about a collision between  "erotic liberty" and religious liberty.  As an example of that collision, Wright cited the dismissal of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, an evangelical Christian who had been fired for giving subordinates a self-authored book critical of homosexuality.

In a subsequent column, I took issue with the message taught by Wright, the lead pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church and former head of the Southern Baptist Convention. So I was intrigued when Wright contacted me a few days later to suggest that we sit down and talk things over.

Among other things, it turns out, Wright wanted to discuss the strong backlash to his comments from the gay community and the accusations of hatred that were being exchanged by both sides in the controversy. What follows is a transcript of that discussion, held in Wright's office. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

JB: How should we begin? You saw my column reacting to your statement. What was your reaction to the column?

BW: Well, it was an understandable reaction, in the sense that I wasn't completely surprised by the perspective.... I was just more concerned about the immediate situation with the fire chief. It's a new day in America where someone, in teaching the Scriptures, loses their job related to their biblical stand on sexual purity. I realize there's been a sea change in the culture -- I'm very well aware. I would be shocked if the Supreme Court doesn't approve same-sex marriage, especially in light of what happened in Alabama this week.

JB: You and everybody else.

BW: It has been an incredibly swift change not just in America but I mean, in the world.

JB: I think supporters as well as opponents of the change are stunned by the speed of it.

BW: But I do believe it is on a collision course. And you were right -- you've done your research right, "erotic liberty" was a term that I got from Al Moeller --  you were exactly right on that. But when I read Al, I thought it was a very good description of the kind of collision course that we're on. Because if people feel their faith according to biblical teaching is the most important part of their life, then they're really betraying their faith if they don't uphold that teaching in what they're espousing to their fellow man.

I think what is so sad about Fire Chief Cochran is that there was no known discrimination of any kind with homosexuals, it was just teaching what the Bible says and his convictions about that. Which I think you can do. I think, Jay, that's kind of a misunderstanding in a culture that is very pro same-sex marriage that you're bigoted, that you're rejecting people, just because you have a different biblical stand about right and wrong. I just feel it's going to be healthy in society to uphold our religious liberty of being able to live out our convictions, because you don't keep that in the church house, you don't keep that in your home if it's really genuine. It's who you are. It just has to be a part of your way of life. But it doesn't mean that you're going to be bigoted, it doesn't mean that you're going to be hateful.

JB: In the column I tried to imagine turning that situation around a little bit and ask: What if someone in Chief Cochran's position had brought in a pamphlet or a book that was highly critical of evangelical Christianity and made his opposition to Christianity publicly known within the workplace, among the people who report to him? How would people have reacted? Would that expression also be protected by "religious liberty"?

BW: It's a good question. It's a good question and a legitimate question. It's a legitimate question in light of what's happened in Chapel Hill (with the murder of three young Muslim-Americans). I've denounced it on Twitter; it was evil what happened there and I think we've got to be consistent here. Religious liberty is religious liberty, it's not Christian liberty, it's religious liberty. But the reason to me that it's such a sacred concept of American culture is all of us are protected in that, not just Christian, we're all protected in that.

But I feel like it was a tipping point with Chief Cochran or with other situations that may develop. (In comments to the Legislature) I used the analogy of (military) chaplains -- we may reach the point where they lose their job in the military if they feel in good conscience they can't perform a same-sex service just because they feel they would be betraying their faith in doing that. That's going to be a very sad day.

JB: I would wrestle with that particular example as well. I don't think you should require .... The military is a little different context, and I know it very well, having grown up in it as a military brat. You follow orders in the military.

BW: I can see it becoming an issue though.

JB: I can too. And I concede that it is a difficult question because again, I know there's a lot of concern expressed in the church that somehow this will lead to the churches being forced to perform gay marriage ceremonies.

BW: I think that's a fear. I don't anticipate that.

JB: I don't either. But the military chaplain question gets closer to that, if they're required to conduct same-sex marriages as part of their job.

BW: It does. Because those are people who appointed by our churches, they're living out their calling as a minister.

