The Future of Religious Liberty Advocacy

The Power of the Gospel, the State’s Limitations, and Human Flourishing

Casey McCall

One cannot tell the story of religious liberty in America apart from Baptists. From Roger Williams and John Clarke in 17th-century New England to Isaac Backus and John Leland in post-Revolutionary America, Baptists have historically insisted that each individual is accountable to God alone for religious conviction, that conscience is the God-given mechanism through which God guides a person to act on those convictions, and that the state cannot coerce religion. 

Baptists and Religious Liberty Advocacy 

Based on these beliefs, Baptists have not argued merely for toleration, wherein the state allows objectionable religious beliefs and chooses to restrain punishment, but for full religious liberty, wherein the state has no authority to decree religion whatsoever, leaving such matters to individual conscience. Throughout history, Baptists have recognized religious conviction under the domain of God alone, making religious liberty a God-ordained right and not the prerogative of legislative discretion. 

While some have claimed such beliefs derive from the 18th-century Enlightenment, the Baptist witness to religious liberty predates that philosophical movement. Additionally, arguments for religious liberty can be located all the way back to the Patristic era of the Church.1See, Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019). If anything, Enlightenment theorists drew inspiration from the Baptist struggle. 

The Baptist argument for religious liberty stems primarily from Baptist covenant theology that prioritizes the new covenant in Christ as the high point of biblical revelation. Baptists insist on religious liberty for the same reason we insist on believer’s baptism—each covenant member must be born of the Spirit from above (John 3:1–8). Neither parents nor the state can enforce that supernatural transaction, and attempts at coercion lead to false professions of faith, which mars the witness of the Church. 

Baptists have therefore maintained that government rightly functions when it allows all religious expression to operate freely without interference. In such a context, only the Church wields weapons of warfare capable of destroying strongholds (2 Cor. 10:4). 

The Future Of Religious Liberty Advocacy 

Since its inception in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention has hardly wavered in its commitment to religious liberty for all. Before 1990 the SBC’s public policy goals were split between the Baptist Joint Commission, which specialized in religious liberty concerns, and the Christian Life Commission, which advocated for biblical ethics on behalf of Southern Baptists. However, since the early 1990s, both aims have been carried forward under the mission of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

However, each new generation presents its own unique challenges to biblical orthodoxy and ethics because the forces of evil never rest in their attempt to undermine God’s purposes. Religious liberty, enjoyed in the United States since 1833 when Massachusetts became the last state to disestablish religion, has only persisted in the face of innumerable challenges thanks to unwavering advocacy in courtrooms and in the broader culture.

Challenges Over the Last Century 

Over the past century, challenges to religious liberty have typically come from the cultural Left as opponents have sought to contest traditional religious expression in the courts. Many have misread the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause as a ban on religion from the public square. However, the establishment clause does not ban religious people from policy debates or forbid the state from legislating policies that are in accordance with biblical values. Instead, America’s founding generation sought to ensure that the U.S. never establish religion by law, leaving each citizen free to follow his or her own conscience.

As Richard John Neuhaus observed nearly four decades ago, there’s no such thing as a truly “naked” public square. He insightfully observed, “When recognizable religion is excluded, the vacuum will be filled by ersatz religion, by religion bootlegged into public space under other names.”2Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 80. Challenges to free expression of religion are often subtle attempts to institute various secular orthodoxies in their place. The ERLC has typically needed to defend the establishment clause on the one hand while fighting for the right of citizens to freely practice and express their faith in the public square on the other.

These kinds of challenges will inevitably persist as the culture’s ideology continues to trend away from biblical orthodoxy, and the importance of the ERLC’s mission will only increase against the emboldened secular Left. 

A New Source of Challenge to Religious Liberty

However, a new battlefront is forming for Christian advocates of religious liberty, and the source of opposition may be surprising to some. As culture drifts radically leftward, many Evangelicals are attacking the idea of religious liberty from the other side. This group wants to put new covenant wine into old covenant wineskins by linking the mission of God to the secular state. The continual secularization of American culture proves, they argue, that the American project of recognizing universal liberty of conscience has failed. Some hope for government assistance to bolster the Church’s mission and boost her power.

Here’s the question the SBC will need to ask as we turn toward the future: As we depend on the state to fulfill its God-given mandate of upholding justice and order in society, do we really want to tie the Church’s mission to political power?

Why are we so mesmerized by the prospect of defeating our political enemies to win a culture war when we already follow the One who reigns “above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph. 1:21)? The cry to abandon religious liberty reveals a crisis of confidence in the Spirit-filled Church’s ability to fulfill its Christ-given mission and stands in stark contrast to the foundational Baptist belief of “soul freedom.” 

Many of our Baptist predecessors longed for religious liberty because they were confident that, freed to preach the gospel, churches would convert people from every nation to Christ. They saw the folly of showing up to wrestle “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12) by wielding the impotent sword of the state, and, instead, doubled down on preaching, sending missionaries, and loving their neighbors by fighting for justice in the name of Christ.3See, Aaron Menikoff, Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770–1860 (Eugene: Pickwick, 2014). 

They looked at a world run by government-established churches and saw a lack of spiritual vitality often resulting from abandonment of the gospel in favor of temporal power. They understood the qualitative difference between the self-sacrificial service that characterizes Christ’s Kingdom and the lord-it-over-you oppression of Gentile rulers (Mark 10:35–45). 

Baptists have often responded to loss of cultural power by rallying behind the triumphant power of the cross.

So, instead of giving in to fear amidst the uncertainty of our day and looking to the state for answers, Baptists should look to their forebearers. These men and women rightly distrusted the ability of the state to accomplish lasting spiritual good and instead united behind the apostles in pursuit of the Church’s disciple-making mission. May we do the same, looking forward to the day our King returns to judge and to rule (Matt. 28:18-20). 

In this vein, may the ERLC continue to persistently remind Southern Baptists of the gospel’s power, even as it continues to lead the way in contending for justice and universal human flourishing in service to the advancement of God’s Kingdom.

Casey McCall is lead pastor at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church – Oldham County. He writes frequently for Prince on Preaching and the Oldham Era and has contributed articles to Radical, For the Church, ERLC, and the Journal of Andrew Fuller Studies.

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