Cancel culture comes to Birmingham

Social media's influence on church and community partnerships

June 12, 2020

A deeply disturbing situation is brewing in Alabama. This week both the Birmingham Board of Education and the Birmingham Housing Authority took steps to distance themselves from the nondenominational Church of the Highlands, which has more than 20 campuses and is the largest church in the state of Alabama. The church had been renting space to hold weekend worship gatherings at Woodlawn High School since 2012 and began hosting additional services at Parker High School in 2018, both of which are in Birmingham. But on Tuesday of this week, the school board in Birmingham voted to end its leases with the church. And similarly, the housing authority in Birmingham also decided to ban the church from its facilities this week ending a years-long partnership that allowed the church to provide free services to residents in many of Birmingham’s affordable housing properties.

But what could cause the school board and housing authority to take such drastic steps? One would assume it was some particularly egregious scandal or act of impropriety. But in reality, far less was required.

Social media’s influence

Like so many things today, this incident began with social media. In both instances, the decisions to separate from the church were made after the social media activity of Chris Hodges, senior pastor of Church of the Highlands, was subjected to public scrutiny. Recently, a public school teacher in Birmingham took to social media to criticize Hodges’ online activity. In a Facebook post, the teacher noted multiple tweets that Hodges “liked” on his personal Twitter account that she deemed racially or culturally insensitive. And using her own account on a different social media platform, the teacher sought to raise the alarm about Hodge’s actions.

Among the tweets liked by Hodges that the teacher found offensive were several posts by Charlie Kirk. President of the conservative, pro-Trump organization Turning Point USA, Kirk has over 1.7 million Twitter followers and is known for posting provocative material on social media, particularly related to politics. But the teacher not only took exception to specific tweets posted by Kirk that were liked by Hodges but also objected to the fact that Hodges would follow Kirk’s account in the first place. Ultimately, the teacher’s concerns fomented significant public outcry, which was exacerbated by the current moment of civil unrest related to racial justice in America.

And as public pressure mounted, the school board and housing authority determined to act. But in severing ties with the church, the school board cut off nearly $300,000 in annual revenue generated by the church’s lease with the schools. And to put that in perspective, since 2014 the church has paid the school board more than $800,000 in rent for the use of its facilities. Likewise, prior to this week’s decision from the housing authority, the church had also “provided free mentoring, community support groups and faith, health and social service activities at the Housing Authority of Birmingham Division’s nine public housing communities.” But staff and volunteers from Church of the Highlands will no longer be allowed to offer these services to the residents of these communities despite the fact that the church always bore the expense of providing them and did not receive remuneration.

A needed response 

Responding to these events, Hodges has issued a statement of apology and addressed the matter during a Saturday morning prayer service as well as during the church’s regular Sunday morning worship service. “I realize that I have hurt people that I love deeply because I ‘liked’ multiple insensitive social media posts” Hodges said. And referring to the posts in question Hodges insisted, “Each one was a mistake. I own it. I’m sorry. I’ve learned so much in the past few days about racial disparities in America. I wish I could sit down and have a conversation with everyone impacted or hurt by my actions.”

Clearly, this is an unfortunate situation, but there is some good news. After having his online activity scrutinized, Hodges took steps that one would expect from any Christian. He not only recognized where he had erred and took time to understand how his actions had hurt those around him, but he had the humility to offer a public apology that he believed was owed. More than that, in the days since the school board and housing authority announced they would no longer lease to his church or partner with them in future efforts to serve underprivileged communities in Birmingham, Hodges has led his church to double down on its commitment to support both the people and the public schools in their community.

A dangerous precedent

But beyond all of this, the situation remains incredibly troubling. One does not need to support the views of figures like Kirk (personally, I rarely do) or even the theological beliefs of Hodges to recognize that something is deeply wrong here. The fact that any person or entity would feel empowered to use a pastor’s social media feed as justification for barring a church or religious organization from renting a public facility is simply unconscionable. And more than that it is dangerous not only for churches but for the flourishing of local communities.

In this case, the issue was related to politics and race. But next time it could just as easily be about theology. And it would take only a matter of minutes for similar concerns to be raised about a pastor’s endorsement of a Christian view of human sexuality. And this is the entire point. Neither elected officials nor bureaucrats should be in the business of policing a person’s thoughts. Nor for that matter should they be concerned with one’s social media activity or political views—excluding truly exceptional circumstances such as those that might lead to the actual physical harm of other individuals. 

Churches provide critical services to their communities. And while these services are variegated and difficult to quantify, they undeniably benefit the communities in which local churches exist and minister. An obvious example related to this case: During the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, the healthcare clinic operated by Church of the Highlands, provided free COVID-19 testing for residents in Birmingham’s public housing. And before the onset of the pandemic, this medical clinic established by the church provides vital health services to members of the community who are most in need. But such services are only possible because of the selfless and sacrificial efforts of the church’s dedicated members. 

Cancelling people because of their political views or cutting ties with an organization on account of their social media activity sets a very dangerous precedent. And we should all be asking ourselves where this will end. Clearly, cooperating together for the sake of the common good is better for all involved. 

Limited partnerships between churches and public institutions (like local schools) allow taxpayer dollars to go much further. Moreover, allowing elected officials or unelected bureaucrats to determine the acceptable boundaries of belief is a path we cannot afford to walk. This week the board of education in Birmingham voted to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue for the sake of political correctness. This was a mistake that will prove costly, in the same way that driving volunteers full of love and compassion away from the places where their service and sacrifice could do the most good will harm the very communities that can least afford it. 

Illiberalism and intolerance hurts everyone. And there is no need for debate. Birmingham’s school board and housing authority should take whatever steps necessary to reverse these misguided actions.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

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