“The Glory of the Baptist Heritage”

Religious Liberty and the Work of the ERLC

Cory D. Higdon

Where you find Baptists, you find a people devoted to the cause of religious liberty. From the earliest decades of the 17th century, Baptists like Thomas Helwys and John Murton contended for soul freedom, or the ability to choose what one believes, for all people—a campaign they conducted within the walls of Newgate prison as incarcerated dissenters from the established Anglican order. Their efforts were picked up by subsequent figures such as Roger Williams, John Clarke, and Obadiah Holmes. These three individuals, who also suffered for their religious beliefs, helped plant religious liberty as a viable political policy in colonial New England.

Men such as Isaac Backus and John Leland were tireless advocates in the colonial period and early republic for the Baptist principle of religious liberty. They argued that religious establishment inhibited the conditions conducive to true spiritual regeneration and political prosperity. Given the Baptist tradition on religious liberty, it was no wonder that U.S. Secretary of State Charles Hughes declared in 1922: “This contribution is the glory of the Baptist heritage, more distinctive than any other characteristic of belief or practice.” George Truett, the former pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, also argued that “it is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced.” 

Religious liberty advocacy through the ERLC 

Southern Baptists have perpetuated these ideals, contending for the cause of conscience throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. They have also adopted similar strategies from Baptists in previous generations by cooperating together, forming committees and entities specifically charged with defending religious liberty in America and abroad. 

The formation of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) in 1997 from the Christian Life Commission (CLC) and Public Affairs Committee (PAC), represented a renewed emphasis among Southern Baptists to fund a research and policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) tasked with protecting and defending the sacred rights of conscience. This vital work channeled what Baptists from the early American republic understood about religious liberty: success in the cause of freedom was more certain through cooperation.  

Since the ERLCʼs formation in 1997, the cultural climate has grown more hostile to Christianity. The sexual revolution and the increased polarization of the American public square have led academics and political activists alike to question the importance of religious liberty. In the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage with the Obergefell v. Hodges U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015, religious liberty is culturally contested in ways it has not been before, with some viewing it merely as a pretext to justify bigotry and discrimination. 

As such, Baptists no longer find themselves contending for the liberty not to pay taxes in support of the established religious order. On the contrary, all Christians now confront a society averse to the moral and ethical claims of Christianity. This predicament presents a myriad of peculiar and perilous challenges to religious liberty as Christians now contend for the liberty and freedom to live publicly in a way that corresponds with their deepest convictions. 

Unlike our forebears who contended for the right to withhold their children from infant baptism, today’s controversies are often tied to questions of sexuality and gender. Must a Christian baker design a cake celebrating a “transgender birthday”? Must Christian foster care and adoption agencies alter their deeply held beliefs on marriage and family in order to partner with the state in the care of orphans? Must Christian colleges and universities surrender their theological convictions if they plan to participate in state funding and enjoy tax incentives? These questions, and many more, reverberate throughout the public square with significant ramifications on religious liberty. 

Rooted in a long-standing, robust theological heritage, and with conviction about the common goods secured through conscience protections, the ERLC has confronted these challenges facing the Church. The efforts of the ERLC on the matter of religious liberty have emerged from a clear conception about the origin of soul freedom: religious liberty is a natural right, making it pre-political and therefore not subject to the whims of the mob or the headwinds of the cultural climate. 

This principled understanding of religious liberty has undergirded the ERLC’s advocacy over the years. From landmark judicial decisions to religious liberty on a global scale, the ERLC has sought to represent Southern Baptists on issues of conscience, protecting this first freedom for the purposes of the gospel and human flourishing. 

Amicus briefs

Advocacy before the court is an important part of the ERLC’s efforts. One way the Commission does this is through amicus, or friend of the court, briefs. Before the formation of the ERLC, the CLC started to file amici briefs on religious liberty in the 1990s, once it absorbed the PAC. Since then, the ERLC has filed numerous amici briefs in watershed religious liberty cases as a means of advocacy before the courts. These include:

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC: a 2012 case where the court held that the First Amendment prevents the federal government from intervening in the employment practices of churches,

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: a 2018 case that involved a Christian baker who desired to operate his business in a way consistent with his Christian faith, 

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: a 2014 case requiring employers to offer abortion-causing drugs in their insurance coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act,

• and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey Berru: a 2020 case that debated whether the First Amendment’s religion clause allows courts to interfere with a religious organization’s employment decisions when the employee performs religious duties. 