JB: But they're also operating within the very hierarchical command structure of the military. So it's a conflict....

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JB: I saw the Super Bowl, but I didn't catch that. I confess that I don't usually focus on the commercials. But that's a very good point.

BW: Those commercials, just back to back. I thought, 'Good night, the irony of this!' But that has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. It's just part of the sexual purity concerns that come out of both the Christian and Jewish traditions.

JB: On the question of same-sex marriages: Civil unions recognized by governments -- is that something that you would not object to? Tell me where you are on that.

BW: That's a good question. In one sense, when two people draw up a contract together, which in a sense is what a civil union is, I don't see how there's any way legally that you could object to that.... I wouldn't want my answer to appear to be that I'm supporting same-sex unions in this regard, because I still feel from a moral perspective it is not right. But from a legal perspective, I understand it because it's two adults drawing up a contract.

What is really very difficult, and I think not just me but among the evangelical Bible-believing Christian community, it's the redefinition of marriage, because marriage really is and always has been throughout culture, one man and one woman.

JB: Well, that's not entirely true....

BW: You're bringing up polygamy in the Old Testament. That's not what God taught, though. He's very clear from the very beginning of Scripture in Genesis 2, it is one man and one woman. Polygamy was allowed, but it was not ...

JB: Abraham had ...

BW: It was allowed, but it was not God's ...

JB: I'm not equipped to debate the Bible with you, but there's no hint in the Bible of God opposing Abraham taking another woman, in fact it's almost an endorsement.

BW: I wouldn't say an endorsement, but it was allowed. The only condemnation that you have is the warning to kings about marrying other women because they could be distracted and pulled from their responsibilities. One of the criticisms of Solomon -- he had 700 wives, I don't know how in the world he fulfilled his responsibility. It's beyond me on that. ....

But originally, if you look at the original marriage of Adam and Eve, it was one man and one woman, and even when Jesus is asked about divorce, in the Gospels, in Matthew 19, he responds on the question of when divorce is allowed by talking about God's plan for marriage. And he says, in the beginning it was not so, and he quotes from Genesis 2, of God choosing one man and one woman for life.

When you have the whole redefinition of marriage that way it becomes really, no definition of marriage, is what happens, it's just a hodgepodge of relationships.

JB: I've attended two gay wedding. We are friends with gay couples, my wife and I, strong couples who have raised children in a wonderful family setting, and they have families that function just like any other families function. So I don't know that you can say that it harms the family or undermines family, because for them ...

BW: It's a redefinition of family. But I hear you. I understand it can provide a home for children. I still feel it's better for a child to have a father and a mother, and obviously because we see the Bible as our authority and guidance for our faith, that's our foundation.

What is a sensitive thing for us is being called bigoted and being called hateful, when really, with the relationships when I've interacted with homosexuals and others,

it's not a hatred kind of thing. It's just a conviction.

Let me give you an example another way. I preach about the sin of divorce here at Johnson Ferry. I bet a third of our folks are divorced. Do I hate those people? No. I don't hate them. I love them enough to tell them the truth, that marriage is to be for life. that's how God has designed it.

Do I hate them? No, and I don't think they think I hate them. Because we talk about God's grace. I say, 'I know many of you are divorced, it's not what God desires about marriage, but then there's also the forgiveness that is offered if you come to God with a repentant spirit'. I preach on adultery, and you know that there are tons of people out there that are guilty of adultery, but it doesn't mean that I hate them. But with this one sin, when it comes to same-sex relationship, it unleashes --- I mean the tweets and the stuff that happens on our Facebook page (after publicity about the legislative prayer). It's just pure hatred, it's pure hatred.

JB: On both sides ...

BW: I'm not hating. I'm just sharing my heart. It's just hard that we are immediately labeled by culture ...

JB: The other perspective would be that you're treating gay as a behavior to be controlled, while gay people see gay as an identity, and an identity that from their point of view is not chosen. It is who they are. I've talked with people who say that they've known they were gay from the time they were six. I can't say that I knew I was straight at age six. I didn't even think about it at that age.

