Conscience as Sacred Property

March 24, 2014

Caesar has provided us with a lamentable choice. Today, it is not the coliseum, nor are Christians being driven to the catacombs under totalitarian persecution. The choice presented to us, however, is no less unjust.

In fact, the modern American-political complex – today’s version of Caesar — may be perfectly happy with Christians and other people of faith relegating themselves to private enclaves of religion. The right to worship has never been stronger — so long as that “right” remains out of sight, silent, and secluded. What we face today is not a question of whether or not someone is entitled to religion and, to some degree, a certain amount of private liberty within that religious belief. We now face a moment in which the free exercise of that religion in all of personal and public life has been severely called into question.

Caesar is having his moment. How ought Christian Americans respond?

Caesar’s Choice

The conflict presented is summarized by an oversimplified statement: under the Affordable Care Act, the Federal government is asking individuals, businesses, and ministries to obey government instead of God.

This conflict is rooted in the debate over the so-called, “contraceptive mandate” of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Though billed as a way in which those suffering without health insurance would be relieved with mandated coverage, the ACA has been most rigorously debated over the forced provision of abortion-inducing medication.

Ironically, most Christian business owners have no objection (beyond the understandable economic objections and questions) to providing health insurance to employees. By and large, Christian business owners are pleased to provide the benefit of health insurance. Whether this is out of a sense of tradition, obligation, or a genuine desire to increase human flourishing, among the ways Christian business owners care for their employees is to provide for their health and well-being.

Where things have run aground morally is in the requirement that business owners take a portion of the profit from their business – a portion that grew necessarily more narrow upon the implementation of the ACA — and redirect it to their employee health plans, plans that the government now requires provide access to contraceptives.

For many evangelical Christians, not even contraceptives were a big deal. Unlike our sometimes co-belligerent friends in the Catholic Church, protestants do not object to certain forms of contraceptive. That is, so long as those medications actually function to merely prevent conception. Therein lies the problem.

The ACA points to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) list of approved contraceptives. Through various political machinations, the FDA has declared drugs like the “morning after pill” and the “week after pill” to be contraceptives, when most medical textbooks agree that the same make the womb inhospitable — indeed, deadly — to developing human life. The fancy term for such chemical abortions is “abortifacient.” Most of us recognize it for what it actually is: a chemical destruction of innocent human life.

Caesar, Conscience, and the Courts 

And, so we arrived at the crux of the issue: for business owners who believe obedience to God requires them to honor human life from the point of its conception until its natural conclusion, the Federal government’s mandate forces an unconscionable choice: obey government or obey God.

For over 300 plaintiffs in at least 94 cases, that is a choice they refused to make until every avenue of appeal has been exhausted. Interestingly, of the cases that have been decided, 52 have been granted relief. Only 7 have been told that the constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty does not extend to their business.

Among them is a household name, not one used in association with religious liberty, but for quality craft products and picture framing. Hobby Lobby finds itself embroiled in a battle that it neither chose, nor thought it would ever have to fight. The Green family has recognized the choice they have been asked to make and have chosen obedience to God, rather than bend the knee to Caesar. Whether the owners of Hobby Lobby must pick a side under Caesar’s choice rests now in the hands of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Caesar’s Choice in History

It is difficult to find a corollary to the ACA in our nation’s history. Indeed, even in the world of the First Amendment, it is hard to see why this is an issue. Corporations have been granted other First Amendment protections; is it too much to ask that a corporation’s conscience would reflect that of its owner?

And, as speech goes, affording a family-owned business the freedom they already possess (the freedom to live and work according to their beliefs) is not that far-fetched. The First Amendment has been found to protect the traditional things we think of when we think of the freedom of speech, like public speeches, art, and, in the negative cases, those who burn the flag, their bra, or a draft card. The First Amendment has also protected brown-shirted Neo-Nazi’s marching in hometown America’s parades, certain forms of pornography, and even nude dancing. The First Amendment is only strengthened by extending its protective reach to business owners who choose obedience to God over government based on conscience.

