How Baptists have been committed to religious liberty and the common good

Seeking to be a faithful witness in the public square

March 13, 2023

Throughout its history, the Baptist commitment to religious liberty coalesced with an abiding and deep care for the broader political society. In other words, freedom of conscience as a core tenet of Baptist belief in no way diminished the importance of Baptists also advocating for laws rooted in biblical precepts and creation order. 

Indeed, during the 17th and 18th centuries, Baptist support for religious liberty had far more to do with promoting the public good than it did with merely easing persecutory policies against religious dissenters. Baptists viewed their disestablishmentarian beliefs as connected to a more comprehensive public theology that promised peace and societal stability. Ultimately, early Baptists linked religious liberty to essential convictions over soteriology, ecclesiology, and the preservation of the church’s purity—all of which a religious establishment threatened. Still, the pursuit of a purer Christianity marked by voluntarism rather than religious establishment assumed with it a Baptist vision for a public square. 

In fact, as I argued for the ERLC, figures like Roger Williams in the 17th century understood that religious liberty engendered a societal responsibility rather than creating zones of retreat where folks could be left alone. Religious liberty was about the good of others. 

Thus, while disestablishment and religious liberty certainly arose as primary contours of the Baptist political-theological tradition, a concern for the public good equally redounded as a hallmark and has throughout the centuries.  

Religious liberty and the common good 

Baptists in the early American republic, for example, shared a zeal for seeking the welfare of the new nation, believing that a robust, vibrant, and active Christianity was needed in the public square if the republic hoped to survive. Samuel Stillman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Boston, preached in 1779 that “religion is of importance to the good of civil society; therefore, the magistrate ought to encourage it under this idea.” Isaac Backus imbibed similar beliefs in his Fish Caught in His Own Net, arguing that civil rulers must fear God and had a duty to promote Christianity. Backus described this relationship as a “sweet harmony.”

To be clear, both Backus and Stillman believed in religious liberty and contended throughout their lives for religious disestablishment. That conviction, however, merged with an understanding that the civil rulers, in the words of Stillman, must be “a nursing father to the Church, by protecting all the peaceable members of it from injury on account of religion; and by securing to them the uninterrupted enjoyment of equal religious liberty.” Religion—specifically Christianity—was necessary for the nation and the society; as such, the civil rulers were to ensure the passage of laws that helped churches fulfill their mission and provide the moral foundation for the republic. 

For many Baptists during this time, therefore, advocating for religious liberty—though certainly motivated by a desire to ease persecutory policies against religious dissenters—included a commitment to the common good. By securing religious liberty, Christians and churches enjoyed the freedom to proclaim the gospel, form voluntary organizations that met a variety of social needs, and to help inculcate the kind of virtue that formed the basis of a strong society. As Backus proclaimed, “Religion is necessary for the well-being of human society, as salt is to preserve from putrification, or as light is to direct our way and to guard against enemies, confusion, and misery.”

Caleb Blood, a Baptist minister from Vermont, similarly argued that as the gospel of Christ spread, it nourished mores and communal practices “essential to the good of society.” Georgia pastor Henry Holcombe, moreover, preached that true morality could not exist in society if it was unmoored from revealed truth and God’s created order. “Reason and experience,” he concluded, “both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.” Similar arguments existed amongst many of the leading Baptist figures in the new nation, including Richard Furman, Jonathan Maxcy, as well as from the minutes of various Baptist associations across the states. 

Over the course of American history, Baptists continued to juxtapose their dogmatism on religious liberty as a means to address cultural issues—it was a liberty to proclaim the full counsel of God to the conscience of the nation. In his famed 1920 address on religious liberty, George Truett asserted the fundamental necessity of freedom of conscience as a core Baptist distinctive.

