Therapeutic Nihilism vs. Discursive Judeo-Christianism

January 26, 2015

Editor’s Note: Canon & Culture is beginning 2015 with a Symposium on Statecraft and political theology featuring six essays from Research Fellows of the ERLC’s Research Institute.

Since World War II, the Supreme Court has performed a stunning reduction to absurdity on a misreading of the First Amendment, particularly the Establishment Clause. What was intended originally to block the establishment of a national church, such as you have in the UK and Denmark, has been turned into a witch hunt against any official manifestation of special respect for the Judeo-Christian perspective.

Unfortunately, until 1990, the SBC was party to much of this through its alliance with the ecumenical Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, and, by extension, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, hand in glove with the ACLU on these matters. By breaking ties with the BJCPA and bolstering the program of the Christian Life Commission, now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC manifested the change early on with its amicus brief supporting the right of a Rhode Island middle school to invite a rabbi pray at graduation exercises (Lee v. Weisman, 1992).

While every US president has made respectful reference to God in at least one inaugural address; while presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adam endorsed before Congress Christian missions to the Indians; while Franklin Roosevelt wrote an admiring foreword to the WWII-era New Testament published by the Government Printing Office, we now count as received wisdom Justice Fortas’s claim in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), that the “First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.”

What then is foundational to our national framework if not recognition of “our Creator,” as Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence? With what shall we order ourselves if we dismiss Justice Douglas’s statement in Zorach v. Clauson (1952): “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

I submit that we’ve crowned feelings, and thereby have enthroned a new right, the right to not be offended, to not feel marginalized or stigmatized – that is, unless you cling to your insistence that Judeo-Christian perspectives are worthy of special respect. Thus, by the Court’s machinations, we’re become a nation without metaphysics, but only therapeutics. I call it “therapeutic nihilism,” to which the following cases have contributed.

Regarding Psychological Harm to the Children

In School District of Abington Township v. Schempp (1963), the Supreme Court worried with Roger Schempp that his kids would come off as “odd balls” if they refused to listen to the daily Bible reading, with a state court that they would suffer a “religious stigma,” and with a rabbi, that they could suffer psychological harm “if portions of the New Testament were read without explanation.”

But where does the court trouble itself over the feelings of young-earth-creationist kids who are told their convictions are hogwash in Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005)? What if a student at B. Bernice Young Elementary School in Burlington Township, New Jersey, had refused, post-2008-election, to sing “Mmm, Mmm, Mmm! Barack Hussein Obama”? What about the obese kids who feel stigmatized by the first lady’s dietetic crusade? The peace-church kids who ask to be excused from a reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord Hymn (“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world.”)? The Hindu kid who shows up with a red dot on her forehead? The benighted youth who keeps his seat when the assembly speaker delivers some gaseous falsehood generating a standing ovation? How about their “stigmatization”? Not a word from the Court.

Regarding Nefarious Motives and Aspirations

In Romer v. Evans (1996), Justice Kennedy said, regarding the Colorado law against gay behavior, “Its sheer breadth is so discontinuous with the reasons offered for it that the amendment seems inexplicable by anything but animus toward the class that it affects…” He picked up on the same notion to knock down the Defense of Marriage Act in U.S. v. Windsor (2013).

So do the courts reject noble-sounding free press cases when they decide the defendant really just wants to keep publishing disgusting material to corrupt the youth of the land? Do they chase immigration lawyers out of court when they determine that, down deep, they only care about bolstering the voting base of a political party? Where does this sort of divining end?

Regarding the Outsider Complex

In County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989), a dissenting Justice O’Connor said that allowing a crèche and menorah on courthouse grounds “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community . . .”

But when I pastored in Evanston, Illinois, the Chicago suburb with the most gay households, and preached the clear message of Romans 1, I never sensed that the courts had my back if this cost me standing in the community or hurt my political prospects should I choose to run for office. In a city which tossed the Boy Scouts out of the United Way for its reluctance to appoint homosexual scoutmasters, I had no reason to think I’d be appreciated for my beliefs or invited to tony parties, but it never occurred to me to get a lawyer to remedy that.

The Liberty of Stigmatizing Stigmatizers

What we’ve forgotten is that we are properly a land of stigmatizing stigmatizers. It used to be said that my freedom to extend my arm ended at your nose. Now it seems that my freedom to criticize your behavior ends at your feelings. We’ve substituted speech codes for physical behavior codes and introduced hate crimes to augment real crimes. We’re beginning to lose the rough and tumble of argument which keeps free societies free. Ours had been a nation where I may excoriate pederasty and be excoriated for my “puritanical” perspective; where I may vilify military appeasement and, in turn, be vilified for my warmongering; where I may call the governor an adulterer and he may call me a meddling zealot.

Judicial Pushback

Justice Scalia deserves special praise for pushing back against therapeutic nihilism: Rebuking the majority opinion in Romer v. Evans, he shot back, “The Court has mistaken a Kulturkampf [“culture struggle”] for a fit of spite.” In his dissent from Edwards v. Aguillard(1987), he wrote, regarding a balanced-treatment rule regarding evolution, “The questions of its constitutionality cannot rightly be disposed of on the gallop, by impugning the motives of its supporters.” In his dissent from the Weisman decision, with its talk of psychological coercion, Scalia wrote, sarcastically, “Perhaps further intensive psychological research remains to be done on these matters.”