Perhaps the dividing line is the profit motive, but that’s an arbitrary line. Can we really say that Habitat for Humanity has a conscience just because it is a nonprofit, but Guinness does not (and it recently displayed that it indeed does, foregoing participation in Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade because the parade banned LGBT groups)? Money talks and, if you wish to see the conscience on display of any company, look at where that company chooses to spend (or withdraw) its discretionary capital.

And, if a company can be said to be denied First Amendment protections, what does that mean for the nonprofit you volunteer with each week? What about your church? Corporations are as much a legal fiction in the for-profit world as they are in the not-for-profit and ministerial domain. What governs the for-profit world, with only slight modifications, will govern the nonprofit corporate sector as well. Eventually.

Conscience in History

Not only is the HHS Mandate remarkable in history, so is the response to it. Have we ever seen such a broad declaration of conscience before?

The Civil Rights Act (CRA) did not find business owners pushing back against the demands of their government. Why? Because the CRA rectified a moral wrong. In contrast, the ACA works a moral injustice upon the conscience of business owners. Business owners did not sue to enjoin the application of the CRA. And, the only nonprofit of which I am aware entered into any litigation over the CRA was Bob Jones University and even that has been dismissed by everyone from theologians to legal scholars as a veritable anomaly.

In other words, when government asked business owners of the civil rights era to comply with the CRA, it was a just request. That is why no businesses asserted claims of conscientious objections. There was no deference to conscience to be made. Other than outliers like Bob Jones, Christians in general saw no conflict between the CRA and the Bible (after all, millions of Christians in America and England were at war with slavery and a significant portion of that heritage cascaded into the civil rights era). Business owners could obey government and obey God. Not so with the ACA.

Madison’s Answer to Caesar’s Choice

James Madison has famously said, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.” That is a helpful tool for us to understand the utter seriousness of the current debate. We would not stand for a government to take the physical property of a business owner, why would we give approval to a government attempting to take the property – “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual,” as Madison defined it – of conscience? We should not.

Core to Madison’s concept of property was the inclusion of religion: “He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” For Madison, like many of our Founding Fathers, religion was no mere private avocation or affectation, confined to the concept of a, “right to worship.” Religion was and remains a possession core to one’s humanity, the undercurrent that informs the direction and depth of one’s private and public life. It cannot be contained to mere times of private, out-of-the-public eye times of private worship. It is a right to which one is afforded liberty in its exercise every bit as much – if not more than – the liberty to speak one’s mind.

Indeed, such a liberty is due ample protection by government. “Where an excess of power prevails,” says Madison, “property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions . . . Government is instituted to protect property of every sort . . . This being the end of government, that alone is a justgovernment, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”

And therein lies the problem we now recognize with the ACA’s contraceptive mandate: government has abandoned the protection of that property right – “the end of government,” as Madison put it – and sought, instead, to employ an “excess of power” to direct an individual business owner’s property right, the right of religious conscience. Rather than protect that property right, under the ACA, government has punished its free exercise.

Madison might say of the situation, as he did of property, “That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where arbitrary, exemptions, and monopolies deny to part of its citizens that free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations, which not only constitute their property in the general sense of the word; but are the means of acquiring property strictly so called.”

Caesar’s Injustice?

Whether we like it or not, we find ourselves in a moment in history in which Caesar has asked us to make a choice. If there is nothing higher than Caesar, let us be the first to lay down our legal arms in obedience to the political sovereign. Yet, that is not the case. Even the literal Caesar now realizes that the sun does not rise and set at his command, but at the command of the great Sovereign Creator of even government itself.

In light of that, we can safely, and justly conclude that no American family should be forced to choose between following their faith and submitting to unlawful and unnecessary government mandates.

Or, as Madison put it: “If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and property in rights.”

That must include the right to religious liberty and exercising one’s religious conscience in business.

Jeremiah G. Dys

Jeremiah G. Dys, formerly of the Morgantown C&MA Church, now lives in Charleston, W.Va., with his wife and two children. He is the executive director and general counsel for the West Virginia Values Coalition. 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