Conscience and Religion-Deaf Government

April 23, 2014

The conscience is a curious thing. It is part of each of us, and yet seems to operate independently of us. It’s like a little piece of the image of God that isn’t quite in step with our wills. An internal judge, it constantly declares us innocent or guilty as it subjects our every word, deed, and thought to its own moral standard. The Apostle Paul wrote that the conscience pronounces a person guilty or innocent of violating the law of God written on the heart (Romans 2:15). He also defended his personal integrity by claiming his conscience was clear regarding his conduct in the world and toward the church (2 Corinthians 1:12).

Conscience demands conformity to its moral code. When it doesn’t get it, it demands an explanation or accommodation it can live with. The hardest thing for any person to do is to escape its pronouncement of guilt. It can be seared (1 Timothy 4:2), but, except for the most calloused of people, it cannot be silenced.

Strip a person of everything he has, and all he will have left is his own sense of moral rectitude. Force him to violate that, and you will have finally succeeded in truly destroying him. Currently, thousands of people in this country are facing the prospects of that destructive blow as they wrestle with the competing demands of conscience and their government.

Many find themselves threatened by a mandate from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs and devices in health insurance policies offered to their employees. These individuals cannot with clear conscience obey this dictate. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to take up a challenge to this mandate. In Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties they will decide whether or not the government has the power to dictate to people of faith whether their faith-informed consciences will be protected against government dictate. Clearly, much is at stake in this decision.

Others find themselves at odds with local non-discrimination laws and policies that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in providing commercial services. So, for example, the owners of Elane Photography in New Mexico were asked by a lesbian couple to photograph their wedding ceremony. Devout Christians, Jonathan and Elaine Huguenin believe the Bible teaches that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman. For them, photography is a creative act. As photographers, they enter into the subject and interpret its meaning and significance through the camera lens. They didn’t see how they could possibly find significance in an event they believed was not even valid. Consequently, they could not bring themselves to participate in this lesbian couple’s wedding without violating their deeply held religious beliefs. They knew they could not escape the guilty verdict of their biblically-informed conscience or the displeasure of God if they accepted this job.

In an effort to be honest, something the biblically-informed conscience requires (Leviticus 19:11; Proverb 13:5), the photographers told this lesbian couple that they could not participate in their wedding because they believed that marriage was exclusively the union of one man and one woman. For this, they were hauled before the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, convicted of violating the state’s non-discrimination law, and fined. Understandably, the Huguenins sued in response. The case went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, as well. Regrettably, the Court chose not to hear their case. As a result, New Mexico’s religion-deaf non-discrimination law stands for the foreseeable future, as do similar laws and policies across the country.

In my conversations with people about this situation, some have stated that these photographers should just have lied about their reason for not photographing this lesbian couple’s wedding. They could simply have said that they were already committed for that date, for example. That’s a simple enough solution on the surface, and it probably would have worked. The only problem, of course, is that it would put these Christians in the position of having to violate their consciences by lying in order to avoid the repercussions of telling the truth. They chose to side with their consciences. I commend them.

What about the thousands of other faithful people who will be caught in the same situation, especially now that they know they as well may not even get the highest court in the land to hear their appeal?

Many will likely simply say their calendars are full rather than endure what this couple went through.

And what about those who decide that it’s easier to simply photograph the wedding, bake the cake, provide the contraceptives, abortion drugs and devices, or succumb to government dictates in some other way their consciences tell them they should not?

They will avoid the public haranguing, censure, and cost, but will their consciences be satisfied? Likely, for many, the loss of personal integrity will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Further, having compromised their convictions once in order to avoid a difficult situation, will they be less able to make a hard decision when the next compromise is required? As for all of us, the first lie or compromise is the hardest. Will they find it easier to lie or succumb in other areas of their lives now that they have already breached that area of personal integrity?

I am also concerned about the effect of guilt many of these men and women will live with as they are constantly reminded that they chose the path of personal protection rather than personal integrity. They will live with that uncleanness, and will not be able to wash that stain off their hands, or their consciences. The Accuser, himself, no doubt, will be whispering in their spiritual ears that they are unworthy of the Lord.

I fear for these faithful men and women who will live with the realization every day that they cannot teach their children it is always right to tell the truth or to do the right thing without being reminded by their own consciences that they themselves do not measure up to the very standard they espouse to their children. They will stand accused and convicted by their own consciences that they are hypocrites.

Some, no doubt, will believe by lying they are serving a higher standard, like the Hebrew midwives in the Bible who lied about why they could not kill the firstborn males of the Hebrew slaves. Those who compromise their convictions and participate in a conscience-defiling activity may say they decided to treat it as an opportunity to sacrifice themselves in service to their fellow man. Yet, in the very act of justifying their action, they demonstrate the cry of their consciences to be appeased.

Tragically, many others will simply decide to vacate the space and do something else with their lives. Yet, their consciences will be no more satisfied. They will have avoided one run-in with their conscience only to subject themselves to another as it reminds them daily that they are not fulfilling God’s plan for their lives. Both society and the faithful individual will be left impoverished by that choice.

The conscience is a stubborn thing. It can be suppressed, lied to, drowned in alcohol and drugs or the drone of myriad activities, but it cannot be ignored. It will require an answer, an excuse, or repentance whenever it is violated. Many thousands of Christians are about to be forced by their own governments, even their neighbors and friends, to choose between them and their consciences. This is a no-win situation for them, one which should never have been forced on them. Our governing authorities can do better. Their deafness to the demands of faith on the individual is the very thing our Founders attempted to prevent when they ratified the First Amendment to our Constitution. We must insist that government do better—for the sake of conscience.

Barrett Duke

Barrett Duke is now the executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. He is the former vice president for Public Policy and Research at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. 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