That's why I think it has a different quality. Adultery is a behavior, a chosen behavior. Divorce is an act that you choose to undertake. You may feel forced to get that divorce, but you choose to do so. But being gay is BEING; it's not acting gay, it's being gay.

BW: I hear that, and here's my response. We have people who have come out of the gay lifestyle, I want you to know, they're active in this church. I don't think all of them would tell you that their desires for homosexual behavior are completely taken away, but they've come out of that lifestyle. We also have a lot of heterosexual unmarried members. But with a Christian unmarried heterosexual man in our church, the standard for him is no different than it would be for a person who really feels they are homosexual in orientation and desires. Both are called to abstain, because sex from our biblical Christian understanding is a gift of God to be enjoyed in the context of marriage between a man and a woman.

So I really hear where the gay culture is coming from: It's their being, it's who ... it's their identity. But we're not asking anything different from our (unmarried) heterosexual Christians. I guarantee that he wakes up in the morning with the same kind of lustful desires, but it's for the opposite sex, and he too is expected to abstain from that.

JB: But the straight unmarried person has the hope of eventually marrying within the church, while the gay person .....

BW: I hear you on that. And I realize that's got to be such a difficult burden. But some of those Christian heterosexual singles never get married, even though the hope is there. And they still have to abstain.

Here's another example. There are some people -- I think in some families it's almost a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Well, it's unfair to them that they have to abstain from drinking. It's unfair when other people can imbibe and control it and it's not really an issue in their life. It's unfair.

But in man's sinfulness we all have certain sinful struggles. Everybody is alike in that we're sinners, but the things that we struggle with are going to be different. That alcohol person knows that the only way that he can stay on top of his particular sin problem is to abstain. Very similar with homosexual desires. It's unfair, in the sense that the heterosexual at least has the hope that one day they can get married. Unfair. But it's just part of this fallen nature of man that we all have sin areas where we're not necessarily called to give into, we're called to abstain from, if we're going to live a life that is pleasing to God according to Scriptures....

I'm just trying to share about where this is coming from. It's really not about hate. It's really about convictions about what is right or wrong according to Scripture. That does not mean that I'm expecting you, if you're not a Christian, to go by these standards, I fully understand that. But I do think that certain issues like marriage being redefined opens Pandora's box about what the whole understanding of family is going to be, with polygamy and polyamory. I think it's a very realistic concern. Look at how fast it has changed on redefining marriage with same-sex. I've even talked with gays who say, "Oh, that's not going to happen, not polygamy!' How do you know? A few years ago I wouldn't have predicted same-sex marriage.

JB: Let's go back a little bit to the Chief Cochran problem. If Chief Cochran came into a workplace setting, if someone in authority came into a workplace with an anti-Christian attitude and brought anti-Christian literature that he had authored, would Christians feel protected from discrimination, would they feel they were being treated fairly?

I fully understand and support your argument that 'this is your conviction, you should live your conviction.' We should feel to speak our convictions. But I think it's a little different when you evangelize, so to speak, from a position of authority to those who report to you. Somebody in a position of authority should not be telling his subordinates that Christianity is wrong, for example.

BW: I think you're asking a good question, Jay. I think the only way to answer that is if, say, the fire chief puts out literature that is really very clearly condemning Christians, as long as that fire chief treats Christians fairly and does not discriminate against them about having an opportunity for advancement and that kind of thing, I think that's the freedom that he has.

JB: I think if I were a Christian working for this person, I would have very serious doubts about fairness if I did not get the promotion, if I did not get the week of vacation that I had requested, any number of things inherent in that relationship...

BW: You would wonder. But if you think about what Fire Chief Cochran did, that (discrimination) would apply to anybody who cohabited, anybody who's living in adultery, any of those areas that have to do with sex outside of marriage. That's going to encompass a lot of people. But once again, it seems like the only area where that is not allowed has to do with homosexuality or same-sex marriage. The other areas, there's just not that kind of concern.

