Why a truncated vision of religious freedom is dangerous to the common good

May 31, 2022

One of the most respected evangelical intellectuals of the 20th century, Carl F.H. Henry, wrote, “If religious freedom is advocated only for pragmatic reasons, it can and will be sacrificed to expediency.” The cause of religious freedom is central to the Christian faith — especially in the Baptist tradition — because it recognizes the freedom of all people to act upon their deeply held beliefs in every aspect of public life. In a day when religious freedom can be invoked to bolster spurious claims of personal preference, while also being routinely trampled upon in the name of the ongoing sexual revolution, it is important to understand this crucial doctrine of soul freedom. Religious freedom recognizes that the state does not lay claim over the pre-political rights rooted in the nature of humanity. The state must operate within its God-given authority to promote the common good and publicly order society in a way that upholds the dignity of each individual.

Henry spoke to religious freedom in the American context by writing, “It is not the role of government to judge between rival systems of metaphysics and to legislate one over others; rather its role is to protect and preserve a free course for its constitutional guarantees.” Religious freedom, then, is central to a thriving democratic order as it recognizes that not only does the state have certain responsibilities in the social order, but it also reminds all people that faith is not simply a private matter of the individual nor can it be relegated simply to the “freedom to worship” as is so often invoked by those who want to banish any semblance of religious influence on the public square.

Peter Singer on religious freedom

As I have previously written, I routinely seek to read things outside of my circles in order to understand those around me better and to deepen my understanding of why I believe what I believe. Given my work in ethics and philosophy, I have recently been working through a number of texts from some of the most influential moral philosophers in our society. One essay in particular caught my attention as it illustrates a common misconception of religious freedom today.

Peter Singer, who serves as the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, is one of the most influential moral philosophers of our generation. He is infamous for his controversial critique of the sanctity of life arguments, contending for a concept of personhood distinct from what defines one a human being. He is also one of the early forerunners of the animal rights movements even though he rejects the category of “rights.” When I ran across a short essay by Singer on religious freedom in a collection of essays first published in 2016, I was intrigued.

In an essay titled “The Use and Abuse of Religious Freedom” from Ethics in the Real World, he writes about the “proper limits of religious freedom” in light of three prominent news stories from 2012 that illustrate the tension between secular humanism and religious faith in the public square. Singer highlights questions over animal suffering and ritual animal sacrifice in the Netherlands, the Affordable Care Act and the controversial requirements imposed by the Obama Administration with the contraceptive mandates, and religious exemptions from military service in Israel. While these particular stories are obviously dated, the underlying beliefs about the nature of religious freedom are as relevant now as ever.

Singer notes that “when people are prohibited from practicing their religion — for example, by laws that bar worshiping in certain ways — there can be no doubt that their freedom of religion has been violated. Religious persecution was common in previous centuries, and still occurs in some countries today.” (226) While he stands firm on this limited freedom of worship, he quickly pivots to show that the public controversies he highlighted above are not violations of religious freedom since they “do not stop [people of faith] from practicing their religion.” He claims that people of faith are not required to eat meat, operate institutions such as hospitals or businesses, and that many faiths, including Judaism, are not inherently pacifist even though some may hold such a position from deeply held religious beliefs.

He goes on to note that “Restricting the legitimate defense of religious freedom to rejecting proposals that stop people from practicing their religion makes it possible to resolve many other disputes [in society].” For Singer, religion is simply the matter of the private acts of individuals and communities that have no real bearing on our public life together. While certain public practices may be informed by one’s faith, he argues that religious freedom is often invoked in disingenuous ways that endanger the common good of society since these supposed limitations on religious freedom are not — in his eyes — central to faithful expression of one’s private worship.

Clashing values in the public square

Throughout the essay, he downplays the full expression of religion in the public square, relegating it to the ability to privately worship as one chooses within a very limited secular framework. While the essay itself may be dated, this is a perfect illustration of the prevailing understanding of the role of religion in society today. Whether it is seen in the overly broad and dangerous content moderation policies concerning hate speech online or in the significant threats to religious freedom under the so called Equality Act in the United States, religious freedom must be of central concern in our secularizing public square.

In a day where some forms of identity — such as those in the LBGTQ+ movement — are not only to be tolerated in society but must accepted and celebrated by all without question, it is interesting to note that one’s religious beliefs, which are arguably just as or even more central to one’s identity, are to be relegated to private matters and trampled upon in the public square. Our society often champions the public expression of one set of deeply held beliefs but challenges the full expression of another based on the secularizing modern moral order and mores of the day. Questions of sexuality and gender, which have been traditionally argued for on the basis of an individual’s privacy before the courts, are no longer to be seen as simply private matters in society, but now must be championed and affirmed by all under the threat of cancel culture, loss of one’s business, and/or the subjugation of faith in the public square.

Singer concludes by using a common argument against religious freedom, stating that the three examples he references “are not really about the freedom to practice one’s religion” which suggests that the “appeal to religious freedom is being misused.” (228) This type of argument not only fails to reflect what courts have routinely upheld as the proper role of the state in religious matters, but is also based on a complete misunderstanding of the public nature of religion. True faith reorients every aspect of one’s life — both privately and in public. If one claims to believe something, yet does not publicly act upon those beliefs, then those beliefs can and should be called into question because our actions always reveal what we truly believe.

In the midst of the ongoing sexual crisis and the constant push to relegate faith to a private matter, religious freedom must be championed by all, for all; it is not only central to a thriving democracy but reflective of how God created all people in his image with inherent dignity and value. True faith can not be coerced, nor can it be walled off in an unseen compartment of one’s life. Religious freedom, then, cannot be upheld simply on pragmatic grounds, lest it give way to outside forces under pressure in a secularized society. While some seek to prioritize other claims of identity over public expressions of faith in the public square, Christians must stand for the dignity and freedom of all people to operate out of their deeply held beliefs, even as those beliefs clash in the public square. 

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as a research fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. He is the author or editor of several books including The Age of AI, Following Jesus in a Digital Age, and The Digital Public Square. In addition to his … 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