Baptists and religious liberty

June 10, 2016

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” These words almost sound hostile to many conservative Christians today. Over the past 70 years, some judges have interpreted the “wall of separation” to mean that we should remove faith from American public life.

It may be perplexing, then, to realize that Jefferson was writing the wall of separation letter to evangelical Baptists in Connecticut. These Baptists totally agreed with the deistic Jefferson on church-state relations. They rejoiced in Jefferson’s election as president in 1800, telling him that “America’s God has raised you up” to lead the nation.

Were these Baptists deluded? Why would they support Jefferson and his “wall of separation”? The reason is that Jefferson and his Baptist allies had a different (and better) concept of church-state separation than many left- or right-wing Americans do today.

Although leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison derived religious freedom from Enlightenment principles of toleration, rank-and-file Baptists learned the value of religious liberty the hard way. They suffered persecution under the state-sponsored, “established” churches of the colonies.

Many other Protestants viewed believer’s baptism, the distinctive practice of the Baptists, as abhorrent, no matter how much the Baptists argued that believer’s baptism was the true biblical mode. (Catholics and most Protestants at the time practiced infant baptism.) Thus, Baptists endured harassment, fines, prohibition against meetings, and even jail time, right up to the eve of the American Revolution.

Massachusetts, a Puritan colony, set the pace in hostility toward the Baptists. The colony outlawed Baptists altogether in 1645, calling them “the troublers of churches in all places.” In Ashfield, Mass., town authorities in 1770 seized the land of Baptists who refused to pay religious taxes to support the local Congregationalist church. Talk about taxation without representation! The Ashfield Baptists actually appealed to King George III for relief, and the king annulled the confiscation of their land.

Is it any wonder, then, that many Baptists in America were not too keen about supporting the American Revolution? It was hard to support a rebellion led by Patriots who had refused to grant Baptists liberty of conscience. Ashfield’s Baptist minister proclaimed that Massachusetts Patriot leaders wanted “liberty from oppression that they might have liberty to oppress!”

Isaac Backus, the great Massachusetts Baptist leader, approached cousins John and Samuel Adams at the Continental Congress in 1774, appealing for relief from oppression. But Samuel scoffed at Backus, insinuating that the Baptists were just “enthusiasts who made a merit of suffering persecution.” John Adams told Backus that he might sooner expect a change in the solar system, than an end to the Massachusetts established church.   

The Baptists also endured terrible persecution in Virginia, with dozens of Baptist ministers put in jail during the decade before the Revolution. But in Jefferson and Madison, the Baptists found Patriot leaders who sympathized with their cause. Baptists suggested that if the persecution continued, Virginia’s leaders should not expect them to support the rebellion against George III. Jefferson and Madison loathed religious intolerance, anyway. They wanted to end the harassment of dissenters, and to stop Virginia’s financial support for the Church of England.

With massive Baptist support, Madison secured the passage of Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. That law enshrined the principle that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever. . . nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”

Jefferson’s Bill was a critical precedent for the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution. In light of the persecution of Baptists, it is easier to understand the First Amendment’s prohibition of laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” To the Founders, this clause simply meant that there would be no national established church. Baptists backed the First Amendment’s adoption, since they associated established churches with the denial of religious liberty.

The First Amendment did not originally prohibit state-level establishments of religion. (That interpretation of the amendment did not come until the mid 20th century.) So the New England states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, kept giving direct support to the Congregationalist Church well into the 1800s. That explains Jefferson’s correspondence with Connecticut’s Danbury Baptist Association in the wall of separation letter. Like the Baptists, Jefferson wished that Connecticut would drop its establishment. But Jefferson took comfort that, at least at the national level, the distinction between denomination and government was clear.

Did this mean that Jefferson wanted a secular public sphere? No, it did not. None of the Founders could have fathomed today’s advocates for rigid secularism. To show that he was not hostile to public displays of religion, Jefferson even hosted a religious service in Congress the Sunday after he sent the “wall of separation” letter. New England Baptist minister John Leland gave the sermon at the service. Secularists today would be dismayed to realize how willing Jefferson was to permit public religious expression, in spite of his personal skepticism about Christianity.

But the Founding era’s Baptists might warn conservative Christians today, too, about the perils of cozy relationships between the government and churches. Historically, close ties between the state and a particular religion have led to persecution of dissenters. The early Baptists might also wince at the way some Republicans today speak as if electing “godly” politicians will result in spiritual revival.

Early America’s Baptists did not expect politicians to do heavy lifting for the church. They just wanted the government to protect religious liberty, so the church could be the church. That is why the Baptists were comfortable working even with deists such as Thomas Jefferson. They were not looking for a national pastor. They did not want government hostility toward churches, but they were also not angling for government favors. Civil authorities, they believed, should simply protect “free exercise of religion” for all. They preferred to depend upon the power of God, rather than government, to accomplish the purposes of the Kingdom.

This was originally published in Light Magazine.

Thomas S. Kidd

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press, 2019), and Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (Yale University Press, 2022). You can follow him on … 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