JB: Again, if a supervisor came in and spread an anti-Christian message in the city of Marietta bureaucracy, I suspect they wouldn't last very long. And they shouldn't. I wouldn't defend keeping them either.

BW: They may not. I'm aware of that. But let me ask this then, maybe you can have some insight: As Christians, we're called to live out our faith and teach what the Bible says. What do you recommend to Chief Cochran?

JB: I don't know. Chief Cochran clearly -- and good for him -- he is a deacon in his church, a leader in his church....

BW: I don't know him, have never met him, but to me he seems like the real thing.

JB: I have no reason to doubt that. He clearly attempts to live his faith, which is great, good for him. And outside of the workplace, he is free to and does speak of his faith. I mean, he wrote the book. But are there places and roles in secular society where that's not particularly appropriate? Probably there are.

BW: It's a hard one.... I still feel that it's a great concern if a man like Chief Cochran loses his job because of biblical convictions of right and wrong on sexual purity. That is a new day in American culture.

JB: But it's not his beliefs that he got fired for.

BW: I hear that, but it really is.

JB: Well, he had those beliefs for a long time and thrived in the system. He was hired twice by the city with those beliefs.

BW: And from what I hear he was upfront when he came to the City of Atlanta about his convictions.

JB: Well, there's no reason not to hire someone with those convictions.

BW: But I do think that what happened is that once it was down in black and white about what biblical teaching is, and he was teaching it, that the mayor -- that's why I use the term "erotic liberty" -- the mayor chose erotic liberty, chose the cause of no discrimination at all, not even the perception of discrimination on erotic liberty over the cause of religious liberty for Chief Cochran.

JB: Well, that term 'erotic liberty' -- I expressed it in the column -- it bothers me because it reduces a same-sex relationship to only that sexual aspect, and actually the (same-sex) relationships that I've witnessed are much richer than that. Just like my relationship with my wife is much richer than that. I personally find that a little demeaning to say it's about erotic liberty, which sounds like you're equating it to something out of a cheap massage parlor on Cheshire Bridge.

BW: I hear you. Do you have a suggestion of another term to describe that liberty? Sexual liberty?

JB: Marital liberty?

BW: Well, but it's not just marital liberty. Because he was dealing with behavior that wasn't always related just to marriage. This is part of the challenge. It really is. Just kind of working through these things.

JB: Well, the conversation is very good.

BW: Well, you're asking good questions. And I fully understood where you're coming from on erotic liberty, your concern about that. I still feel, biblically, if it clearly comes outside of marriage, it is erotic liberty whether it's premarital sex heterosexually or homosexual.

JB: I think you can make that argument. But you've also got gay people wanting to come in under the marriage banner, to make that lifetime commitment to a family, to that one person, to surrender 'erotic liberty' so to speak and to say I'm going to share only with this person,' til death do us part. I don't think you can reduce that to 'erotic liberty.'

BW: Well, let's agree to disagree. Since it's clearly taught as sinful behavior in Scripture, I feel like it's a very appropriate term, but I really hear where you're coming from, I really do. But we have to agree to disagree.

JB: Fair enough. I think we'll have to do that on a number of points.

BW: Now, is there any way you can help? Maybe this is an unrealistic plea, but as a writer from a secular newspaper as influential as the AJC, can you help us communicate that all of us who have biblical convictions really aren't about hatred and bigotry. We really aren't. That really is the truth.

JB: I accept that. I accept that.

BW: Is there a way to communicate that to the LGBT culture? Because there just seems to be no openness with a lot of folks in that culture that this is really just a conviction of our faith.

JB: Well, I can't speak for those folks, but I can try to put myself in their shoes.

BW: OK.

JB: When you have grown up as a gay person, when you've been teased and harassed about it for your entire life, and experienced actual hatred ---

BW: You're right, there's a lot of that.

