What Freedom of Religion is Not

May 1, 2015

Luke the Physician was the king of understatement. If he had written about the current debate over the newly minted legislation in Indiana, it would probably read, “And there was no little disturbance at that time concerning RFRA.” It is not the purpose of this article to discuss legislation per se. Rather, I wish to ask Christians to think about why they feel so strongly about freedom of religion. Is it possible that we have an incorrect expectation of our government? Is it possible that we have become confused about what it looks like to have freedom of religion in America?

Freedom of Religion is not … A Christian Nation.

In the South, you often hear “freedom of religion” and a quote from 2 Chronicles 7:14–“If my people who are called by my name…” in the same breath. There is a portion of conservatives in America who believe that supporting freedom of religion in America means “returning to our Christian roots.” They are saddened that prayer is no longer in schools, that the Ten Commandments are being taken down from courthouses, etc. In many ways, the fight for freedom of religion is tightly entwined with their desire for America to return to God.

I sometimes wonder how our Chinese or Indian or Brazilian brothers and sisters feel about us speaking about America as God’s people. What about John’s vision of “a ransomed people for God from every tribe, tongue, and nation” (Revelation5:9)? The Bible does speak of a Christian nation, but America is not it. According to Peter, the Church is God’s only people: “[We] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). America—and every other nation on earth—is darkness, and the only light shining here or abroad comes from churches who faithfully live and proclaim the Gospel.

It is not the court’s, the government’s, the school’s, or America’s job to spread the gospel of Jesus. It is the Church’s job. The fight for freedom of religion is not a fight for America to get right with God. It is a fight for an open public square—a square where Christians can get out there and stand up for Christ. This means other religions like Islam, Buddhism, and even atheism must also be provided ample space in the private and public square. Freedom to be a practicing Christian must also mean freedom to be a practicing Islamist. If you are confident in the Holy Spirit’s power to regenerate, in Jesus’ blood to save, and in the perfection of the Father’s plan, you should have no worry that in a free religious market the Gospel you proclaim will win the day.

Freedom of Religion is not … a Persecution-Free Life.

Many Christians support freedom of religion because they do not want the United States to become like Middle Eastern nations where Christians are persecuted and killed. In their minds, freedom of religion is about personal and corporate safety. Churches want to be able to meet and function without fear of reprisal or terrorism, and so they support freedom of religion.

However, the Bible frequently denounces people who are motivated by desires for personal safety and comfort. Fear of persecution should never fuel our political action. In fact, persecution is an inevitable part of following Christ: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:2). If the world tortured and crucified Jesus, then “it is enough for the disciple to be like his Teacher” (Matthew 10:25). We thank God for the freedom we currently have to assemble without fear. However, fear of persecution cannot motivate our desire for freedom of religion.

Instead of a self-centered approach, what if we trumpeted the battle cry of freedom of religion because we cared so much for others? What if we were so desperate for freedom of religion because we did not want to give the leaders of this nation the opportunity to bring oppressive darkness over our lost friends, neighbors, and co-workers? The fight for freedom of religion cannot be primarily geared toward persecution prevention. It must be fought against government policies that would intentionally hinder the lost person’s opportunity to hear the Gospel.

Freedom of Religion is not … a Christian Government.

Some Christians believe freedom of religion is synonymous with Christian government. They want a Christian in the Oval Office. They want Christians running the House and Senate. They want Christian governors, state officials, and so on. As these Christians take office, they are expected by Christian voters to enforce Christian principles.

The Bible and history both give examples of nations who prospered because their leaders were faithful to the wisdom of God. However, our support for freedom of religion comes from an understanding that Christianity cannot be legislated from the top down.

More important than Christians in government is a just government. The Bible makes it clear that governments are established to enact the justice of God, to protect the helpless, and to punish the evildoer. In fact, Romans 13:4 states that the governing official “is God’s servant for your good.” Freedom of religion means Christians can elect government leaders who will do the best job at accurately representing the justice of God over our nation. We should elect leaders who will protect the innocent, punish the guilty, and leave the citizen unmolested and free to live quiet lives. If the best candidate happens to be a Christian, all the more praise to God.

Freedom of Religion is … the Freedom to Choose Christ.

Freedom of religion is as Baptist as potlucks, dunking, and committees. In England, Baptists suffered in a culture governed by a state church, being denied preaching licenses and fined for their religious convictions. At our nation’s humble beginnings Baptists were the ones being kicked out of Puritan communities. Through these experiences, early Baptists learned how important it was that no institution or government ever sought to compel a person’s conscience by force. John Leland, a Baptist pastor, was instrumental in seeing that religious liberty was included in the Bill of Rights. True freedom of religion meant every person had freedom from any external force to choose whether they would repent and believe in Christ.

Do you harbor a hidden fear that giving equal privileges to all religions will spell the death of the Church in our nation? How quickly we forget the words of Jesus: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). In case you haven’t read the end of your Bible yet, the game is rigged. Jesus and His Church are going to win.

Chad Ashby

Chad Ashby is the pastor of College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife and three boys. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and blogs at After Math. 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