What Hath Buckley to Do with Barnabas? A Reflection on Christianity and Conservatism

December 5, 2013

(These remarks were delivered by Andrew Walker on the topic of “Christianity and Conservatism in the Public Square” during an event at Vanderbilt University.)

I recall a friend, a prominent conservative, who told me that he became a Christian as a result of attending pro-life events and interacting with the pro-life community. Prior to this his political worldview had been one of stalwart conservatism.

We’re more accustomed to hearing the opposite, that a person’s evangelical or Catholic faith led him or her into the pro-life fold.

My friend wondered why the pro-life movement was predominantly faith-based, because, for him, the right to life—and the need to protect the most vulnerable among us—was a self-evident truth grounded in a soul’s right to exist. “Thou shall not murder” was not just a principle carved into stone by Moses; for my friend, it was also a natural truth that served as a fundamental tenet for a well-functioning public order.

This fundamental question of Natural Law—that life should be respected—would ultimately lead him to ask whether there was a Supreme Law-Giver. The idea of Divine Truth unsettled his conscience, convincing him that the visceral concern he had for unborn life must spring from an eternal source. Soon after that he converted to Christianity, obviously for reasons of atonement given by Christ, but partly because he resonated so deeply with Christianity’s scriptural and historic teaching on human dignity.

This friend’s story displays a fundamental relation between conservatism and Christianity: The two traditions have a resonating, shared anthropology, which, when speaking about deciphering worldviews, is a paramount doctrine upon which to have agreement. Both traditions believe that man is not a machine; that in the act of creating us, God creates us for certain ends that result in human happiness.

Both traditions teach that humanity is “fallen,” or “imperfectible,” or “finite.” Where modern liberalism suggests that our nature and bodies are instruments of the will capable of being re-created, both Christianity and conservatism teach a view of humanity that is, according to Thomas Sowell, “constrained.” Both traditions acknowledge and celebrate limits. Christianity and conservatism both reject body-self dualisms found in contemporary ideologies, believing instead that the individual is not mere material, but also possesses a soul.

Contrast this with the world we now live in, a world described by Jennifer Roback Morse in Public Discourse as one that “promises health and happiness through science. Science is supposed to deliver human control over the constraints of nature. This, in turn, will make us happy, since the free exercise of our will is supposed to be the key to human happiness.”

In contrast, Christianity and conservatism alike have been suspicious of the unconstrained will; knowing that the untrammelled pursuit of “progress,” untethered from moral norms, has resulted in moral atrocity and human misery. The forward march of liberalism has resulted in a conception of human freedom coupled with policies that leave an unintended path of human wreckage in their wake.

While the classical tradition—which many contend is a precursor to the conservative tradition—has held that man is a political animal, Christianity complements this tradition by suggesting something further: That man is also a distinctly moral creature.

To be a creature is to admit that we are all created beings distinct from our Creator. To be moral suggests that there exists an enduring moral order to which humanity is obligated to align itself—not for the sake of mere alignment itself—but that such alignment produces human flourishing.

As a Christian, the language of “rights” so often spoken of by conservatives is what Francis Schaeffer referred to as “borrowed capital”—concepts derived from Christianity that secular political philosophies accommodate in order to give meaning to governance. For individuals like Schaeffer or C.S. Lewis, if there were no God, there could still be observable rights or wrongs—but these rights and wrongs would be a result of emotive observations, suspended in air and created by what Oliver O’Donovan calls “a vacuum of authority.”

However, to be a political animal is not to stand in contradiction to being a moral creature; it simply expands the concept by suggesting that how we order our lives—and we’re all ordering our lives whether we know it—is an action accountable to God.

It is no surprise that some of conservatism’s greatest thinkers have been Christians: men and women such as Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley, Whittaker Chambers, Robert P. George, Dorothy Sayers, Jean Bethke Elshtain—individuals like my friend Ryan Anderson. Even Russell Kirk, perhaps the greatest proponent of traditionalist conservatism, converted to Christianity later in life. And it was he who offered these words: “The conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.”

The reverse is also true, some of Christianity’s most astute thinkers have likewise been conservatives—from Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Carl Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Allan Carlson, to Albert Mohler; men like my boss, Russell Moore.

But to say that much of conservatism has been Christian is not to say that all of conservatism is Christian. Some conservatives were Enlightenment Deists—many of our founders, for example—who spoke of owing their lives to “Divine Providence.”

I say that to say this: There is not to my knowledge a strong tradition of atheist conservatives.

The best of the conservative tradition recognizes that our political lives cannot be lived merely in the penultimate; and the best of the Christian tradition recognizes that a worldview shaped by the ultimate should inform and shape life in the penultimate; that each tradition demands and advocates for human excellence and moral order in the midst of inhabiting bodies, souls and minds that are disordered and fallen.

My personal worldview flows downstream from my faith, a Christianity that demands the recognition of human dignity and the priority of the family, met with a conservatism that shares this worldview and puts these Permanent Things into action by promoting and defending them.

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