JB -- it becomes very hard to distinguish between that hatred and what you're talking about. Because as they perceive it, and as they experience it, it's all part of the same spectrum, and none of it is very pleasant for them. And they've probably, in most cases, experienced that for a long time. Some of them have come out to their parents ...

BW: ... and been rejected

JB: ... and been rejected. So there's a whole lot of raw emotion and feeling of being rejected, and you experience it as hate. So whether it's coming out of actual hate or from somewhere else, if you're on the receiving end of it, it probably feels exactly the same either way. That's probably a tough distinction for them to make.

BW: I understand that. But if there could be a public acknowledgement that really, in every case it's not coming out of hatred. I do see the connection. But it really ... we've just got to have a country where we're free to communicate what we sense our faith is teaching. At the same time, I realize that even that can enter into very difficult waters if you're talking about radical Islam beginning to be in a dominant role. Because there's just not a history there of religious liberty and free speech. It's just not there.

JB: Right.

BW: And you look at the Muslim-led cultures around the world -- you're going to be hard-pressed to find the similar privileges there that we enjoy here in America.

JB: Right.

BW: But since that's such a minority here in America, it's not really the hot potato it is in other parts of the world. Europe is dealing with it a lot more than America is.

JB: But in my experience with Muslim people who do come to this country ....

BW: ... they're really longing for this (freedom).

JB: That's what they're here for.

BW: That's right. That's why they've left the strict Muslim ....

JB: Right. If they wanted that, they could have that over there, but they're saying 'We don't want that, we want this over here. We want to be a part of this, not of that.'

BW: I think because the numbers are so small in America right now, that's not an issue. If it became a huge numerical issue, then who knows how we deal with those kind of things.

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BW: How about other things, now that we've got a few minutes. In thinking about contemporary issues and talking to a pastor who is a Bible-believing Christian, are there things that you want to talk about?

JB: It's interesting. What I think I see is a sense among conservative Christian evangelicals -- and you've expressed some of this today -- the culture is changing very quickly.

BW: Very quickly.

JB: And they are feeling more and more isolated from the mainstream....

BW: That is definitely true.

JB: ... and it seems to me that what's happening with things like the religious freedom amendment and Chief Cochran's case, is that the movement is feeling threatened and is looking for a legal refuge that would allow them withdraw from the mainstream but protect themselves from it. Is that....

JB: Have you as a church, as an institution, felt that conflict?. Are there things that you would like to do that you can't do? Are there ways in which government is impinging on this institution?

BW: I don't think within the church itself that we are there. I do think that our business people and our people who serve in the public domain, I do think that their lives are beginning to be affected.

JB: The example that is always used -- and they say that bad cases make bad law -- is that of the baker who refuses to bake a cake for a gay wedding.

BW: What are your thoughts on that? Share with me what you're thinking about that, because that one bothers me too.

JB: OK. In the first place, if I'm a gay person getting married, I don't want a baker (who disagrees with gay marriage) to be baking my wedding cake.

BW: I would think that would make sense. So why force them to do something that common sense ....

JB: ... because it becomes a civil rights issue.

BW: That's where the concern is -- civil rights related to sexual behavior, as opposed to the color of your skin. And by the way, I am fully aware that that we have to live with the baggage as Southern Baptists that for so long we were on the wrong side, on a very unChristian side, on the race issue. So I'm very well aware of that. That almost puts us on the defensive even more, because we've got a bad past. We've repented of that. We've confessed publicly that we were wrong. We're living with the baggage of the past. But I do think the gay rights community was very clever to make this a civil rights issue.

JB: But to get back to the bakery, it's a tough question because again, I don't know why you'd want a baker to bake your cake if he or she is against your marriage. So let's accept a law that says, 'OK, you don't have to bake them a cake if you don't want to bake them a cake'.

BW: It's really about the marriage. It's not that they want to discriminate against gay people, they just didn't feel as though they could endorse same-sex marriage. That's the distinction there.

JB: I understand. But then the next question comes, where do you draw the line? What if the bakery company refuses to hire gay people? What if an employee comes out as gay, is that person going to lose his job because of that? Where do you draw that line?

