Why cultural conflict can’t be avoided

Christians, ethics, and the public square

July 15, 2020

I’ve always found it interesting that standard advice for avoiding conflict in public conversations is to avoid any discussion of politics and religion. Having dedicated most of my adult life to both of these endeavors, I can understand why. These subjects are connected to human beings at their core. If our religion reflects our most deeply held beliefs and ultimate commitments, our politics are often the expression of those things. And so it is no wonder why people are often unable to calmly and dispassionately discuss either one. Because in speaking about politics and religion, we are—at least in a sense—speaking about ourselves. And when those ideas meet resistance, it registers with us on a deep and personal level. 

I thought about that a lot this week after seeing multiple conversations happening online about the “culture war.” For many of us, the culture war is mostly something we think of in the distant past—representing the political activism of the final decades of the 20th century. In those days, the culture war was at a fever pitch. While religious people of all kinds found their way into camps supporting the political left or right, it was religious conservatives who marshalled overwhelming numbers to support the Republican Party and vote for their candidates in elections spanning multiple presidencies. But following the millennium, the culture war seemed to fade into the background. There was less talk about the “Religious Right” or “Moral Majority,” and the political activism of religious conservatives was no longer as visible. And for some, that was a welcomed development.

A disagreement over ethics

But in recent years it seems talk of the culture war has been revived. That’s because the culture war itself never left; it just looked different for a time. Like politics and religion, the culture war is about more than a set of individual issues. Ultimately, it’s about a moral vision for American life. Today, the population of the United States is just north of 330 million people. That makes our nation the third most populous country in the world, behind only China and India, both of which boast populations of more than one billion people. The struggle stemming from disparate groups attempting to impose their own moral systems upon society is not unique to the United States. But in a nation as large as ours, there are a lot of groups with competing ideas. And the result of these groups and ideas coming into conflict is what we call the culture war.

To give a more precise definition: the culture war is a struggle over ethics. Each of us enter the public square every day with thoughts not just about what is right or wrong, but about the way we are supposed to live together. All of us have a moral system of ethics by which we live. Christians believe this is because God has placed within human beings an innate sense of the way in which he ordered the world (Rom. 1-3). But even those who do not consider themselves to be religious have a code of ethics they live by. And that’s because all of life is inherently moral. We don’t get to choose whether or not ethics matter to us. It’s in our nature. And everything we do has moral bearing.

Right now the culture war is raging around us on multiple fronts. Presently much of the focus is dedicated to the cause of racial justice. In many ways, this is a good thing that is long overdue. Our nation has a long and evil past of racist behavior. It would be foolish to assume that any single or even limited set of actions could rectify generations of oppression and injustice. From slavery to Jim Crow to lynch mobs to redlining, racial injustice in America is complex and multifaceted, and we must continue to combat it. In fact, the reckoning we are experiencing right now is a collective response to the systemic violation of the humanity of Black Americans. But even now we’re asking questions that are fundamentally moral, not only about the dignity of Black Americans but about those figures from history who denied their humanity by supporting slavery, segregation, and other forms of racial bigotry.

Christians, simply by following Jesus will always stand distinct from the world by confronting it with gospel-shaped morality.

Beyond issues of racial justice, the sexual revolution continues apace. Since 2015, same-sex couples in the United States have had the right to marry. And in only five years, the public debate over human sexuality has shifted from the definition of marriage to the definition of a person. Oddly enough, religious conservatives now find ourselves making arguments alongside radical feminists and other unlikely co-belligerents about the meaning of sex and gender. And again, this front of the culture war is yet another battle over ethics. Christians find themselves in the public square defending the goodness of God’s design for what it means to be male and female. And the stakes are incredibly high. More than a debate, the future consensus on this issue will have an incalculable impact on the lives of future generations of boys and girls.

Cancel the culture war?

There was something else about the conversations on the culture war that caught my attention. In multiple posts on social media, I noticed people calling for an end to the culture war. Some even denied that such a thing ever existed at all, and suggested we should simply stop talking about it and move on. This brings up an important point. There’s a reason we can’t “cancel” the culture war. This is because the culture war isn’t actually a thing we do, but a reflection of who we are. 

There were tragic excesses and missteps in the ways religious conservatives previously waged the culture war (attempting to draw a straight line between gospel Christianity and a specific political party being only the most obvious). But even if Christians abandoned all of that—if they chose not to participate in certain groups and avoid specific forms of social activism—doing so would not cancel the culture war. Nor would the culture war disappear if Christians withdrew from electoral politics altogether. And that’s because Christians, simply by following Jesus will always stand distinct from the world by confronting it with gospel-shaped morality.

When Jesus came to earth heralding the arrival of the kingdom of God, he was emphatic and clear. His kingdom is not of this world, but it is bound up with the future of this world (John 18:36; Rev. 11:15). Not only that, but his is a spiritual kingdom that is right now locked in a battle with the forces of darkness. Jesus, the apostle tells us, came to deliver us from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4). And he is accomplishing his work right now—defeating the spiritual forces and pushing back the darkness—through the lives of his people in the world. This has everything to do with the culture war.

Jesus taught his disciples that his church is to be a city on a hill and the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13-16). There is supposed to be a bright contrast between the people of Christ and the rest of the world. This is what Augustine spoke of when he described mankind as comprised of two cities, the city of God and city of man. Again, that doesn’t mean that the ways the culture war has previously been engaged were necessarily right or righteous. But it does mean that, regardless of the strategy, the people of God are supposed to advance a unique moral vision for our common life—in America, and elsewhere. We do this, sometimes, in the least obvious but most important ways: by attending church, serving our communities, and raising families. And sometimes, in ways more overt: voting in elections, forming institutions, supporting various social causes, and even running or campaigning for political office.

But regardless of the nature of our social action, when the people of Christ are faithful to follow his commands, they will naturally find themselves in conflict with the world. We must take care, however, not to allow this conflict to cause confusion. Our opponents aren’t our enemies but our mission field (Eph. 6:12). We will continue to find ourselves in disagreements over policy and public morals, but we must never forget that all of our efforts in the civil arena are meant to reflect the redemption of Christ. As long as there is a mission field, there will be a culture war. And until Christ returns, let us endeavor to faithfully represent his kingdom and his reign in the public square as we strive to follow him.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. 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