Three reflections on political correctness and cultural conversation

March 18, 2016

I recently saw an internet meme with an image of a 2-foot-tall book with several thousand pages. On it was the caption, “Things People Find Offensive: 2016 Edition.” I would have found the image funny had it not been for the fact that its message was painfully true.

Okay. Truth be told, I still found it funny.  However, many people aren’t laughing—and understandably so—as one wrong public statement or tweet can land you quarantined in the politically incorrect hall of shame. And once there, you’d probably be shamed some more while undergoing a public crash course on what you should’ve said if you had any common sense. More than likely, you’d eventually be “farewelled” from relevance, and maybe even fired from your job.

That’s tough stuff. I get it. So what is political correctness, exactly?

Settling on a singular, succinct definition has been a difficult task. For the average evangelical frustrated by the current state of affairs, to be politically correct probably means something like the following: adherence to language, policies or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society—particularly, marginalized and minority groups.

Simple enough? Absolutely not!

It is undeniable that, for a whole host of reasons, our current cultural conversation is in a state of crisis. From university campuses to political campaigns to the public square, we find ourselves seemingly incapable of amicable exchange. To be sure, the situation is a bit more complex than a mere call for civility. Many a monograph and popular-level article have been written in an attempt to trace the historical development of what is now our PC society. While some choose to highlight the genealogy of an economic Marxism gone cultural, others focus their analysis on the state of affairs on college campuses—one piece in particular having diagnosed the problem as a coddling of collegiate minds. I think perspectives such as these offer interesting insights that need to be seriously considered as we contend for a more sensibly sensitive society.

However, I think that evangelical Christians would do well to be mindful of a few things as we seek to engage.

There are two extremes to be avoided, not one

I often hear Christians decry political correctness in favor of a climate where they can “say whatever they feel/want.” Every time I hear that phrase—or a derivative of it—two thoughts come to mind: first, a question, “what exactly is it that you want to say?” and, second, I’m reminded that the goal of a distinctly Christian dialect has never been unbridled speech.

The biblical witness is clear. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart,” warns James, “this person’s religion is worthless” (Ja. 1:26). Likewise the apostle Paul instructs, “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

While censored speech is certainly problematic, unsanctified speech is just as poisonous; our outrage should be against both. Far from saying whatever we feel, Christians are called to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders,” and to “let [our] speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).

Clarity and thoughtfulness are helpful

While I suggested previously that civility alone would not remedy the problem, it certainly helps. Arguably, one of the things that our PC culture has forced evangelicals to do is to reflect a level of clarity in our public square commentary that, prior to this moment, we felt little pressure to do.  Previously, we could not only count on interlocutors to be charitable in their listening, but we could assume their familiarity with, and even partiality to, our rhetoric and reasoning. Indeed, times have changed. And, ironically, many of our efforts to avoid giving offense and being misunderstood—albeit painstaking and frustrating at time—have resulted in fresh and helpful articulations of some of our most deeply held convictions and their resultant sociopolitical implications.

Yet, I believe that there is more that we can do. As we rightly critique political correctness, we have to be careful to not subsume too much under its heading. Sometimes I fear that what many evangelicals label as the outlandish demands of the PC culture are often challenges to simply be a little more thoughtful, culturally aware, and historically informed. For instance, it is possible to discuss the immigration issue in such a way where concern for the rule of law can be expressed and the decency and dignity of our image-bearing neighbors can be affirmed. Similarly, to seldom acknowledge racial offenses is as equally problematic as seeing them everywhere. As one former presidential candidate recently noted, there is a difference between giving into political correctness and simply seeking to be correct.

I think a Pauline principle can be instructive here as we think about how our Great Commission task dovetails with a call to be winsome with our words.  “I have become all things to all people,” Paul says, “that by all means I might save some.” This is the point, after all. Why should we lean into a run amok PC culture rather than retreat? It is ultimately a question of what our predominant evangelical posture will be. Will we simply be mad, or will we be on mission?

Challenges remain, but they, too, are gospel opportunities

With all that has been said it yet needs to be made clear that serious challenges are on the horizon. Evangelicals who hold to a biblical sexual ethic, for example, will continue to face increasing criticism, ostracization and threats to religious liberty. When the culture embraces and affirms that which the scriptures clearly condemn, we must obey God rather than men. And we must realize that such conviction will come with a cost—a cost that we have hopefully already counted.

And yet, how we steward can bring disrepute to what we steward.  Yes, right is right, but there is such a thing as being wrong-right. Now more than ever, Christians need to evidence an understanding of that. Elsewhere, Dr. Russell Moore has expressed that the sexual revolution will inevitably yield its own refugees. The Lord’s church must be ready—with both its gospel-fidelity and Christ-like character bearing witness—to receive these individuals with words of grace and truth. Our only offense should be the offense of the gospel.

Ultimately, a run amok political correctness can be neither satisfied nor sustained. While being deeply sensitive to injustices, racial and otherwise, I must admit that I find it troubling how an uncritical culture of offendedness is being fashioned. It seems that the status of “offended” is legitimized simply by virtue of it being claimed. And the offender is mandated to do penance to the degree dictated without question or qualification. These kinds of transactions set awful precedents for public square interaction.

Nevertheless, it is important that we, as evangelicals, realize our dual role in such a chaotic PC culture—advocate and herald. Advocate because we have come to know the one who is just, and therefore we deplore injustice wherever it may be found. Herald because the one who is just is also justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. And, speaking of offense, we’ve all offended him.

Steven Harris

Steven Harris holds a B.S. in Religion from Vanderbilt University, an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an M.A. in Religion from Yale University, and is currently a PhD student in the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He previously served as a Policy Director for the ERLC. Steven … 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