ERLC internships: Investing, life-changing

September 5, 2018

For the Southern Baptist Convention's ethics entity, its internship program provides an opportunity to influence future Christian leaders. For its interns, it can bring a new direction in life.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) completed in recent weeks its summer program with multiple interns in both of its offices — Nashville and Washington, D.C. The goal of the internship program, which also is in effect at other times of the year, is to equip undergraduate and graduate students, as well as young professionals, with a "Gospel-centered, kingdom-focused perspective" on ethical and religious freedom issues, according to the ERLC.

"Some of the most important work we do is invest in the next generation of leaders," said Travis Wussow, who leads the ERLC's Washington office as general counsel and vice president for public policy. 

"We're proud to attract the very best young Christians from around the country to spend a semester with our team on Capitol Hill," he said in written comments to Baptist Press. "We train to send these rising leaders of faith back out to serve in our churches, academic institutions, law and government for many years to come."

Daniel Darling, who is based in the Nashville office as vice president for communications, said the ERLC is "grateful for the opportunity, every summer, to invest in the next generation of leaders."

"This year we were overjoyed to host interns from America's leading institutions including many of our great Baptist colleges," he noted in written comments. "Every time we do this we come away impressed with how God is raising up a new generation of leaders who will press the Gospel into the important issues of their own time." 

In recent years, the ERLC interns have included students from graduate schools such as Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, Talbot School of Theology and Wake Forest School of Law; from universities such as Florida State, Texas A&M, Missouri, American, Loyola, Louisiana Tech and Troy; from Baptist institutions such as Union University and Liberty University; and from other Christian schools such as John Brown University, Taylor University and Patrick Henry College.

The ERLC designs the internships to help participants develop spiritually and professionally. 

In Washington, the intern development includes book reading and discussion, as well as the conversations on ethics among staff and interns that flow from them. Participants are involved in Washington-area churches, many that sponsor Bible studies for interns, according to the ERLC.

In Nashville, it involves book reading and discussion, staff-led Bible studies and theological/professional training, blog writing and a presentation on an ethical issue to staff and other interns.

Mary Wurster, prepared her presentation as a Nashville intern this summer. A senior at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., Wurster tackled the ethics of pharmacological neurological enhancement, which is the use of drugs to increase brain function beyond normal.

"Researching and presenting a discussion on this topic expanded my interest in the field of biomedical ethics to the point that I am now considering continuing my education in this area," she told BP in an email interview. 

The "icing on the cake" for Wurster came when her revision of the presentation into an article was published on the ERLC's website. 

Zachary Jones, a recent graduate of Florida State University, told BP he learned "what it means to maintain a public faith in the political arena" during his summer 2017 internship in the Washington office.

"As I sat in on meetings with members of Congress and the executive branch, I watched ERLC staff members speak clearly on issues Southern Baptists care about and witnessed the power and attraction of a Christian attitude of convictional kindness, even in secular audiences," he said in an email interview. "During our weekly intern book discussions, I learned how the Gospel connects with making schedules, sending emails and doing my work towards the glory of God."

The ERLC also designs the program for meaningful input from the interns in both offices.

Responsibilities in the Washington office include analyzing federal legislation, drafting policy briefs to explain the ERLC's positions, participating in the commission's friend-of-the-court briefing practice, attending congressional hearings and helping support entity events on Capitol Hill. In the Nashville office, interns perform research, aid with website design and other projects, produce content for the website, assist in event planning and help with strategic initiatives among their duties.

Interning with the ERLC in the spring of this year aided Amanda Dixon in making the change from two years of overseas ministry with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

The internship was "incredibly helpful in transitioning from having that kingdom mindset on the field to applying that same kingdom commitment to policy and the public square," said Dixon, now in her first year at Duke University School of Law. "It was an opportunity as I shifted into the legal and policy sphere to continue to apply biblical thought to how to process about what's going on in those areas."

Adoption and religious liberty in higher education were the issues she focused on most in her internship, Dixon told BP in an email interview. 

"Now that I'm in law school my day to day studying often seems abstract," she said. "From working on those issues, I can remember though that real laws affect real people and think back to the examples I learned while I was at the ERLC."

The benefits of Wurster's internship in Nashville included enabling her "to observe and learn from highly intelligent and committed individuals who are engaged in presenting a Christian worldview to a confused society," having the opportunity to take part in projects that "are meaningful and have an impact on the organization," working with other young people from across the United States and permitting her to develop her writing ability, she said. 

"Although I received academic credit for my summer internship, I would have gladly participated in this experience without that benefit," Wurster said. 

For Jones, his internship — and a research grant from his university — provided him the chance to travel internationally on behalf of religious freedom.

He went to Malaysia with ERLC staff members in the Washington office to meet with political and religious leaders regarding restrictions on Christians in that Southeast Asian country. Jones also traveled with ERLC staff to Geneva, Switzerland, to report on religious persecution and offer recommendations on religious freedom in Malaysia to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review.

"The whole process was a humbling experience, especially for someone who has just finished his undergraduate degree, but it has helped me to identify the policy matters which most matter to me," Jones said.

Information on the ERLC's internship program is available at erlc.com/about/internships.

Tom Strode

Tom Strode serves as a correspondent for Baptist Press. Tom and his wife, Linda, have been married since 1978. They have two children with wonderful spouses and five grandchildren. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Linda and he live in Nashville, Tenn. 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