In each of these cases, the ERLC, on behalf of Southern Baptists, advanced the cause of religious liberty in the public square, contending that the rights of conscience cannot be sequestered to the private spheres of our homes or churches. Instead, men and women, as those made in the image of God, have the right to publicly profess and practice their religious beliefs without fear, government interference, or retribution. 


In addition to its legal portfolio, the ERLC has raised awareness amongst Southern Baptists on key pieces of legislation. Most notably, the CLC, under the direction of Richard Land, joined the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion in order to secure the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA, 1993), which protects religious liberty for all Americans.1https://www.clsnet.org/document.doc?id=803 Further, the Commission has opposed the Do No Harm Act since its initial introduction in 20172https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/congressional-democrats-reintroduce-do-no-harm-act-n978101 because it would weaken religious liberty protections for millions of Americans by hollowing out RFRA.3https://erlc.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/ERL3103_LegisAgenda_012523.pdf

Most recently, the ERLC has advocated tirelessly against the Equality Act, which seeks to expand the definition of “sex” to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (SOGI) and constitutes one of the gravest threats to American religious liberty. In addition, the Commission continues to call for vital conscience protections in appropriations bills which provide money for government funding each year. 

By cooperating together and funding the ERLC, Southern Baptists have dedicated important resources to ensure scrutiny of proposed laws that would infringe upon the rights of conscience. In fact, throughout its existence, former presidents of the ERLC have appeared before Congress, contending for policy initiatives that protect our most fundamental liberties.4https://erlc.com/resource-library/press-releases/sbcs-richard-land-testifies-in-support-of-workplace-religious-freedom-act/

International issues

The challenges threatening religious liberty in America, though important, have not eclipsed the plight of those around the world who suffer religious persecution. On this front as well, the ERLC has devoted time and resources to raise awareness about the importance of religious liberty around the world. As a natural right, religious liberty must be recognized, respected, and protected in every nation. Furthermore, securing religious liberty abroad nourishes relations between America and other nations, engendering peace and concord among countries. 

In 2021, the SBC passed a resolution called “On the Uyghur Genocide,” becoming the first denomination to rightly call out the atrocity happening in China.5https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/on-the-uyghur-genocide/ In addition, the ERLC, along with like-minded partners, advocated for and celebrated the passing of the “Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.”6https://erlc.com/resource-library/press-releases/erlc-commends-congress-on-reaching-agreement-on-uyghur-forced-labor-prevention-act/

Further, the ERLC has wielded its influence in the public square to try and alleviate religiously-motivated violence across the globe, such as the persecution of Christians in Malyasia7https://erlc.com/resource-library/white-papers/religious-freedom-and-liberty-partnership-in-malaysia/ and North Korea.8https://erlc.com/resource-library/issue-briefs/erlc-supports-freedom-of-religion-and-belief-in-the-democratic-peoples-republic-of-korea-dprk/ In so doing, not only has the ERLC helped promote human flourishing, but it also fosters conditions globally that make it easier for Christian churches and missionaries to reach the lost for the Kingdom of Christ. 

As Southern Baptists look to the future, it is important to continue to stand for religious liberty. We should, furthermore, see the pending threats to liberty of conscience as a direct assault on the imago Dei. As stewards of our history and heritage, it is incumbent upon Southern Baptists, cooperating together through the ERLC, to contend for this first freedom as an act of love for our neighbors, and for the glory of Christ and his Kingdom.

Cory D. Higdon (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an adjunct professor of history and humanities at Boyce College. He serves as the director of research in the Office of the President at Southern Seminary and as the managing director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. His research focuses on the history of religious liberty in colonial America and has been featured in the Journal of Church and State, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Public Discourse, Providence Magazine, and American Reformer. He and his family reside in Louisville, Kentucky.

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