Why is religious liberty so important to Baptists?

Defending a good doctrine

April 20, 2020

Some have suggested in recent days that a crisis is no time to be concerned about things like religious freedom. As COVID-19 has spread around the globe and continues to wreak havoc here in the United States, many have criticized those who’ve displayed concern that governments not trample upon the rights of believing citizens during this time. Arguments have been made elsewhere about the necessity of pastors and churches working in good faith with elected leaders and public health officials to mitigate the spread of the virus, but it seems appropriate to say something in defense of religious liberty. After all, for many, including Baptists like myself, religious freedom is not some ancillary or abstract concept, but a key distinctive of our faith, practice, and history.

Religious liberty lies at the heart of the Baptist tradition. Since the earliest days of the movement, Baptists have found themselves defending the necessity of separation of church and state. Beginning in England in the early 17th century, our forebears dissented to the idea of a state church and rejected the legitimacy of any formal ties between matters civil and ecclesial. English Baptists like John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and the American Baptists Roger Williams and John Clarke after them were pioneers in advancing the cause of religious freedom in their respective countries. 

Among the many Baptist forebears who stood in defense of religious freedom, one of my personal heroes is Isaac Backus. A Baptist from New England living during the American Revolution, Backus is best remembered for his tireless advocacy of religious freedom in the fledgling United States as the leader of the Warren Association’s Grievance Committee. On behalf of the churches of that association, Backus stood in defense of men and women whose religious convictions were violated by various governments in New England. But my favorite memory of Backus, however, is not actually about him. 

Though Backus was already convinced of his Baptist beliefs and had rallied to the cause of religious liberty, the event that galvanized him into action and enabled him to maintain his zeal for the cause actually involved his mother, Elizabeth, a 54-year-old widow. Because Puritan ministers in New England were supported through taxation, Baptists and other dissenters were forced to pay taxes in support of religious views they objected to. When Elizabeth, who was also a Baptist, refused to pay the tax, she was jailed. And she remained so for nearly two weeks. But as a result of his mother’s mistreatment, Backus renewed his commitment to the cause of religious freedom. For the rest of his life, he defended the rights of others to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences. 

I’m drawn to that story because it illustrates something important about Baptists’ commitment to the doctrine of religious liberty. Religious liberty protects not the strong but the weak. It is meant to protect not the powerful but the marginalized. Citizens living in the United States today enjoy broad protections when it comes to religion. The First Amendment guarantees that we are able to freely exercise our religious beliefs without fear of punishment or interference at the hands of government. But it has not always been this way. And Baptists, who once were fined, jailed, and beaten here on American soil simply for practicing religion in ways the state deemed unacceptable, played a critical role in establishing that freedom. It should be easily understood, therefore, why Baptists and others endeavor to protect these precious freedoms even amid the current crisis.

Indeed, this is familiar territory. Baptists were born dissenters. Because they rejected the idea of a state church, by default they were at odds from the beginning not only with the religious establishment but with the state itself. And for good reason. Baptists have always recognized that a person’s spiritual beliefs and ultimate commitments are sacred, and they’ve refused to conform to the standards of state-sanctioned religion. The state has no authority to use religion in order to amass power or enforce its will. As the American Baptist John Leland wrote, “Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise let men be free.”

Defending religious freedom is not ultimately some mechanism for self-protection or self-preservation; religious liberty is about protecting the rights of others, particularly the weak, vulnerable, and marginalized. 

And this conviction stands at the center of the Baptist commitment to religious freedom. The Scriptures declare that each person will one day stand before God to give an account of his or her life (Rom. 14:10-12). No one will answer on behalf of another. And for this reason it is critical for the state, which wields the power of the sword, to preserve the rights of every person to live and worship God according to conscience (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-14). No obedience, whether rendered to the state or any other authority, will excuse us on the day of judgment. Each of us will answer only to God. Convinced of this, Baptists have, for centuries, defended the right of every person to freely live and worship. 

Still, people will sometimes ask why Christians, who literally worship a man who was willfully crucified at the hands of the state, are unwilling to sacrifice their religious freedom. Why not simply suffer as Christ did? Is it not the case that mounting such a defense about individual rights and liberties is un-Christian? I think the question is understandable. But as the example of Elizabeth Backus demonstrates, defending religious freedom is not ultimately some mechanism for self-protection or self-preservation; religious liberty is about protecting the rights of others, particularly the weak, vulnerable, and marginalized. 

As is often said, the kinds of speech or belief most in need of protection are those that are out of step with the zeitgeist or majority opinion. Christians living in a hostile culture recognize the necessity of these protections not only for ourselves but for others like us who are unable to countenance the quickly changing moral and sexual mores of our day. So, for the sake of all, we maintain our support of this fundamental doctrine.

Baptists have a long memory. We may be numerous at present, but only a few hundred years ago Baptists were a small and despised minority, suffering violence at the hands of the government. Today we remember that history as we fight to protect religious freedom not merely for our own sake, but for the good of our neighbors. Even now, in the midst of a pandemic, Baptists are justified in their concern about encroachments upon these rights. Historically, Baptists have taken a posture of peaceful cooperation toward the state in times of crisis. And we have rightfully done so once again. But even so, Baptists must recognize how easily the state can, and often has, overstepped its bounds.

This leaves us in a precarious position. Few among us anticipated the magnitude of change the coronavirus pandemic would bring about. As we confront the situation before us, we must do so with sober and measured realism. State and local governments have taken aggressive action to mitigate the spread of the virus. In certain cases, churches have been unfairly targeted by these measures—actions met with public outrage and legal action that was swift and well deserved. But as we weather the current storm, it is imperative for defenders of religious freedom to recognize the gravity of the moment. 

The virus is still an existential threat. And churches remain critical allies in the government’s efforts to safeguard public health. So even as we fight to protect these liberties, we must proceed with caution and recognize the volatility of this situation. The incursions upon religious freedom we’ve seen so far have been local and isolated. There is little evidence suggesting the threat is more widespread. As we navigate this crisis, the last thing our nation needs right now is an insurrection of churches. Fortunately, we are not now being forced to choose between submitting to those in authority or protecting our fundamental rights. But even so, one of the benefits of being reared in the Baptist tradition is a constant awareness of potential threats to the free exercise of religion. For the sake of all, in our religious practice and worship we must remain absolutely free. And just as our forebears did, Baptists and other defenders of liberty will continue to ensure it.

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