Yet, liberty carried with it a responsibility for Baptists: “It behooves us now and ever,” Truett declared, “to see to it that liberty is not abused.” Relying on Paul’s instructions in Galatians 5:13 to “not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh,” Truett argued that “this ringing declaration should be heard and heeded by every class and condition of people throughout all our wide stretching nation. . . . we are to set ourselves with all diligence not to use these great privileges in the shaming of liberty.” Indeed, Truett went on to summon Baptists to recognize their responsibility to inculcate through public advocacy laws, ideals, and a biblically rooted spirit, all of which was necessary for “the making of a great and enduring civilization.” 

A theology to prick the nation’s conscience

Regrettably, Baptists in the 20th century, including the Southern Baptist Convention, lost their way on the issue of religious liberty and the common good. This was most notable during the 60s and 70s on the issue of abortion. Baptists wielded their theological heritage on religious liberty not as a means to proclaim the need for pro-life policies; on the contrary, they abused Baptist beliefs on freedom of conscience, applying it to a pro-abortion ethic. As I argued elsewhere, liberal Baptists transformed the ideas of figures like Roger Williams, Thomas Helwys, John Murton, Obidiah Holmes, Isaac Backus, and John Leeland into an amalgam of moral madness. “Religious liberty” became a pretense for defending laws that promoted moral subjectivism. 

The Baptist tradition on religious liberty never anticipated its precepts to be used as a means to corrode transcendence and moral responsibility in the public square. Indeed, Carl F.H. Henry, one of the most prominent Baptist theologians of the 20th century, spent much of his career trying to awaken Christians to their obligations and responsibilities in political society. “The church of Jesus Christ is here,” Henry asserted. “We must march and sing our faith again in the public arena.” Henry called upon believers of Jesus Christ to recapture a profound public theology that pricked and convicted the nation’s conscience. He asserted, “God’s commands need once again to become an issue in national life, the truth of revelation a matter of contention in every sphere of modern culture, the call for social righteousness a cause of trembling in every vale of injustice and indecency in the land.”  

Without the ontological, moral transcendence that only Christianity offered, the culture bobbed around in tempestuous waters without an anchor. As Henry wrote, “Deprived of vital faith in the transcendent God, the very priorities on which liberal society prides itself today—its emphasis on law, on freedom, on pluralistic tolerance—are powerless to withstand deterioration into the very social alternatives that they were intended to prevent.” He warned Christians and the entire nation that without the “one transcendent source” of law and morality, the civilizational crisis would only grow wider and deeper, opening the American community to an unstoppable chasm of ethical chaos that would eventually consume the society. “Either we return to the God of the Bible,” Henry opined, “or we perish in the pit of lawlessness.” 


Baptists possess a profound heritage of public theology—a comprehensive understanding of our social and ethical responsibilities to seek the welfare of our city and the good of our neighbors. The commitment to religious liberty throughout the Baptist tradition coincided with a fundamental concern over the moral strength of the nation. The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 affirms, “Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love.”

Yet, at times, Baptists have failed to uphold and publicly promote a Christian ethical paradigm that thoroughly addressed laws and social customs that violated God’s created order. This happened during slavery. It happened on the issue of abortion, with Baptists relegating the murder of the unborn to the auspices and caprice of conscientious freedom. 

Our tradition, however, which was situated within the scriptures and God’s revealed will to his people, demands otherwise. We must resist the temptation to retreat—to abandon the public square to the pagans. Baptists, rooted in the revealed and infallible Word of God, and standing upon our rich theological tradition, have a glorious message to proclaim.

As Carl Henry concluded, “‘Thus saith the Lord!’ is the only barricade that can save our unheeding generation from inevitable calamity.” Let us, therefore, contend for religious liberty while understanding that our advocacy for freedom necessarily encompasses a responsibility to restrain wickedness, promote peace, and to show a lost and dying world the glories of the redemption secured only by faith in Jesus Christ. 

Cory D. Higdon

Cory D. Higdon (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an adjunct professor of history and humanities at Boyce College. He serves as the director of research in the Office of the President at Southern Seminary and as the managing director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. … 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