“Thus Always to Bigots”: On Houston and Political Intimidation

October 20, 2014

A few months back, the Solicitor General of the United States argued before the Supreme Court that if you engage in business, you give up certain legal protections for your religious conscience.

Justice Alito, who penned the majority opinion rejecting the Solicitor General’s argument, framed the government’s argument as follows: “HHS would put these merchants to a difficult choice: either give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits, available to their competitors, of operating as corporations.”

Five justices rejected the government’s argument and, instead, declared there to be broad legal protections of religious liberty within federal law.  Such protections safeguard the guarantees of religious liberty as found in the First Amendment.  “Is there any reason to think,” wrote Justice Alito on behalf of the majority, “that the Congress that enacted such sweeping protection put small-business owners to the choice that HHS suggests?”

The Court affirmed the right of a businessman to retain his constitutional freedoms when entering the marketplace.  A mayor in Houston recently extended the Solicitor General’s bad argument a step further.  By serving subpoenas on five pastors, the City of Houston thinks it has found a new activity that is “inconsistent” with the legal protections arising under the law: preaching in a manner that displeases the Mayor.

Like the scenario in Hobby Lobby, pastors in the largest city in the reddest state in the Union have been put on notice: when you enter the pulpit, you shed your constitutional rights to freely exercise your religion, freely speak your mind, or freely dissent from the Mayor’s New Sexual Orthodoxy.  Such acts of naked political intimidation cannot pass muster under the “sweeping protections” for religious liberty under federal and state law or an unbroken line of First Amendment cases.

Rendering Only What Caesar is Due

During litigation, attorneys may seek information through subpoenas, depositions, requests for production, interrogatories, and other discovery methods – but the requests must be “reasonably calculated to lead to discoverable information.”  Clergy are most clearly protected under the “priest-penitent” and “pastor-parishioner” privileges.  These privileges foreclose production of any personal communications from the pastor to the parishioner, and vice-versa, that was shared in confidence.

More importantly, individual citizens – especially clergy – may not be targeted for burdensome and vexatious discovery as a means of silencing Free Speech or interfering with the Free Exercise of religion.

The Mayor and her attorneys targeted the pastors – non-parties to the underlying litigation – because, as pastors have done throughout the history of our nation (and, broadly, the history of the world), they engaged the controversial issues of the day, bringing the Christian worldview to bear upon it, teaching their parishioners how to think through such moral-political issues, and prophetically speaking against what they perceived as an immoral action of their government.

Little has been more sacrosanct – legally and morally – in this country than the right of pastors to instruct their flock.  But the Mayor and the City of Houston seem to have a different view on the First Amendment, Free Speech, and the Free Exercise of religion: pastors who lawfully talk about politics as fair game: “If the 5 pastors used their pulpit for politics, their sermons are fair game.”

Fair game for what?  Each pastor stated that he would welcome the Mayor into their church and offer to print copies of any sermon on any topic.  That is the nature of evangelical outreach.  But Mayor Parker does not come with a humble heart and mind seeking to understand the Christian faith.  Instead, she is using the awesome power of her office to intimidate pastors who dissent from her heavy-handed – and potentially unlawful – enforcement of the orthodoxy she prefers.

What Mayor Parker forgets is that pastors are never obliged to render unto Caesar that which Caesar has no right to require.

As Abraham Kuyper once observed, “The sovereignty of the State and the sovereignty of the Church exist side by side, and they mutually limit each other.” The conflict on display here is one in which the church has justly acted to limit the authority of the state on legislating matters of morality, but the state has acted unjustly to limit the right of the church to speak on such matters.

Unmasked, what the mayor of Houston has attempted here is to intimidate the men of the pulpit.  When government takes such steps to intimidate the use of the pulpit or, worse, to seize control of it, we are left with no other choice but to call such action tyranny.  This is not the request made by one who seeks to understand the faith that has “once, for all, been delivered to the saints;” it is a legal tactic designed to hoist the sermonizers of Houston on the pike for all the nation to see, “Thus always to bigots.”

Let us learn from history.  Tyrants throughout history routinely sought to seize control of the pulpit in order to consolidate their power.  Ask Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Martin Niemöller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the last century how the Bolsheviks and Third Reich deceived, divided, and destroyed the religious liberty of their citizens through the intimidation of their churches.

Is Mayor Paker’s subpoena a newer, more refined version of the dictator’s henchman?  Only time will tell.  Meanwhile, let us never think that persecution comes to the church of America in shiny riding boots beneath black uniforms with lightning bolts on the collars.  Persecution comes with more stealth, sometimes masked by that which seems perfectly legal.

“Do What You Wish”

If the Mayor and the City of Houston persist in persecuting religious dissenters – even as they purport to “narrow the scope” of their unlawful subpoena, the Church must respond with winsome resolve.

Few in this world responded to persecution with such convivial tenacity as Polycarp.  This martyr of the first century is famous for his unbending dedication to his Savior.  Polycarp burned, unbound, at the stake for the name of Christ, but he did not walk there without a defense.  His contemporary church urged him to evade capture when the warrant for his arrest was issued, which he did for some time.  This elderly churchman eluded a search party of Roman soldiers for months before finally being turned-in by a friend threatened with torture.  When Polycarp stood before the proconsul, he refused to recant.

Even the proconsul understood the optics of executing an octogenarian and plied the man to recant to save the inevitable.  This church father, who had spent a lifetime evangelizing any who would humbly listen, refused to grant Caesar an illegitimate audience. “Listen carefully,” Polycarp said, “I am a Christian.  Now if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing.”

The proconsul challenged Polycarp to persuade the watching people of Rome, now bloodthirsty for his execution.  Polycarp replied, “You [sic] I might have considered worthy of a reply, for we have been taught to pay proper respect to rulers and authorities appointed by God, as long as it does us no harm; but for these, I do not think they are worthy, that I should have to defend myself before them.”

The proconsul threatened, “I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.”  Polycarp replied, “Call for them!”

“I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts,” continued the proconsul.

“You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished,” proclaimed the aged bishop of Smyrna, “For you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly.  But why do you delay?  Come, do what you wish.”

Let these be the words on the lips of every pastor in Houston, Texas, who have been summoned by their government to submit their sermons for examination to those who seek only to do them harm.  Let us each, likewise, pay proper respect to the rulers and authorities that have been appointed over us by God, so long as it harms not our conscience before God.  When threatened with arrest, let us make every just and legal effort to avoid such an unjust sentence.  Yet, when the state refuses to limit itself, let us ignore the threats of fines and jail and reply steadfastly, “Come, do what you wish.”

Therefore, be encouraged by the admonition of Kuyper: “[H]owever powerfully the State may assert itself and oppress the free individual development, above that powerful State there is always glittering, before our soul’s eye, as infinitely more powerful, the majesty of the King of kings, Whose righteous bar ever maintains the right of appeal for all the oppressed, and unto Whom the prayer of the people ever ascends, to bless our nation and, in that nation, us and our house.”

Jeremiah G. Dys

Jeremiah G. Dys, formerly of the Morgantown C&MA Church, now lives in Charleston, W.Va., with his wife and two children. He is the executive director and general counsel for the West Virginia Values Coalition. Read More by this Author

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