How Do We Enter a Secular Public Square?

A Review of Recent Models for Christian Political Engagement

Alex Ward

In 2021, the share of adults who belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque dropped below 50% for the first time in recent history.1https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx Those who would formally identify with a religion were no longer the majority, at least according to polls. At the same time, the share of those who were identifying as “nones” (a category that includes atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particular), was growing at a rapid rate, with as much as 40% of Generation Z and increasing levels in all age groups.2https://religioninpublic.blog/2021/07/19/generation-z-and-religion-the-most-recent-data/

However, this did not mean that religion was disappearing, but rather being transformed. As religious scholar Tara Isabella Burton has noted in her study of secular religious practice, the devotion that used to be given to formal religion was now placed on new trends such as health and wellness culture or sexual libertinism.3Tara Isabella Burton, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2020). We could also add political affiliation, as polls now show that significant numbers of individuals would be more unhappy if their child married a person of a different political party rather than a different faith.4https://research.lifeway.com/2019/03/07/differing-politics-more-than-religion-raises-issues-for-potential-marriages/

In the face of this new religious landscape, it can be helpful to consider the ways that Christians in recent years have thought about political engagement. It would take too long to explore every framework offered by Christians throughout history for how to engage the world. The classic models like Augustine’s Two Cities (which features prominently in Josh Wester’s article on faith and secularism), Luther’s Two Kingdoms, or Kuyper’s concept of Sphere Sovereignty are all incredibly helpful and worthy of attention, yet they also all operated in a world where religious faith was central to public life. That is less the case in recent years. Thus, it is helpful to consider other recent examples of what it means to engage this new secularized public square.

Richard John Neuhaus

For this task, there is no more classic work than Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square. Writing in the heyday of the Religious Right, Neuhaus seeks to correct the notion brought forward by those who would limit religion’s influence in the public arena. Rejecting the value-laden arguments of religion, these proponents of secularism want not a neutral public square, which might be commendable, but rather a neutered public square where religion has no place. 

Neuhaus’ response is not to say that religion can be neutral, but rather to refute that the public square can ever truly be naked. A choice to exclude religious arguments is a thumb on the scale of the bounds of discourse, and this is a departure from the traditional understanding of religion’s role in democracy. His classic work, which is structured more as a series of essays with recurring themes, helps to highlight the inherent reality that in matters of such intense debate, there is no such thing as neutrality.

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon

Writing at the end of the 1980s, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon offered their own response to the changing culture around them and the public-facing Christian political activity. They argue that the church is a colony in a foreign culture. It functions as a beachhead for the coming kingdom, and it is the place where deep discipleship occurs. If Neuhaus’ work focused on the realm of wider culture as the site of public engagement, Hauerwas and Willimon locate the place of preeminence in the gathered assembly of the believers. 

The Anabaptist tendencies of the work incline it to be critical of political engagement like that of Falwell’s Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition. And yet it does see a need for engaging the rapidly changing public square. However, rather than beginning with mobilization and legislation, the authors begin with spiritual formation. The political declaration of the church that “Jesus is Lord” is a call to discipleship and formation into kingdom citizens, which means that the church as the church is a political entity when it is inculcating the virtues of Christ through its liturgy and spiritual practices. The church is the locus of political activity for the Christian, not the town square. 

Jonathan Leeman

Writing decades later, Baptist political theologian Jonathan Leeman offers a synthesis of the best contributions from works such as Neuhaus, Hauerwas, and Willimon in a decidedly evangelical framework. Where all three agree is that the culture has rapidly secularized and that the public square is no longer as hospitable to Christianity as it once was. Leeman, like Neuhaus, rejects the concept of a neutral public square. His How the Nations Rage recognizes that the contests in the public square are between competing gods, not matters of unimportance. Like David before Goliath, or between Elisha and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, this is a contest to see which god will win. To pretend that we are disinterested participants and not warriors for our God is an inaccurate representation of what is occurring when we engage others.

At the same time, Leeman does not go so far as to say that the Christian’s political activity is grounded in legislation passed or court cases decided. It is a decidedly Baptistic framework grounded in the local church, a point at which Hauerwas and Willimon would agree. The local church, when rightly forming disciples, will be creating those who are able to do the work of articulating the truth of the gospel and its moral demands in the public square.

While Leeman would disagree with some of the proposals offered by Hauerwas and Willimon, his framework does agree that the church’s ecclesiological work is also its political work. But it approaches this from a decidedly evangelical perspective which sees a primary part of that work as evangelism and regeneration of hearts. As such, it provides a helpful model for evangelicals seeking to bridge the teaching they experience on Sunday with their life in the public square on Monday through Saturday. 

The major point at which Leeman’s book helps for understanding the cultural moment and how Christians should engage is his approach of interacting with opposing worldviews. Leeman recognizes that neutrality is a myth, and that the public square was never naked. Every time we enter, we do so on behalf of our gods, whether that is the God of Scripture or the god of personal autonomy or sexual liberation. In a secular moment where there is a profusion of religion, even if organized religion is declining, Leeman reminds Christians that as ambassadors of the kingdom we are always representing and advancing the work of the King. While that language may seem oppositional (it is), and may strike some as too pugilistic (in the line of culture wars mentality), it does capture the truth that the public square is a battleground of ideas and ideologies. 

Though evangelical Christians recognize that the ultimate battle has been fought and that the rulers of this world are living on borrowed time, that does not diminish the reality that we are actively engaged in combat not against flesh and blood but against powers, authorities, and spiritual darkness (Eph. 6:12). 

All three of these models offer the church something useful, whether a recognition of the reality of a public square that is never naked, the formational power of the church, or the battle for the public square. Christians should not see in them oppositional models, but rather pieces of the larger project of what it looks like to interact with this new religious landscape. Luckily, the model for engaging secularism is the same as it was for engaging paganism: offer the truth of the gospel to those deceived by sin and provide discipleship and formation for those in the local church. Secularism may be a new moment for the American church, but the task remains the same.

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in the 20th century. He holds degrees from Mississippi State University (BA), Vanderbilt University (MTS), and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (ThM). He and his wife Lindsey are church members in Tupelo, Mississippi. He and Lindsey have one daughter.

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