Are U.S.-India relations good for religious freedom?

April 1, 2020

When the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy develop a close relationship, that can only be good for religious freedom, right? Well, it’s complicated.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have become close in recent years. At the end of Trump's state visit to India in February, he celebrated their friendship and said, “The U.S.-Indian partnership is now truly stronger than ever before.” Likewise, Modi lauded their nations’ blossoming relationship as “people-driven” and “the most important partnership of the 21st century.”

To say India gave Trump a warm welcome is an understatement. In addition to a symbolically powerful visit honoring Indian icon Mahatma Gandhi at Raj Ghat, as well as a stop at the Taj Mahal, Modi ensured Trump felt welcomed from a spectacular crowd of tens of thousands cheering at a “Namaste Trump” rally. 

But that was not the only headline out of Delhi while Trump was in town. Religious violence, a scourge not unusual in India, was taking a dramatic toll.

The world’s largest democracy

With its 1.3 billion people, India is by far the most populous democracy in the world. The republic is governed under a robust parliamentary system and boasts an active independent judiciary. It is a dominant leader in South Asia, a nuclear power, and a global player seen by some U.S. policymakers as an attractive counterweight to the only country with more people—China.

Most Indians are Hindu (79.8%), but there are a number of religious minorities. About 14% are Muslim and 2.3% are Christian. Sikhs (1.7%), Buddhists (0.7%), and others also have significant numbers of adherents. Keep in mind that these percentages are in a population of more than a billion people. For example, at 2.3%, the number of Christians is 30 million strong (larger than the entire population of Texas). Even more striking, more Muslims live in India than in any other country except Indonesia

India’s constitution, adopted in 1949, begins with “We, the People” and enshrines numerous guarantees including religious freedom for all in its “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic.” However, religious strife is testing those fundamental principles.


A concept known as “Hindutva” began to take shape in some Indian minds about a hundred years ago. This “Hindu-ness” was not necessarily a religiously limited category, but it sought to distinguish true Indians from British colonial overlords and their ilk. Hindutva steadily grew in influence and today its emphasis on Hindu nationalism is a rallying cry for activist groups and leaders in the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP, which had long played second fiddle to the Congress Party of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, gained significant strength in the late 1990s. In 2014, it won a landslide electoral victory under the leadership of then-Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Unfortunately, according to U.S. government watchdogs, concurrent with the rise of the BJP has been a serious uptick in religious persecution.

As you might guess, given their relative prevalence in key parts of the country and India’s acrimonious relationship with neighboring Pakistan, Muslims are viewed with particular suspicion by many Hindutva adherents. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported last year that both Hindutva moderates and extremists see a need for “‘mitigation’ against the growing Muslim community.” 

Indeed, the riots in Delhi during Trump’s visit were sparked by a new Indian citizenship law Muslims feel BJC legislators aimed against them. Meanwhile, extremists have kidnapped, raped, and murdered Muslims, and government leaders have been accused of ignoring or, worse, fomenting such violence. For example, in addition to calling out BJP leaders’ inflammatory rhetoric, the U.S. State Department’s annual international religious freedom report highlights a case in which “a court in Jharkhand sentenced 11 individuals, including a local BJP official, to life in prison for beating to death a Muslim, whom his killers believed to be trading in beef.”

Christians, too, face serious threats. Open Doors USA calls the violence against Indian Christians “horrific” and ranks the world’s largest democracy as the 10th most dangerous country in the world for believers. Anti-conversion laws are used as weapons against churches and vigilante mobs commit vandalism, harassment, and murder when they suspect Christians are threatening Hindu principles.

Again, government forces are involved in this persecution of Christians. USCIRF reminds us that India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act continues to be used as a bludgeon against thousands of international groups like Compassion International (read more from ERLC on this here). Moreover, the State Department recounts cases of police arresting evangelists for “hurting religious sentiments” and worshippers for “spreading lies about Hinduism.” Baptist Press featured a story just weeks ago about two pastors and a layman who were incarcerated in Uttar Pradesh for more than two months based on complaints against them lodged by Hindu extremists. These brave souls used the time in prison as a witness for the love of Christ, but they regularly faced intimidation and physical abuse from other prisoners.

Protecting our friends 

Just a few weeks before President Trump visited India, his administration delivered on one of its key promises by launching an International Religious Freedom Alliance. The U.S. and 26 other nations locked arms to promote and protect religious liberty worldwide. At the coalition’s launch, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared, “The Alliance will unify powerful nations and leverage their resources to stop bad actors and advocate for the persecuted, the defenseless, and the vulnerable.”

Pompeo added, “The threats to religious freedom are global. They require global participation and global solutions.”

In that spirit, a blooming friendship between the world’s oldest and largest democracies should hold much promise on the world stage. Officials in both nations are wise to address concerns with tact and respect. However, we must be sure to adamantly urge action against this very real threat to hundreds of millions of religious minority worshipers in our friend’s house. As the Trump-Modi relationship deepens and skilled diplomats like U.S. Ambassador Sam Brownback prod Indians to remember constitutional commitments fundamental to their republic, I pray we will see an active curtailment of violence and a future of flourishing freedom.

Aaron Mercer

Aaron Mercer is a seasoned policy strategist and communicator. He aids organizations with research, analysis, and writing services, and he reflects on faith, technology, and the public square at FTPolicy.com. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24