How RFRA helps us love our neighbors

April 7, 2015

In the sincere hope, dear reader, that soon we may speak of other things, let me linger just a while longer on religious freedom, liberalism, and public conscience. I’m compelled to do so now by Conor Friedersdorf, who writes with insight and clarity about the differences of perceptions in two cultural communities: The LGBT community and the religious traditionalists.

Friedersdorf perceives that in each camp there are particular fears and motivations that stem from two different historical contexts. The LGBT community, advocating national same-sex marriage and the demise of RFRA laws, speaks from a vantage point of historical isolation and discrimination that continues in some degree today, specifically among gay youths. On the other hand, the traditional religious community feels genuinely vulnerable to coercive law and cultural orthodoxy, a feeling accelerated recently by multiple court cases in which Christian businesses were told to pay “the price of citizenship” by offering service to gay and lesbian weddings. Both the gay and religious communities have real narratives, historical and contemporary, that color their perspectives and provide the sense of urgency often felt on either side of the culture war.

Friedersdorf’s main point is that this narrative disparity–which makes true empathy difficult–is part and parcel of the American experiment. “What everyone ought to be able to understand,” he writes, “is why some members of both groups feel under siege—and why members of both groups understandably don’t always empathize with one another.”

It is due to the fact that there is no such thing as a fully shared American culture: Life here is an amalgam of lots of subcultures that only partially overlap. People pay disproportionate attention to what affects them personally.

Americans receive different upbringings in different families of different faiths, while living in different neighborhoods of different cities in different regions, and are then thrown onto the same social-media platforms. These platforms afford an illusion of a single culture, as if public controversies are grounded in common experiences and assumptions. But Americans have never understood one another…

Were you a manager at a tech firm in San Francisco or San Jose, it would be much easier to be gay, out, and post photos from a pride rally than it would be to openly practice orthodox Christianity and post photos from a pro-life rally…Were you gay, driving cross-country, and stopping for the night in Walkerton, Indiana, you might be unsure about the local vibe and nervous about openly holding your partner’s hand. “Will that get us harassed by the cops or beat up by a local in this neighborhood?” There are lots of neighborhoods in America where you’d be at risk of being insulted or even assaulted, something the typical straight person never considers before holding their partner’s hand.

This argument is of course a kind of obvious, Atticus Finch “Walk in Another Man’s Shoes” one, but it still strikes me as poignant. Maybe that fact actually proves his larger point. Empathy is so difficult for us now that we need to be reminded it even exists.

Empathy is indeed a crucial part of relationships. It is the foundation of good faith, which I’ve previously   argued is what makes authentic debate possible. Friedersdorf is right to remind both sides of this culture war of this. But what I think is missing from Friedersdforf’s piece is a contextually wide perspective. Without establishing why social conservatives in particular see their public security threatened, we can only produce a half-hearted empathy, a reactive faux-therapy that loses its luster as soon as the Supreme Court docket is announced again.

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that same-sex marriage advocates and the traditional religious community don’t just disagree on policy and they don’t just misunderstand each other; rather, they have entirely different interpretations of our current political backdrop. Friedersdorf perhaps illustrates this point in the way he contrasts the narratives of the LGBT and Christian communities. Whereas, as Friedersdorf says, the latter is concerned mainly about their livelihoods and public liberty, the former group is asking questions about physical safety and legal persecution. That’s not an unfair summary, but it is incomplete.

The physical, emotional, and communal hardships of gay Americans are certainly  realities, but they’re not realities that comfortably comport with either the collective American conscience or the current legal landscape. Almost all of the nation’s influential media companies are explicitly pro-LGBT and pro same-sex marriage. I know of no public school curriculum that refers to homosexuality as anything other than an honorable expression of identity. Friedersdorf mentions that coming out as a traditional Christian would be difficult in southern California and that coming out as gay would be difficult in Walkerton, Indiana. Both statements are probably true, of course, but the difference is that Walkerton is consuming the culture of southern California, not vice versa. The only way one can honestly wonder which ideas are steering American thought and which are not is to tune out.

Traditionalist Christians find themselves in a much different situation. To understand this, you must comprehend what it meant for the CEO of the world’s most profitable and most famous technology company to publicly accuse state lawmakers in Indiana of hiding homophobia behind a religious liberty bill, a bill that was modeled after a federal law that liberals created. The Indiana RFRA has, like both its religious advocates and its LGBT dissidents, a significant historical context. Several recent court cases have resulted in Christian business owners being forced out of their livelihoods because they did not believe that participating in a same-sex ceremony was right. When Tim Cook compared the motivations behind the RFRA to the Jim Crow South, traditionalist Christians heard the point loud and clear: You must choose between religious convictions and a place in the American public.

The reason empathy between the same-sex marriage community and traditional Christians is so difficult is that they define the conversation so differently. LGBT citizens see Elaine Photography and Barronelle Stutzman as institutions of discrimination that need to be hurdled, both legally and culturally. Religious conservatives see the results of those cases as clarion signs that government is demanding public demonstration of conformity on homosexuality. Impasse. What can we do?

Actually, we can pass RFRAs.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was signed by President Clinton emerged out of a legal context of deep empathy. You can read the details of the actual Supreme Court case yourself, but in brief, the law was the creation of Congressional Democrats who saw a need to grant empathy and good faith to those whose religious beliefs collided with laws. The main principle of RFRA and its statewide counterparts is simple: Empathy with religious beliefs should characterize enforcement of laws, and only a demonstrated “compelling interest,” established in a court, can override it.

RFRA is the kind of legislation that a culture struggling to empathize needs. That’s why it has sat so comfortably in federal code for over 20 years. By placing the compelling interest test on government–ALL government, not just government created in a particular season of culture–RFRA creates a balanced “crossroads” where religious conviction and jurisprudence meet. Further, the language of RFRA does not prevent the evolution of public opinion or the legal manifestation of such evolution. As the spoils of the culture war are distributed to the victors through legislation, RFRA is a good faith measure to ensure that unpopular does not become synonymous with illegal.

Empathy is not an autonomous thing. It belongs to Love. We empathize out of love for neighbor and a desire to do, as best we are able, the right thing by them. Friedersdorf is exactly correct: What the debate over sexuality, marriage, and religious liberty needs is empathy. LGBT and same-sex marriage advocacy have considerable legal, political, commercial and cultural momentum. Many conservatives accept it. As the power and influence in American life is redistributed, will we still try to understand one another? Will we still grant good faith even in our deepest disagreements? If nothing else, RFRA is accountability that our government needs to endure in that task.

This was originally published at patheos.com.

Samuel James

Samuel James serves as Communications Specialist in the Office of the President. He received his B.A. from Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his wife, Emily, live in Louisville and have one son. 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