The Chimera of Neutrality

Michigan State’s Frank Ravitch (our SBTS church-state textbook’s editor) has written, “Like the tooth fairy, neutrality is just a myth, but like children who want the tooth fairy to visit, we want it to be real or at least for something to stand in for it to make us believe it is real.” Well, actually, neutrality is a dangerous stance, no more desirable than possible. To quote William James, belief in God is a live, forced, and momentous option for individuals, and I would suggest that it extends to governments as well.

I think of journalistic objectivity, another impossibility. While, of course, you wish the press to give fair reading to the issues, you hardly want newspapermen who think there is a moral equivalency between NAMBLA and the Red Cross, who aren’t sure if the birth of mongrel puppies under a house on Oak Street is more important than the mayor’s embezzling a million dollars. You have to be coming from somewhere. Similarly, states are coming from or going toward somewhere. And, in that connection, it is critical where those starting points and destinations might be.

Pre-emptive Disestablishment

We hear a lot of over-heated talk about the establishment of religion when government gives slightest nod to the Judeo-Christian perspective, but I think preemptive disestablishment is more to the point. We need to take a via negativa, avoiding deference to such faiths as Hinduism, with its caste system; Islam, with its sharia-driven dhimmitude; Animism, with its indifference to science, its worship of nature and overweening superstition; Buddhism, with its irrationality and self-absorption; Atheism, where humanity arbitrarily definable and morally unaccountable; Shintoism, with its ancestor worship; Cults, with their sexual adventurism; Utopianism, with its love of tyranny; Scientism, which spawned eugenics; Rationalism, which yields radically divergent conclusions depending upon the premises: “garbage in garbage out.”

Discursive Judeo-Christianism

Rather, we need a nation giving special honor to the Judeo-Christian perspective – not to establish a church, for there is no such denomination, but to recognize, following the Bible, that man is made in God’s image (Red and Yellow, Black and White . . . and, yes, developmentally disabled persons . . . All are Precious in His Sight); that man in fallen (necessitating checks and balances and term limits); that licit marriage is between one man and one woman (hence DOMA); that people are free to follow their consciences, for membership in the family of God is based not on coercion, but on belief, which cannot be coerced.

On this model, we would continue to have White House and Capitol Christmas tree lightings (where, this year, the speaker honored “Christ” by name) – and not White House animal sacrifices at the behest of Muslims, Samhain festivities for the Wiccans, a Vesak ceremony to honor Buddha’s birth, or drumming and dancing for fellowship with Santerian Orishas. (Of course, we should be ready to celebrate the contributions of individual American Muslims and Hindus, but this is not to celebrate Islam and Buddhism per se.)

It means that we will print Christmas and Hannukah stamps but not Eid stamps. For one thing, it recognizes our history, for if Wahabis or Brahmans, if Shamans or Imams, had landed on Plymouth Rock, we would have a very different, indeed unrecognizable, nation.

This position is “discursive” since it honors reason, a creation order, and natural law. It continuously hears from everybody, for it is fearful of blind spots and of parading about in “emperor’s new clothes.” It works with the conviction that lost and saved alike have access to conscience (Romans 2:14-15), observation, and logic. For those who count religion irrational, I would point them to the virtual festival of fallacies displayed by the “anti-establishment” extremists – from ad hominem (“animus”) to ad misericordiam (the “outsider” feeling), to false dichotomy (“neutrality or tyranny”), to slippery slope (school prayer leading to pogroms).

Winsome Not So Old World, Circa 1950

What sort of ruinous theocracy am I suggesting? Basically, the sort of America we had around 1950. Before Lyndon Johnson finessed a pulpit-binding rider to an IRS bill, one limiting political speech. Before it was illegal for the Gideons to distribute Bibles to school kids. And in the day when Pastor George Truett, a champion of religious liberty, could still deliver a baccalaureate address at Texas A&M.

But what of Muslims in Montgomery Country Maryland who pressed for a school Eid holiday along with Christmas and Rosh Hashannah? How can they endure such discriminatory policy? How can they find peace in a land which shows so little regard for their religion? For them, liberty is not enough; they desire parity.

I think it is good to remind them that many of them have come from lands where Christians were denied full religious liberty, much less parity, and that they did not distinguish themselves by objecting to these policies. But it is also good to point out that people from all faiths and climes have flocked to this “insensitive” land, discovering that there is no safer place on earth for religious minorities than an American town where a local preacher prays “in Jesus’ name” from the press box at the Friday night football game.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

Mark Coppenger

In addition to teaching at Southern Seminary, Coppenger is managing editor of the online Kairos Journal. Before attending seminary, he taught at Wheaton and Vanderbilt, where he directed a project for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has authored, edited, or contributed to numerous books.  His articles and reviews … 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