How religion functions in public argument

September 25, 2020

No topic is more fraught in American life than the relationship between religion and politics. Someone’s understanding of the American experiment often hinges upon their understanding of how the two relate: Is America a mostly secular nation that should eschew religious influence? Or, does religion play an important role in America’s legacy in terms of its values and national identity? 

Religion and public argument

Thinkers such as President John Adams and philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville both argued that religion is central to the American experiment of ordered liberty. But that raises the question of how religion is to function. We believe there are two primary ways: (1) Religion provides a system of morality necessary to teach virtue and restrain vice among its people, making self-government possible; (2) Religion provides a metaphysical account of moral norms that government looks to in order to make sense of its authority, purpose, and obligations. Hence, you have the language of the Declaration of Independence speaking of mankind’s “unalienable rights” being “endowed by their Creator.” Religion plays a vital role in making sense of the political community we live in, the values we hold dear, and the type of society and culture we hope to foster.

But this raises an important question: How should religion function in a public argument? Does a Christian legislator have the grounds to argue for a policy by citing a Bible verse? Properly understood, yes. But behind this question is the issue of authority. Considering that America does not have an established religion, it means there is a range of competing authorities to determine what moral norms are binding to policymaking. This is why theologian Jonathan Leeman refers to the public square as a “battleground of gods.” Christians do not accept the dictates of Islam, and Muslims do not believe in Christian Scripture. Moreover, we do not want laws enforced that are intelligible to or agreed upon only by members of one religion. Law is meant to advance a rational purpose and conform actions to its standards for all. So how can religion play an important part in shaping public debate if Americans have differing accounts of how moral authority originates when it comes to law and policy?

Religion and reason

In 2015, political philosopher Matthew Franck wrote an essay helping readers understand the steps one must take in translating their religious arguments to secular audiences. Franck argues positively for the rights and abilities of people—even public officials—to make religious arguments when advocating for a specific policy. To do so, he argues, religious adherents need to explain how their religiously-informed ethics relates not only to morality, but policy as well. Franck writes,

“There is no compelling reason in principle for religious citizens to refrain from employing religious discourse in the public square. They must, of course, reason together with their fellow citizens in order to persuade others of their policy views. But if their major premises, so to speak, are theological, there is no harm done, so long as their policy conclusions can be reasonably embraced by others who have different commitments.

The attribution of a “strictly religious” motivation to a policy view offers an incomplete account of how people actually reason in political life. Beliefs that may be called “strictly” religious or theological typically supply only a major premise for a policy conclusion. The minor premise will usually be supplied by other considerations—of cost, of prudence or practicality, of justice to others, of forbearance toward those same others. Even “thou shalt not kill,” for instance, is not a principle that by itself can lead straight to anything in public policy—not even a coherent homicide law—without intervening minor premises that will tell us when, how, and with regard to whom the principle will be applied.”

Let’s give a further explanation of Franck’s argument. According to Franck, the blunt use of religion to bring about a specific policy in itself is not immediately intelligible because, in a diverse country like America, it is more than possible, even likely, that someone will disagree with your account of who God is and how God has been revealed. But different understandings of who God is do not prohibit overt references to religion; rather, as Franck argues, this merely reveals the need for an act of translation to occur.

He uses the Sixth Commandment as an example. The Sixth Commandment (Ex. 20:13), in Christian moral thought, prohibits not only murder but also commands Christians to act in ways that prosper and protect life. The idea that life is worth preserving and safeguarding, to such a degree that prohibiting murder and establishing penalties for murder seems, on the surface, intelligible and rational. It may not be provable, but human experience would suggest that acting in such ways to foster life, rather than harm life, is praiseworthy. Not all moral principles are provable since they are underived and self-evident. To stay with this example, one need not be a Christian to understand that murder is wrong (Rom. 2:14-15). 

What the Sixth Commandment teaches in the broadest possible application is that we should act in ways and codify laws that reflect a fundamental good of human nature: It is better to live than to be dead. So a moral principle is on the immediate horizon, followed second by application to a particular law or policy enacted to uphold the principle. The moral principle is: Life is good, so act in ways that cause people to flourish. But, if we want to move from moral principle to public policy, we must decipher how moral abstractions can become particularized in law. This process is why, in American contexts, we have legal distinctions between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter. Law is deduced and specified based on the underlying moral principle. What this means is that simply saying “The Sixth Commandment should be a law” gives minimal specificity as to how to apply the underlying moral principle in particular cases. We would need to utilize wisdom and prudence to apply the broad principle of the Sixth Commandment in specific cases.

We could repeat this logic for innumerable policy considerations: Property law, contract law, family law, and political authority among them. When we talk about the application of religion to politics, it does not mean that laws on marriage, for example, are designed with the intention to explicitly honor Genesis 1-2 because everyone in America accepts Genesis 1-2 as authoritative. That surely is not the case given the diversity of perspectives in America. But from the interior perspective of Christianity, when a nation’s laws get marriage right, we say so because Christians believe that the picture of marriage in Genesis 1-2 is creational. We believe that principles of natural law, derived from and compatible with, the Christian moral tradition, are relevant to all political communities and are essential properties for the just ordering of society and the common good.

Binding moral principles

The idea of natural law ethics is that there are binding moral principles, governed by reason and attested to in nature, that all persons, regardless of whether they are Christians or not, are obligated to obey for their own sake and God’s. Marriage in Scripture bears witness to a creational reality. And that’s the context where most discussions of how Christians relate to the political sphere begin: The portrait of reality given in creation is not “Christian reality,” but reality as it truly is. 

Thus, when Christians insist on laws upholding the dignity of the unborn or seeking justice for victims of sex-trafficking, we do so because concepts like dignity reflect a principle of morality that is binding on all persons. Christians believe this is true regardless of whether a person accepts the specific teaching that humans are made in God’s image. Every person possesses innate dignity and should have that dignity recognized and protected in the law. Someone will agree with this by appeal to revelation, or they will assert the same idea on other grounds, or they will reject the idea altogether. This is because the existence of human dignity is either true for all or false for everyone. Furthermore, because we believe that God’s common grace gives all persons an ineradicable sense of right and wrong, we believe that society can attain a reasonable morality to allow for its continued existence.

Public policy, from the perspective of Christian thought, incorporates themes of Christian ethics at the broadest possible level. To say that Christians should care about public policy and make arguments as Christians in the public square is not to say that Levitical laws on sacrifices or Deuteronomic civil law are going to make their way into federal statute. Nor should they, as Levitical laws foreshadow Christ and Deuteronomic laws dissolved with the passing of the Israelite theocracy. No, only those moral principles of broadest application to the public square are relevant to public policy, and then particularized to meet the needs of those living within a political community. It means we have a duty to explain and articulate the inner-workings of Christian moral thought and how they relate to an issue of public significance.

So do not be fooled. Banal, oft-quoted statements such as “you cannot legislate morality” are coined phrases meant to intimidate religious persons while smuggling in non-neutral secular morality. Far from being “neutral,” such an argument unfairly tilts public discourse in the direction of the non-believer, which violates the spirit of the First Amendment. The secularist and religious believer have just as much say in making their arguments in the public square. Those with the best, most persuasive arguments deserve to win out on matters of public concern.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. 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