Why we need to transform our political instincts

Rejecting fear and embracing empathy

January 19, 2021

As far back as 1800, just 24 years after the ink on the Declaration of Independence had dried, fear was already emerging as a prominent political instinct in America. As recounted by John Fea, “In 1800, a Federalist newspaper that supported President John Adams in his reelection campaign against Thomas Jefferson, suggested that, if the Electoral College chose Jefferson, the founding father and religious skeptic from Virginia, the country would have to deal with a wave of murder, atheism, rape, adultery, and robbery.” 

Of course, Jefferson would go on to win the election, becoming the third president of the United States. And while these fears propagated by the Connecticut Courant proved to be unfounded, the strategy of stoking alarm among citizens for political purposes took root in American life.

Though our country’s current political milieu is not without precedent, American politics is increasingly becoming an exercise in fear-mongering. We are conditioned to fear the opposing parties and their candidates, to fear immigrants and refugees, to fear policies, government overreach, the loss of liberty, and more. For as long as anyone can remember, we’ve been warned of the imminent demise of our republic. And, to be fair, things are changing. Freedoms are being redefined, public virtue and morality have waned, and our divisions are more pronounced and volatile now than in recent memory. But fear, particularly in a political context, is an emotion that leads us into our respective partisan corners, away from any hint of or effort at unity. In other words, fear is a destructive, divisive political instinct. 

Empathy as a new political instinct

Considering the current American political scene, surely we can all agree that our civic sensibilities are leading us in the wrong direction. And because the state of American politics is, at some level, the responsibility of each of us, it seems we need new political instincts.

In his 2018 book, How the Nations Rage, Jonathan Leeman references a conversation he had with Andrew Walker, associate professor of Christian Ethics and Apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In this conversation, Walker provides an alternative to the politics of fear described above by John Fea when he says, “You must develop empathy as a political instinct.” Now, by even suggesting empathy as a viable political “strategy,” I can already hear the chorus of rebuttals in my head: “empathy is soft and sentimental,” “it’s regressive,” “it has no place in politics.” I would argue, however, that there may be nothing more vital to a healthy democracy, and to healthy political engagement, than the possession and practice of empathetic instincts.

Whereas a political instinct rooted in fear is concerned primarily (solely) with self-preservation, often at the expense of our neighbors, politics rooted in empathy concerns itself most fundamentally with “loving our neighbors as ourselves” (Mark 12:31). For the Christian, it’s one practical outworking of the second greatest commandment given to us by Jesus. Empathy is not regressive, and it’s certainly not soft; it is an instinct that undoubtedly compels us forward toward self-sacrifice. Empathy, at its purest, spurs us on to cross-shaped living. In this way, empathy and convictional kindness are not weak, but are actually the method for waging our war in the public square. We rely not on a Darwinian appeal to power or self-preservation, or the fear stoked by both, but rather rest in the assurance of a victorious King who has redefined victory, not by “owning” his enemies, but by sacrificing himself for them and praying that the Father would forgive them (Luke 22:34). 

Cultivating empathy

Developing new instincts is hard work, especially in a political climate that has normalized verbal harangues, diatribes, and rhetorical volatility, all of which are habits rooted in fear. And, new instincts won’t take root, as counterintuitive as it may seem for the development of empathy, without, first, honest self-reflection. While empathy is an instinct that habituates selflessness, it can’t develop until we have humbled our own selves, because empathy depends on humility. Therefore, cultivating political empathy starts by acknowledging that we have, at some level, failed to uphold our end of “we the people,” regardless of any blatant malpractice that we may see “out there” among our partisan opponents. Empathy begins when we recognize our own malpractice, our own sin, and we repent. 

But, of course, empathy’s initial inward bend ultimately gives way to the heart of empathy, which is its selfless concern for our neighbors. While a political instinct of fear double’s-down on the partisan aisles that divide us, in homes and neighborhoods and zip codes all across the country, empathy motivates us to cross those aisles, exchanging our wagging fingers and unkind words with handshakes and hugs and words of compassion. To that end, the cultivation of political empathy is not an abstract exercise, it is materially incarnational. It requires enrollment and participation in the academy where empathetic instincts are trained, namely the neighbor relationship. If we want our political instincts to be marked by empathy rather than fear, it may be as simple, at first, as sharing a meal with our neighbors. Don’t underestimate what God may do around a table, in the simple act of breaking bread together. 

In a political environment driven so much by the online community, a community where our humanity is all but hidden behind the veil of a screen, fear and rage are increasingly the most prominent instincts represented (and rewarded). In other words, we cannot expect to grow more empathetic by planting ourselves in the weeds of social media and other online communities. Empathy grows only in the context of actual, personal relationships.

Empathy, a work of God

For Christians, we, of all people, are those who have been called to enter the chambers of empathetic dialogue and action. We, of all people, are those who’ve been given a leg-up on the development of new instincts, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And we, of all people, are those who’ve been given a standard of empathy in the person of Jesus, the one whose divine instincts compelled him to sit around tables with sinners and enemies with gentleness and meekness. It is the work of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—through our relationship with Him that births new instincts in us and fans them into flame, and then compels us to foster relationships with people, flesh and blood people, the training grounds where these instincts are exercised and sanctified. Empathy, from start to finish, is a work of God. 

As Christians, it is our unique responsibility to let our conception of reality, our Christian worldview, drive all our political assumptions and engagement. What this means, at the very least, is that we should, by the Spirit, wring out any fear still clinging to our political instincts. And then, by that same Spirit, we should make room at our tables, both literal and metaphoric, for men and women of every political and theological persuasion, sinners and enemies, for the glory of God, for the good of his people (those now and yet to be adopted), and, yes, for the preservation of a healthy society. 

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate of … 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