Religious liberty is not “Christian Nationalism”

What an article about an adoption agency controversy in Tennessee gets wrong

February 18, 2022

Religious liberty, as a bedrock freedom, should be embraced and celebrated by every American. But in our contentious and secularizing culture, it in increasingly viewed as suspect, even harmful, especially as it relates to anything dealing with the intersection of evangelical Christianity and the public arena. While there have been important religious liberty victories at the Supreme Court, the court of public opinion often seeks ways to automatically belittle the issue at hand as destructive to the common good. 

What happened in Tennessee? 

Recently, religious liberty was haphazardly equated with Christian Nationalism in what can only be called a very superficial, cynical misinterpretation of a bedrock provision tied to the Constitution’s First Amendment. In a column for CNN, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons and Maggie Siddiqi engage in generalizations and grand pronouncements that are common in our culture wars rhetoric, especially against principles such as religious liberty which are viewed suspiciously as a means of harming others.

What’s the crux of their argument? According to Fitzsimmons and Siddiqi, and reported also in The Washington Post, a Jewish couple from Tennessee was denied participation in a foster care certification program that receives state funding because the organization — the Holston United Methodist Home for Children — overseeing the training only fosters and adopts to parents who agree with their statement of faith. To complicate matters, to facilitate the out-of-state adoption the couple sought, Holston was the only agency near their home in the county where they reside that offered the necessary foster-to-adopt training for out-of-state placements.

A statement from Brad Williams, the president of Holston, is quoted in The Washington Post noting how the organization is fully in compliance with Tennessee law, which protects religiously-affiliated adoption and foster care agencies, and the U.S. Constitution: “Holston Home places children with families that agree with our statement of faith, and forcing Holston Home to violate our beliefs and place children in homes that do not share our faith is wrong and contrary to a free society.”

However, that did not stop the couple from fostering to adopt. The article reveals that the couple in question were still able to foster-to-adopt through other agencies and are doing just that.

The problem with the article’s framing

Rather than let a Christian organization be true to its convictions, progressive culture warring now acts to make Christians an example of what happens when you stand true to your convictions: Face litigation and cultural harassment. The couple in question, and others who joined them, have filed a lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services accusing the government of discriminating against them.

The authors of the column go on to tie religious freedom of the sort protected by Tennessee as “Christian Nationalism.” “Make no mistake: Christian nationalism is the opposite of religious freedom,” the authors write. “What these right-wing actors advocate for is not religious freedom, but rather the ability of some Christians to be exempted from laws that don’t conform to their theology.” And then comes the litany of civic vices all traceable to Christian Nationalism: anti-LGBT views, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism.

There are several problems related to the authors’ framing of their argument. But first, let’s acknowledge a point of potential agreement. To the extent that “Christian Nationalism” is an identifiable set of beliefs that intends to tell others they are less American because they are not Christian, well, then, I would agree that that use of Christianity is toxic. But appeals to Christian Nationalism are rarely framed to mean only that. Most appeals to discredit Christian Nationalism frame any sort of conservative Christian concern as an identifiable subset of the larger Christian Nationalism category and therefore, disqualified. The authors are guilty of doing just this in a sort of progressive genetic fallacy — refusing to evaluate the argument but just casting blame on a nebulous connection between religious liberty and “Christian Nationalism”. 

To the extent that Christian Nationalism is a convenient label used to dismiss conservative Christianity’s concerns about institutional integrity altogether, then the authors are just as guilty of using their religion to exclude others as well. To be clear, Graves-Fitzsimmons and Saddiq’s appeals to their own religious identity is just as much a form of “nationalism” insofar as it is used to forge a template for normative and non-normative interaction in the public square.

Christianity has a long history of demonstrating social concern that animates Christians to care, for example, the poor, orphans, and the preborn. Lazy, broad-brush, and cynical appeals to Christian Nationalism fail to differentiate how theology can and ought to function in democratically appropriate ways. Seen in this light, accusations of Christian Nationalism are an empty shibboleth used to discredit the concerns of evangelical Christians.

To frame religious liberty the way the authors have typifies the careless use of the term. It paints Christians as insidious cultural actors while fundamentally misunderstanding the reciprocal nature of religious liberty. The logic that protects the Christian adoption and foster care agency to operate according to their convictions also protects the Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon-based adoption and foster care agency as well.

Interestingly, the authors cite my friend and ERLC Research Fellow Paul Miller’s research on Christian Nationalism. I reached out to Miller and asked him whether he agreed the authors’ appeal to his work is a correct appropriation of his work. He replied that it was not. According to Miller, “The right of private associations to define themselves exclusively has nothing to do with an effort to define the nation the same way.” In a longer tweet thread, Miller responded to the authors’ framing.

Miller’s thread is outstanding and offers the careful nuance missing in Graves-Fitzsimmons and Saddiqi. Rather than scoring cheap points, Miller demonstrates what is and is not at stake. There’s a clear categorical difference between using Christianity to exclude others from participating in a national identity and Christian institutions being committed to Christian principles that animate their social involvement. 

All this is to show that accusations of “Christian Nationalism” does not a Christian Nationalist make. Obscuring important constitutional principles in service to lazy labeling does no service to the common good; all it does is undermine it.

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