A Vital Presence in Washington

The history of Leland House

Tom Strode

The full-time presence in Washington, D.C., of Southern Baptists’ public policy entity is a recent development historically, but it has become a vital part of the convention’s engagement with the federal government.

Today, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) represents Southern Baptists from Leland House on Capitol Hill. Almost 34 years after its first full-time Washington staff member came on board, the Commission continues to speak on behalf of Southern Baptists to Congress, the White House, and the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The ERLC’s main office is in Nashville, Tennessee, but its work and building in Washington have been integral in communicating to federal policymakers where Southern Baptists stand on vital issues.

“The ERLC has a unique calling to serve Southern Baptists on issues of religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, marriage and family, and human dignity,” said President Brent Leatherwood, unanimously elected in 2022 as the ninth head of the Commission. “It’s through the work of remarkable men and women in our Leland House that we are able to carry out that mission. 

“I am eager to witness what we will accomplish together through our advocacy in Washington in the years ahead.”

Founded in 1845, the SBC can trace its moral concerns work by means of a formal organization as far back as 1908. Despite the convention’s lengthy record of addressing moral concerns, it still had no full-time presence in Washington for 80 years.

Early Days in the Washington 

That changed in 1989.

The year before, Richard Land had become the seventh executive director (later changed to president) of what was then known as the Christian Life Commission (CLC). His election the result of the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence, Land came with a commitment to guide the Commission in a fully pro-life direction and with the recognition a permanent voice in the capital was needed. Previously, CLC staff in Nashville would travel to Washington on occasion. The SBC had urged the Commission in 1987 to open an office in the capital.

“We had to have people in Washington to talk to the congressmen, to be able to talk to them on a daily basis,” Land said in recalling that early step in his 25-year administration. 

James A. Smith Sr., who was working for a committee in the House of Representatives, became the CLC’s first full-time staff member in 1989. 

The Commission, however, was prohibited from addressing religious freedom issues because of the SBC’s relationship with the Baptist Joint Committee (BJC) on Public Affairs, now the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. The BJC addressed church-state issues on behalf of several Baptist organizations. The SBC was the committee’s largest financial supporter.

“So here we were faced with the impossible task of encouraging people to be Christian citizens, encouraging them to be involved in Christian citizenship but without being able to talk about the Baptist understanding of that with the religious liberty perspective,” Land recalled. 

The SBC solved that problem by 1990. Continuing disagreement with some of the BJC’s actions on church-state issues prompted the messengers to that year’s meeting to grant the CLC the authority to advocate for religious liberty on behalf of the SBC. They also transferred more than $340,000 of the convention’s financial support of the committee to the CLC. Messengers eliminated all giving to the BJC the next year and cut all ties to the committee in 1992. 

Expanding its work

Freed from its former limitation and with a larger staff beginning in 1990, the CLC expanded its work in the capital. For instance, it became an important member of a diverse coalition in support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which became law in 1993 and remains a vital protection against government discrimination. 

The CLC’s advocacy in opposition to abortion became a priority of its public policy work. Under Land’s leadership, the Commission became an outspoken voice for the preborn and their mothers. SBC messengers had adopted a series of strong pro-life resolutions beginning in 1980. The actions by the SBC and the CLC marked a reversal of pro-choice resolutions in the 1970s and pro-choice advocacy by a previous commission head.

“[T]he pro-life issue was such a key, driving force behind the desire of Southern Baptists to have their voice heard in Washington,” Smith said. “[B]ecause of [our] history, Southern Baptists wanted to make clear that we had come to understand this issue and had come to put ourselves in lockstep with the pro-life movement.” 

It was important to have “someone in Washington on a regular basis who could say, ‘Southern Baptists have said over and over again that we believe life begins at conception and that legislation should be pursued to that end’” with the recognition the Supreme Court needed to overturn Roe v. Wade, he said. 

“All of that was only possible with a full-time Washington office to speak to those issues.”

A permanent presence

The ERLC has carried out its SBC assignment since 1994 from its permanent office at Leland House. The building, a three-level townhouse on the Senate side of Capitol Hill, is named in honor of John Leland, a Baptist pastor in Colonial America who was instrumental in helping secure religious freedom in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

While leasing space in an office building on Capitol Hill, the Commission received $300,000 from the SBC Executive Committee in 1993 to buy its own building. That money, which helped pay for the purchase and renovation of the townhouse, came from capital funds set aside in 1964 for “public affairs” in Washington.

“The Leland House has played a vital role in our work in Washington, D.C., for many years, providing a singular home for our work on matters of public policy,” Leatherwood said. “It is a great building and serves as a vivid reminder of God’s faithful provision to our organization, as well as a representation of the ERLC’s steady presence in our nation’s capital.”

The work of the Commission’s Washington office has included meeting with members of Congress and their staffs, filing and signing onto friend of the court briefs with the Supreme Court, expressing concerns to presidential administrations in person and by public comments, and working in coalitions on a variety of policies. The Commission also has hosted numerous conferences and panel discussions in Washington to further the policy priorities of Southern Baptists. 

The issues the Commission’s staff in Washington has addressed in response to SBC convictional expressions have been varied. In addition to abortion and religious liberty, the ERLC has communicated with policymakers regarding such matters as criminal justice reform, gambling, LGBTQ+ rights, human trafficking, immigration, physician-assisted suicide, pornography, predatory payday lending, refugee resettlement, and religious persecution globally.

The gains supported by the ERLC have included the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act (1998), Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000), Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act (2003), First Step Act (2018), and Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (2021). The Supreme Court has issued a series of opinions in support of religious freedom, as well as the monumental reversal last year of Roe.

“[I]t is important to have a Washington presence,” Land said. “It would have been much more difficult for us to do some of the things we’ve done, to have some of the influence we’ve had had we not had a Washington office.”

Tom Strode serves as a correspondent for Baptist Press. Tom and his wife, Linda, have been married since 1978. They have two children with wonderful spouses and five grandchildren. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Linda and he live in Nashville, Tenn.

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