BW: Well, I think obviously, I don't think you can draw that line in a business. I think that as long as a person is doing his job and not making their behavior disruptive to the workplace, I don't know that you can -- otherwise you're walking around playing detective with all of your employees.

But in the church setting, I do think that there are some potential dangers in areas in which the culture is questioning whether it's really part of the church. For example, we have a Christian school. With things like that, I do see some encroachment, there are going to be challenges related to a teacher in the Christian school or even with a janitor....

JB: How about in the secular world? Would you oppose or support a law giving gay people protection from job discrimination? In the purely secular world.

BW: I guess my answer is that I don't really know how you support legislation that discriminates as long as the lifestyle is not disruptive of the workplace.

JB: That's fair.

BW: If it became an issue within the workplace, where say the homosexual person starts making advances on other employees and makes them very uncomfortable, to me that's no different than a heterosexual making those advances.

JB: Exactly.

BW: But as long as they were doing their job and being honest about their daily work, I don't see where you can deny (them). At the same time, though, if it is a private company -- you know, the Hobby Lobby (Supreme Court) ruling on abortion. It seemed to be OK because this was a private company, and it involved convictions that they had about their faith so if a private company like Chick-fil-A felt it 's just contrary to their value system (to hire gay people), should they have the freedom to do that?

JB: That gets us right back to the civil rights issue. That was the argument made back then as well: "It is my company, I'm a business person can hire or fire whom I want."

BW: I hate to take away that freedom (to hire and fire), because it almost comes back to the baker not wanting to bake the cake.

JB: That's what I'm saying. It's a question of where you slice that wedding cake....

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BW: Anything else? I do think that there are some areas in which you may be surprised, areas in which evangelical Christians might surprise you, such as immigration....

People ask me all the time, why are you so down on Fox News, why are you so down on talk radio? I tell them look, if I were pastoring in Connecticut, I'd be talking about the New York Times, but I'm pastoring in Republican conservative territory, and I know that the tendency of our folks is that they're going to listen too much to talk radio or Fox News rather than the Bible. I want you to make your decisions according to what Jesus is teaching us to do in the Bible.

I think that's something as a pastor, I have a responsibility if I'm going to speak truth to this flock, I have to remind them that look, just because you like their political position, that doesn't mean it is a biblical position, and I think on immigration, what is happening in the evangelical church is that we haven't really been biblical in our attitude about the immigrant.

JB: The Bible is actually pretty clear on that.

BW: Right. Caring for the stranger. And I fully understand two concerns: One, upholding the law, and two, the practical danger of terrorists coming in on a porous border. I understand those concerns.

But once those people are here, the Bible doesn't tell us to mistreat them or whatever just because they're illegal. We're called to reach out to them and care for them and love them no matter why they're here. And I do think you're seeing some shifting among evangel -- I know it's among evangelical leaders -- to realize that if we're going to teach biblical principles, we've got to care for the immigrant. And there are some very real human situations when you've got an outstanding daughter whose parents came here illegally, she was born here, you're certainly not going to send her parents back. And secondly, if she can't get in a university because she and her family are here illegally and she is not to blame, we've got some real serious problems.

JB: And this is the only country that she knows.

BW: This is her life. I just think the Republican Party is in a no-win situation. They're hurting themselves. They are shooting themselves in the foot on that issue. You look at the growth of Hispanics here in America -- yes, it's changing the course of America, but hey, all through our history we've had different groups of immigrants come in who have enriched what is a unique -- because to me, the reason that America is exceptional is immigration.

That's what's exceptional about us, that we've been able to work -- usually it doesn't work, you've got wars with the different groups. In America, people assimilate into the culture, and that's been a phenomenal exception. So on issues such as that, I think, there can be more common ground than is often perceived on those kinds of things....

Well, we could resolve all these problems if we just sat here a little while longer, I'm sure. I thank you for your time.

JB: I enjoyed the exchange. Thank you.

BW: Let's keep the doors open.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.