Fear of religious liberty? What John Leland teaches us about confidence in the gospel

January 24, 2019

In a recent conversation with a friend, he expressed a sentiment that surprised me: “Well, I have no problem with there being a Muslim in the neighborhood. But I don’t see a problem with the city preventing them from building a mosque in town.” I was surprised because this is a person who, though not a Baptist, has always expressed agreement with religious liberty. However, what he really wanted was religious toleration. His faith, conservative Christianity, would be the preferred state (even if not enshrined in law) and all others could be practiced privately, but in the public, they would be limited.

In fairness to my friend, he expressed this in reference to his children. There was a fear that they might convert to another faith or choose no faith at all, a growing choice for young adults and teenagers. This is a choice that is easy in a town such as Nashville where there are five mosques, a Hindu temple, Jewish synagogues, Shinto places of worship, and a growing population who are unchurched or have no religious affiliation.

So, amid this growing religious diversity, what are Christians to do? Should we merely tolerate other religions? What do we do with religious diversity?

If we look to an early American Baptist minister, John Leland, we can find some answers that are helpful to the current moment.

Defending the truth with words, not force

Writing at a time just after the American Revolution, John Leland was hoping to secure religious liberty for Baptists in Virginia. They needed permission and license from the Anglican church to preach. While the religious diversity then was a diversity of Protestant denominations (and thus is different from the religious diversity of my friend’s neighborhood), the sentiment expressed was the same: Practice your faith, but why do you need to build churches or preach? Just do it privately.

Leland argued in a sermon, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable,” that the government has no authority to support or suppress a religious belief. In fact, the truth needs no defense from the government. It gains honor through the acceptance of its claims through persuasion, not the “law and sword” of its persuaders. The early apostles and evangelists did not go out and conquer the world with their swords. They went out with the force of their claims about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

It is a central tenet of Baptist life that we must come freely to the cross. I can no more compel a friend or child to come to Christ than I can be compelled to truly worship the Hindu god Ganesh. True belief is freely chosen. What my friend wanted was a Christendom that would teach and lead his daughter to Christ. I understand the sentiment, but ultimately, we each are responsible for the choice we make about matters of faith. Whether we grow up in the Bible Belt surrounded by churches or in the Middle East where Islam is the state religion, it is not the buildings on our street that save us.

So, any government that favors any faith, whether by violence or law, is toxic to true faith and belief. It leaves behind, at best, a half-faith of cultural Christianity.

Ready to give an account

When my friend spoke about the mosque, he did so out of a genuine concern. He wants to be sure that his daughter will come to faith in Christ. Anything that may prevent this should be avoided if possible. Although I don’t have children, I understand the desire to prevent them from abandoning or forsaking the church. But as Christians, we do not act from a place of fear, but confidence.

John Leland was fully persuaded that if he could proclaim his faith in the public square, the truth would be recognized. It was “error alone” that needed a strong defender, not truth. Truth was honorable and powerful. While this seems optimistic in an age of falsehoods, “Fake News,” and bias, there is an element of truth there. Another Baptist minister, Charles Spurgeon, would later say that defending the Word of God is as useless as defending a lion. All you have to do is set the lion free, and he will defend himself.

Similarly, Christians should not be afraid to bring their ideas into the marketplace and debate them. The Apostle Peter tells us to stand ready to give an account of the hope within us (1 Pet. 3:15). The Apostle Paul made it a point to go into the public spaces where ideas were discussed and debate passionately and winsomely about the truth of the gospel (Acts 17:16-34). These apostles were not seeking governmental protection. They did not shut down their opponents or argue to have their temples destroyed.

Boldness of proclamation comes from an earnest belief. You will not defend with your life what you do not know to be true. In the same way, Christians should rest in the confidence that the truth of God will accomplish the will of God. We do not need a government to protect our faith. We need a faith that is grounded in unshaking confidence of the gospel.

I understand the fear that my friend had. He rightly recognizes that the culture around his children is rapidly changing. While we are not yet in a “post-Christian” world like that of Western Europe, there is a definite shift away from Christianity. And in some ways, such as the decline of cultural Christians, this is a good thing. We now know our mission field. It is the house next door. But we should not hope for a Christendom of uniform belief. We should hope that we would be as bold as Leland in arguing for the rights of conscience. We should not be afraid of the shifting religious landscape. We should welcome it as a chance to engage others with the truth that has been revealed to us.

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … 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