Religious liberty for all

July 25, 2016

Hanging on the wall in my office is a framed set of letters written by a man named Jeremiah Moore. A relative told me that we are related, but whether we are or not by blood, I certainly think of him as a spiritual forebearer. This man was a pastor and church planter in colonial Virginia, and a tireless advocate for religious freedom. In these letters, he’s engaging a public official, pressing him on his commitment to religious freedom, making sure this candidate understands the importance of it to Moore’s fellow Baptists. He made it clear that he believed that this candidate for office deserved a vote only if he pledged to articulate a strong defense of religious freedom, and pledged to use the power of his office to promote and strengthen religious freedom.

The candidate answered back, strongly affirming his commitment to religious freedom. This man would go on to be elected to the office he was seeking, the presidency of the United States. This candidate, Thomas Jefferson, would go on to become one of our nation’s great champions for religious freedom.

I love looking at these letters because it reminds me that Christians in every generation of this country have prized religious liberty—the way we as Baptists must continue to go about our work today.

Remember, not a faithful pastor among us would permit Thomas Jefferson to teach a Sunday School class in our churches. This was a man who was heretical in his beliefs. But our Baptist ancestors were diligent to work alongside those whom they considered outside the Christian faith in order to secure freedom of conscience for the entire nation.

These believers understood something that often gets lost in our modern debates: Religious liberty cannot be a partisan or parochial issue precisely because it is our “first freedom,” the foundation of all civil liberties. Religious freedom matters for all Americans, and that is why Christians should be the first and strongest advocates for soul freedom, not just for other Christians but for all Americans.

One reason Baptists have historically fought for religious freedom for all, not just some, is that our understanding of humanity and society is anchored in the doctrine of the image of God. We believe that every human being is made in the image of a creative, Triune God, and that this image-bearing quality applies not only to Christians but to everyone. Being created in the image of a God means that human beings have inherent dignity. This dignity expresses itself powerfully in the capacity that we all have to form beliefs and live our lives according to those beliefs. This makes religious freedom a basic, and non-negotiable, human right—a right we get from God, not from Uncle Sam.

The Revolutionary-era Baptist preacher John Leland repeatedly included Muslims (“the Turks,” as he called them) in his list of those included in the sorts of religious freedoms he was demanding from the politicians of his time, politicians like Jefferson and James Madison. This was despite the fact that there were virtually no Muslims to speak of in the colonies or in the new republic. Leland included them specifically and intentionally anyway. He wanted to make it clear that his concept of religious freedom was not dependent on a group’s political power. He chose the most despised religious minority of the time, with no political collateral in his context, to make the point that religious freedom is a natural right.

The governing authorities have a responsibility, given by God, to protect the population from violence, and to punish the evildoers who perpetrate such violence (Rom. 13:1-7). But this authority is a limited authority. The government cannot exalt itself as a lord over the conscience or a god over the soul. This is why even “Christian” theocratic projects have inevitably failed throughout history. In dictating to the conscience, the civil authorities seek to fill the role—and assume the power—of God himself.  

This is why Baptists have held to the separation of church and state. It’s not hard to understand why that term might cause some nervousness for Bible-believing evangelicals. Over the last several decades, secularizing forces have claimed to be acting in the interest of separating church and state when what they were often trying to do was create what Richard John Neuhaus called a “naked public square,” a society in which religious belief is an alternative to full citizenship. As Neuhaus rightly pointed out, achieving such an environment is impossible because human beings, made in the divine image, are naturally religious.

People like Thomas Jefferson and John Leland did not believe that the separation of church and state was intended to create a “naked” public square. Instead, they believed that the “wall” between religion and the magistrate existed to clearly define where the rights of government ended and the human rights of citizens began. Jefferson and Leland disagreed strongly in terms of what they believed about God, but they were able to work together for religious freedom because they agreed about one thing: the government wasn’t God.

If we miss why religious liberty matters, we will fundamentally misunderstand how to advocate for it. For a long time, many evangelical Christians have had a narrow vision of religious liberty, due largely to the fact that we have faced so few real challenges to it. This has often caused Christians to see religious liberty as a who-has-the-most-votes issue rather than what it really is: an image-of-God issue. Thus, many critics of Christianity have alleged, not without reason, that “religious liberty” for evangelicals is simply code for Christian privilege. Combine this with the sad spectacle of some evangelicals perpetually claiming to be “persecuted" because the signs at the department store say, “Happy Holidays,” instead of, “Merry Christmas.” The result is an evangelical advocacy of religious liberty that isn’t taken seriously by the broader culture.

When we advocate for religious liberty, we are acknowledging that there are important issues that are not resolved by the state or by free markets. A state that can pave over the conscience without a compelling interest in doing so, is a state that is unfettered to do virtually anything. We are citizens of the state, yes, but the state isn’t ultimate. A government that arbitrarily silences religious convictions or exercise is a government that severs us one from another by silencing proper pluralism and trades pursuit of the truth for bureaucratic enforcement. That is morally wrong and counter-productive, whether attempted by theocrats or neocrats.

As an evangelical Christian, I could not disagree more strongly with Islam. I believe that salvation comes only through union with Jesus Christ, received through faith. As part of the church’s mission, we believe we should seek to persuade our Muslim neighbors of the goodness and truth of the gospel. The gospel is big enough to fight for itself and needs no government assistance. The gospel fights not with the invincible sword of Caesar but with the invisible sword of the Spirit.

A government that can shut down mosques simply because they are mosques can shut down Bible studies because they are Bible studies. A government that can close the borders to all Muslims simply on the basis of their religious belief can do the same thing for evangelical Christians. A government that issues ID badges for Muslims simply because they are Muslims can, in the fullness of time, demand the same for Christians because we are Christians.

Jesus commanded his followers to render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar. Yet the conscience does not bear the image of Caesar, and cannot be swept into the federal treasury by government fiat. Ultimately, religious liberty and freedom of conscience matter for me because I believe all my neighbors—Christian or not, religious or not—are created in the image of God.

Let’s stand up for the religious liberty of all Americans. Let’s defend the inalienable rights and human dignity of those whom we seek to evangelize. And let’s work with others across religious and racial lines to advocate for our first freedom, and the right of everyone made in God’s image to be citizens with conscience.

This article first appeared in an issue of the ERLC’s Light magazine. You can view it or subscribe online.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a former President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. His book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the … 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