Peace, love and religious liberty?

July 1, 2016

In September 2015, Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited Liberty University to speak about his candidacy.

Liberty, of course, is a symbol for conservative Christianity.

Sanders, meanwhile, is an avowed progressive whose views mimic European socialism. He’s pro-gay rights, pro-gay marriage and fervently pro-abortion. To conservative Christians, Sanders is positioned as far left as is possible on the ideological spectrum. So the presence of Sanders at Liberty is an odd sight.

But something unique happened at this visit. All reports indicate that Sanders was received with warmth, respect and kindness by the university.

The media narrative of Sanders’ visit would have one believe that the senator was offering himself as a sacrificial lamb to hordes of intolerant, conservative Christians who would relish humiliating him. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Sanders delivered a speech with no interruptions or mass protest. There was no jeering. No one held up signs denouncing Sanders. As far as I am aware, Sanders had no need for security or police protection.

Moreover, Liberty students received no trigger warnings prior to Sanders’ speech. Nor did the school provide campus “safe spaces” where students could seek calm and affirmation after being traumatized by leftist ideas.

Why is it that Christian colleges are allowing debate while liberal colleges stifle dissent? One would think that civil, open discussion would be the norm at college campuses across America, since colleges champion “diversity” perhaps more than any other value. But as we all know, secular college campuses aren’t bastions of tolerance or diversity. In fact, a new regime of intolerance is spreading. The answer to why Christian institutions can allow for strongly divergent viewpoints to be discussed by guest speakers, though complex, speaks to the very nature of what types of beliefs we have; and how we hold them often dictates how we respond to different beliefs. The answer also speaks clearly to why religious liberty and the common good are intricately bound up with one another.

Whether happening at the level of government, education or any other institution tempted with ideological extremes, any commitment to a worldview that sees itself as absolute—that is, as a lowercase “g” god—can become an enemy of conscience and an enemy of freedom. It is only when citizens understand that the demands of God are absolute—and not political ideologies nor their fellow citizens’ demands—that genuine liberty is possible.    

Religious liberty isn’t just about the freedom to believe in transcendent truths (though it is certainly about that). Religious liberty is also a fundamental principle that ties together the principles that underwrite free societies and allows differences of opinion the space to compete. Societies that allow for free speech, free association and free assembly are the types of societies that understand that citizens have beliefs and obligations that precede the demands and obligations of the state. This is why religious liberty is so central to building societies that aren’t only free, but understand that with freedom comes the corresponding duty of respect, kindness and a commitment to diversity. Debate and the free exchange of ideas can only occur in contexts that cultivate respect and a commitment to nonviolence. In short, a commitment to religious liberty is a commitment to the principles that make our life together as a diverse people, possible. Religious liberty is therefore a fundamental principle that contributes to the common good.

This gets at a major irony for Christians when discussing religious liberty and our advocacy for the common good. While Christianity makes exclusive and absolute claims, Christianity doesn’t believe that these claims can be accepted by way of coercion or forced acceptance. But why does liberalism, the worldview of peace, love and inclusion become ultimately illiberal and intolerant, often to the point of intimidation or violence? One answer might be that liberalism is an ideology, and Christianity is not. Christians live with the perspective of the ultimate. Most non-Christians, however, live with only the penultimate in view. For them, the here-and-now of contemporary life is driven by an absolutized ideology—whether Market Capitalism, Socialism, Darwinism or any other ideology taken to the extreme—that competes for absolute devotion. The Christian, however, has his or her views moderated by the eternal, which can allow for a different viewpoint knowing that God is the ultimate judge of all viewpoints.

Christians are committed to the common good. But we aren’t committed to the common good out of generic principles. No, as Christians, we have to view our deepest commitments about our advocacy for religious liberty and our love for our fellow neighbor from one essential angle: Because Jesus is Lord, there can be true freedom of conscience and religious liberty. The Scriptures give people the right to be wrong. But the Scriptures don’t allow these wrongs to go unaccounted for. God holds people ultimately accountable—not us, or governments. As John Piper noted, “Jesus Christ, the source and ground of all truth, will himself one day bring an end to all tolerance, and he alone will be exalted as the one and only Lord and Savior and Judge of the universe. Therefore, since Jesus Christ alone, the Creator and Lord of history, has the right to wield the tolerance-ending sword, we dare not.”

Other worldviews don’t regard this principle as inalienable. “Error has no rights” is often a refrain issuing from any non-Christian worldview taken to its logical conclusion. If religious liberty isn’t grounded in transcendence, then it becomes a tool of convenience that can easily be denied when those in power decide to do away with any dissent. If Jesus isn’t Lord, then something else will be, and the question is whether the ideology in question finds it beneficial to allow for diversity, which is no sure guarantee as history reveals. Idolatrous ideologies have no principled reason to respect religious freedom or conscience as something [1] If religious liberty is denied, the “common good” easily becomes the the province of whatever worldview has a majority stake in defining what is good. This is why it is necessary for Christians to advocate for religious liberty in the public square. We don’t advocate for religious liberty just for Christians as a majoritarian political doctrine, but in the conviction that true freedom means allowing our neighbors the right to freely exercise their beliefs with dignity—even when we think they are wrong and heaven is at stake! It is precisely because of an ultimate Judge that we cannot be the judge of anyone else (Heb. 9:27).

The stories are too numerous to list, but at many college campuses, when a Christian intellectual comes to speak, the results are far different from what happened at Liberty. Extra security is often necessary, but even that doesn’t prevent students standing up to angrily denounce the speaker as patriarchal, sexist or bigoted. These experiences have become routine and to some extent, expected, especially when ideologically-barricaded and coddled students are challenged. And that’s because ideologies that reject God’s judgment at their center end up becoming opposed to any belief that competes with their ideological stronghold. Liberty University, however, demonstrated the fruits that follow from an atmosphere where religious liberty is modeled and where respect, kindness and a willingness to engage with those who hold opposing views actually flourishes.


  1. ^ I’m indebted to professor Joe Rigney of Bethlehem College and Seminary for clarifying my thinking in the preceding two paragraphs

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

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