The secular sainthood of Anthony Kennedy

June 29, 2018

On Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his intention to retire from the nation’s highest court effective July 31.

Upon hearing the news of his retirement, there was no small amount of jubilation from evangelical Christians and those who would call themselves social conservatives. For a generation, issues near and dear to Christians have depended upon his sole vote.

As a non-lawyer, I am not well-equipped to comment on the merits of his jurisprudence. As someone who spends his time at the intersection of ethics and public policy, I am able to comment on the moral chaos and human collateral his decisions have wrought.

From reaffirming America’s commitment to abortion or redefining marriage, Justice Anthony Kennedy shares responsibility for cheapening the moral character and quality of America. His tenure accelerated, furthered, and deepened the gulfs that divide one American from another.

Our public morality as a nation is worse off as a result of his opinions. Not all of America’s woes can be laid at his feet, to be clear, but his attendant legal opinions have produced scars that America will forever bear.

To be fair on one hand, Justice Kennedy’s opinions at times reaffirmed the constitutional priority of religious liberty. His opinions in such cases as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, and Town of Greece v. Galloway are all welcomed for their deference in siding with religious actors over and against the claims of government.

On the other hand, Justice Kennedy’s opinions helped cement the totems of the Sexual Revolution, namely abortion and homosexuality—totems that have produced the current spate of conflicts between religious liberty and sexual liberty.

From his opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey to reaffirm Roe’s abortion regime, to authoring the textually warrantless Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legally redefined marriage, Justice Kennedy must be seen as no less than the legal architect of the Sexual Revolution.

What to make of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s legacy?

Justice Anthony Kennedy is akin to a secular saint, were the forces of secularism to ever venerate such an individual.

His jurisprudence matches the spirit of the age. In his now-infamously criticized “mystery of life” passage, Justice Kennedy acted as barometer to the pervasive cult-of-self. In Casey and reaffirmed in Texas v. Lawrence, Kennedy defined liberty as “the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

In this one passage that legal scholars, theologians, and ethicists all cite as a revealing insight into both Kennedy’s mind and the cultural mood itself, Justice Kennedy reduced liberty down to self-instinct and self-autonomy.

Notice preeminently that liberty is no longer tethered to truth. In this libertarian scheme, external constraint is cast off for the higher good of self-actualization. Gone are limits. No more is there duty to God, neighbor, or family—but to the enchanted self. In this ethic, maximizing human choice—be it religious, sexual, or whatever ethic du jour—is the highest good. This ethic is manifested today in obsessions with self-fulfillment or in empty phrases like “live your truth.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks captured the sentiment behind Kennedy’s passage well, writing:

There is no acknowledgment of the parts of ourselves that we don’t choose but inherit — family, race, social roles, historical legacies of oppression, our bodies, the habits that are handed down to us by our common culture.

There’s no we. We are all monads who walk around with our own individual opinions about existence, meaning and the universe. Each person is a self-created choosing individual, pursuing individual desires. There is no sense that we are part of a common flow connecting the past, present and future; instead, each of us creates our own worldview anew.

No longer a “we,” but the primacy of the “I.”

Whether abortion or the drive to redefine marriage, the common denominator is the self over and against the so-called “constraints” of religion, moral duty, or moral tradition. What matters in this jurisprudence is that the individuals says of one’s self: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

The irony, of course, is that in biblical language, a slave to self is the very worst off one can find themselves (John 8:34-36). We humans make for wonderful visionaries, but are corrupt slave masters to the self.

Kennedy’s liberty jurisprudence is at odds with a biblical view of liberty. Jesus preached a different ethic than Justice Anthony Kennedy. Jesus said that if you deny yourself for his name’s sake, there you will find life and be set truly free (Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:24; John 8:32).

But what of the particulars of the moral revolution Justice Anthony Kennedy helped ignite?

There is no “right” to an abortion, because no human has veto power over the Sixth Commandment.

There is no “right” to redefine marriage, because human authority cannot re-design creation.

But not only are these pseudo-rights a violation of moral law, they are illusory rights written into the Constitution that ought to be undone.

Such an ethic at the heart of Justice Kennedy’s jurisprudence is vapid and empty. But it represents an ethic of saintliness for the culture that we now live in, a culture that grows further and further from any moral obligation that does not first originate with self-desire.

To be clear, Justice Kennedy is less the problem than the ethic his legal philosophy represents in the broader culture. Seen in this vein, Justice Kennedy’s legal tenure is little more than an unwitting participant in a bigger cultural project that rejects the authority of God and creation itself.

Justice Kennedy is an accomplice in America’s slide into decadence. Sure, the seeds of decadence had long been planted before Anthony Kennedy came on the scene, but his opinions helped give legal teeth to the immoral inclinations behind human nature. The unforgiving posture of today’s progressivism and relativism was aided by Justice Kennedy’s pen.

Kennedy’s record is mixed. Regardless of his legal philosophy, the decisions he authored or joined will leave an indelible mark on American culture—though let us hope that not all are as equally enduring. I want several of Justice Kennedy’s decisions undone, but more than anything, I want America to re-evaluate the ethic behind such decisions and learn to pursue righteousness instead.

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