The three A’s of religious liberty

September 23, 2016

Religious liberty can be a difficult concept to wrap our heads around. Secular individuals view it as a religious idea while religious individuals view it as a political idea.

In a time of great misunderstanding about one of America’s great political legacies, if we were going to boil religious liberty down to its most basic meaning in a form that everyone, religious and non-religious, would understand, how would we do that?

I would suggest that religious liberty is about “Three A’s:” Adoration, Authenticity, and Authority.

Why these terms? Well, aside from the helpful alliteration, everyone, whether secular or religious, has categories for each of these words that I am about to explain. Everyone, whether secular or religious, relies—unconsciously or consciously—on these three terms to help bring meaning to their own lives. And as I’ll explain below, each word is crucial to understanding why religious liberty is vital to basic freedoms.

Left unexplained for why it matters for everyone, Christians asking for religious liberty is like secularists asking for the right to not believe in God. At present, it seems like we do not understand one another, or worse, do not want to understand one another. This is a problem, because if Christians fail to communicate what religious liberty is about (or even understand it themselves) in ways that those who don’t share our convictions can understand us, it’s likely that religious liberty will get lost in translation and continue in its decline.

1. Adoration: Who or what do we worship?

Adoration means to adore, to worship or venerate, or to give our highest devotion, praise, and love to someone or something. Everyone adores. Whether it’s a favorite sports team, a hobby like traveling, or God, everyone has something at their core that drives them; that contends for their attention and affections; and that helps anchor their lives and give it meaning.

Who or what we worship is the source of our ultimate meaning. So we might rephrase the question of “What do we worship” to “Where is ultimate meaning found?” Is ultimate meaning found in the State? Religion? Entertainment? Science?

An important question follows: What right, if any, does someone or something (like the State, for example) have to prevent someone from engaging in adoration or worship? Very little, in fact.

Unless what guides someone’s deepest convictions causes genuine harm to society, society should let people be as free as possible to pursue ultimate meaning and truth.

If someone’s liberties to find meaning in life should not be restricted, neither should the liberties that ground the ability for someone to find that same meaning in God.

2. Authenticity: What is true living?

Imagine, for one moment, that a state passes a law that requires someone to believe something that goes against what their conscience teaches them or requires them to act in a way that violates their ethics. Not only would the state be overreaching, but a person will experience deep inner conflict. Being coerced into acting on or believing in what someone believes is wrong creates disturbance and does not promote human flourishing. It is akin, for example, to making the oppressed believe that their oppressors are virtuous. That would be inhumane.

Living authentically requires the free exercise of God-given faculties that make living authentically possible. So the artist who creates beautiful masterpieces is not simply drawing or painting, but creating an image that is a reflection of the creativity and beauty inside them or that is observed externally. Whether moral expression, aesthetic expression, or creative expression, a presumption toward liberty assures human happiness should be sought after and unhindered.

The question is: Will a person be able to engage in the activity that gives them the greatest meaning? Perhaps someone thinks that the thrill-seeking of mountain climbing is what makes them happiest. A person who finds delight and joy in mountain climbing will want as few obstacles as possible in their way in order for them to get to engage in the act that fulfills them. Or, if an individual’s religion teaches them, for example, that orphaned children are to be cared for, society should not take action that makes living out the obligations that follow from someone’s deepest convictions more difficult.

Religious liberty is about authenticity because having the opportunity to act on what drives someone’s motivations ensures that someone’s deepest convictions aren’t restricted and that a person is living truthfully to one’s conscience.

In most instances concerning religion, it is through adoration or worship that people obtain a code of ethics and morality necessary for living. Everyone has a code of ethics and morality regardless of whether they consider themselves religious or not. In fact, religious liberty protects the atheist as much as the religious. Each of us has deeply held convictions and moral codes which we prioritize and use to dictate all of our actions, words, and decisions. Religious liberty protects all of us.

The skeptical reader might respond, “So, are you saying that someone has the right to be wrong in what they value as authentic conviction?” Yes, and no. Religious liberty, ultimately, is not about a license to do anything that seems right as though relativism is acceptable; it is ultimately about exercising a God-given conscience toward God-honoring ends. As John Henry Newman once wrote “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” For the conscience to apprehend a duty, and to respond to it appropriately, results in authentic living. Furthermore, no one is making the claim that the right to authentic living is an absolute right at all costs. Where governing bodies reach legitimate conclusions that someone’s expression of authentic living is causing harm to himself or herself or to society, the government has the right to object.

3. Authority: Who has ultimate judgment?

Even non-religious people believe someone, something, or some ideology has ultimate say over life’s meaning. The nihilist responds that the highest authority is simply non-existence. The atheist responds that rationality is the highest authority. The hedonist pleads for pleasure’s highest authority. The Darwinist says that nature’s systems and processes are the highest authority. A North Korean citizen believes that Kim Jong-un is the highest authority.

Not all claims of authority are equal. The fact that Western civilization is in the throes of a crisis of authority indicates that people have very different ideas on what is authoritative. But still, everyone has an authority. And because society is imperfect, an era where competing claims of authority challenge one another is normal and to be expected. The question that is hard to answer in a liberal democratic context is whether someone’s view of authority is truly ultimate. Why? Because who has the authority to say what is truly good or bad; or to judge between competing understandings of right and wrong is up for debate as people reason about what is true.

What we do know is that when government props up any one ideology or any one religion as the official position against all others, freedom is squelched, human happiness deteriorates, and societies live in deep, irresolvable conflict. This is why religious liberty is about a free-market of ideas that allow competing interpretations of authority to freely compete for people’s acceptance. Religious liberty allows the various authorities we subscribe to to test their credibility and legitimacy against one another.

Regardless of where you locate your ultimate authority, it is important to be able to allow that authority to exist in our lives unencumbered to the extent that no harm results.

But moreover, thinking theistically, the founders of America understood that God’s authority over government’s authority was superior; and that government should not try to play the role of God, or get in the way of man’s response to God. Consider these words from James Madison:

It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.

Madison’s comments are helpful because he reminds us that before we are citizens of the state, we are subjects of God. Madison’s statement is also a reminder that it is the duty of government to be deferential to the conscience claims of its citizens.

The clash continues…

The explanation offered here does not settle the dispute on religious liberty. It actually helps expose why society is so fraught with conflict. Why? Because everyone has their own version of orthodoxy—of a guide to live life by—that can easily conflict with, undermine, or parallel another person’s orthodoxy. I’m not pretending to try to sort out who should win over who in a fallen world, but to point out that in a pluralistic society, striving after common denominators that allow everyone to experience as much freedom as possible is the desired end.

Furthermore, I am not saying that a person is free to do whatever he or she pleases because of adoration, authenticity, and authority. What I am saying is that all of us operate according to these concepts knowingly or unknowingly, and establishing what they are and why they matter helps us sympathize with others who approach and understand these concepts differently.

Christian societies birthed the ideas of the inviolability of conscience and religious liberty with the help of the Enlightenment focus on individual rights. The question for today is whether Enlightenment principles taken to secular extremes that reject Christian moral ecology can continue with the birthright handed down from Christianity, and produce an ecosystem of liberty. And that is still waiting to be seen.

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