Free to Choose Christ

Why the ERLC Advocates for Religious Liberty for All

Jordan Wootten

Last year, messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting voted to adopt a resolution on the Uyghur genocide, calling upon the Chinese Communist Party to immediately “restore to the Uyghur people their full God-given rights.”1https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/on-the-uyghur-genocide/ While the resolution passed unanimously, there remain some who have questioned why Southern Baptists should advocate for groups like the Uyghurs, many of whom are followers of Islam. As Southern Baptists, our answer to this question is clearly stated in Article XVII of the Baptist Faith and Message—because religious liberty belongs to those who hold to “any form of religion” (emphasis added).2https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#xvii-religious-liberty

If we believe, more broadly, that freedom—religious or otherwise—is a right endowed on all people, to what extent are we willing to act upon that belief on behalf of others? Are we willing to take what we affirm in the Baptist Faith and Message and apply it to all our neighbors, both here and abroad, when their religious freedom is being unjustly ignored or trampled upon?

Why Does the ERLC Prioritize Religious Liberty for All?

We can’t answer these questions until we have addressed the more foundational question, “why?” Why should Southern Baptists—or Christians generally—advocate for the freedom and just treatment of people of all religions or no religion at all?

Imago Dei 

Why should we advocate for all people? First, because Christian anthropology begins in Genesis 1, where we learn that all people, without exception, are made in the image of God. 

In his book, Dwell: Life with God for the World, Barry Jones says, “make sure your theological anthropology begins in Genesis 1 and not Genesis 3.”3Barry Jones, Dwell: Life with God for the World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014). The first chapter of Genesis contains the creation account, where we learn of God’s power and humanity’s privileged status as those made in his image. In the third chapter, we witness humanity’s precipitous fall into sin, tarnishing (but not diminishing) that image and breaking everything else with one fateful bite of fruit. Both events are true, and both are seismically important.

Often, our assumptions about humanity, especially about those of different religious faiths, are firmly rooted in Genesis 3 and nowhere else. But our fallenness and depravity are only possible because there is something more fundamentally true about us: we are made in God’s image. That humanity is irrevocably made in God’s image means that we all possess certain fundamental rights. And as Southern Baptists we affirm that one of those rights is religious liberty, which is grounded in our understanding of soul freedom—the ability to choose whether or how each individual follows God.

The Ministry of Jesus

Secondly, we should advocate for people of all religions because the ministry of Jesus compels us to. Soul freedom is at the core of Jesus’ itinerant and ongoing ministry. In the New Testament, for example, Luke’s gospel transports us to a Nazarene synagogue where we hear a sermonette Jesus delivered to a crowd of people. Kicking off his teaching, Jesus was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, from which he read:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18–19, CSB, emphasis added).

At his coming, Jesus is saying, those held captive, imprisoned, and oppressed—both spiritually and physically—have the hope of being liberated by God’s only begotten Son, who has come and announced an end to their enslavement. But Jesus didn’t only proclaim release to the captives; he actually set them free. For example, in the region of the Gerasenes, Jesus introduced “the year of the Lord’s favor” to a long-oppressed captive by freeing him (Luke 8:26–38). This man, seen as an “other” by the religious community, was set free from his spiritual and physical bondage by the eternal Word made flesh. 

As those who have been released from spiritual captivity (Rom. 6:17, 2; Col. 1:13), we have been called to take up the ministry of Jesus and, through evangelism, proclaim release to the captives. But should we not also, through advocacy, work to set free those who are oppressed physically? This is central to the work of God’s people, even on behalf of those whose beliefs fundamentally clash with our own. After all, religious liberty is not merely freedom from oppression, but the freedom to act in accordance with one’s conscience. And because “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” religious liberty for all is a right the church should affirm and insist that the state not infringe upon.4https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#xvii-religious-liberty

Christians are Ambassadors for Christ

If Christ came to “proclaim release to the captives” and “to set free the oppressed”—to bestow liberty, in other words—then, as his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), we ought to go out on his behalf and carry on his work. This is why religious liberty is supremely important to the ERLC’s work.

The ERLC is committed to advocating for this first freedom on behalf of all peoples. We have focused much of our attention on being a voice for the Uyghurs, a group enduring brutality at the hands of the Chinese government.5Oppression and the Olympics: What Christians Should Know About China’s Human Right Atrocities, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffEQ463eGB8 Many of the Uyghur people have been subjected to reeducation camps, forced labor, and even forced sterilization in women. We supported various pieces of legislation including the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and urged the United States government to issue an official determination that the CCP is committing genocide. 

The ERLC was also a part of an amicus brief in the case of Ramirez v. Collier, which concerned the religious rights of a prison inmate in Texas. We asked the Supreme Court to protect the religious freedom of Ramirez, who was sentenced to die for his crime, and allow him to have his Southern Baptist pastor lay hands on and pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. On March 24, in an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ramirez and affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door.

Likewise, we are standing firmly opposed to The Equality Act, a bill that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal civil rights law. The bill would curtail religious freedom protections, hinder the work of healthcare professionals and faith-based hospitals, undermine civil rights protections for women and girls, and ultimately steamroll the consciences of millions of Americans.6https://erlc.com/equalityact/ 

Religious liberty is essential because true faith cannot be coerced, nor should it be outlawed. Where soul freedom is not recognized by the state, the state is violating those made in the image of God and the freedom of its citizens. As ambassadors of Christ, then, we seek not to coerce or strongarm consciences, or permit the state to do so, but to advocate for their freedom and, by God’s grace, make our appeal to those free consciences to be reconciled to their Lord. 

And, like Jesus, our words are to be paired with action. May we be those who take Christ’s good news to oppressed peoples here and abroad, working to set them free spiritually and physically, until the earth is “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).

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 the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. He's married to Juliana, and they have three children.

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