By / Mar 3

On this episode, Brent Leatherwood and Lindsay Nicolet talk to Jason Thacker about his new book, “The Digital Public Square,” and how Christian ethics apply in a technological society. They discuss the importance of Christians engaging various technological tools with wisdom and the motivation to love God and love our neighbors. 

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  • 2023 Public Policy Agenda | The first session of the 118th Congress is now underway, and it begins as the nation is grappling with war around the world, inflation at home, and deep division across our nation. This also begins a new era of divided government with a Democratic president, a narrow Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, and a slim Republican majority in the House. This dynamic ensures legislating and governing will be a difficult task. We recently released the 2023 ERLC Public Policy agenda which includes our priorities for religious liberty, sanctity of life, marriage and family, and human dignity. Download the full agenda and learn how your Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is advocating for issues important to Southern Baptists at ERLC.com/policy.
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By / Feb 21

A few years ago, I read an insightful article by Shira Ovide of the New York Times on the splintering of the internet and the complexities surrounding digital governance around the world. 1Shira Ovide, “The Internet Is Splintering,” New York Times, February 17, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/17/technology/the-internet-is -splintering .html. She writes about how most countries around the world have their own car safety regulations and tax codes, but currently there is widespread debate over how online expression should be governed. She highlights how technology companies—many based in the Western world—are essentially governing speech and free expression online, which leads to major controversies and dissension as many countries want to retain that power for themselves.

One of the most salient points she makes in the piece concerns the promises of how technology was going to usher in a new world order. She writes, “The utopian idea of the internet was that it would help tear down national boundaries, but technology watchers have been warning for decades that it could instead build those barriers even higher.” Not only are those barriers being built higher around the world, but technological power is also being exerted by powerful governments and leaders to control and manipulate people created in God’s very image. 2For more on the widespread use of technology to suppress human rights and free expression around the world, see chapter 11 by Olivia Enos in this work.

Over the last few years, we have even seen numerous companies shut down the internet to quell protests and dissension among their own people, like that in Iran, Belarus, China, and Cuba. These stories represent a much larger question that is being debated about how technology companies like Meta, Twitter, and many others should do business around the world, especially in areas where there is significant disagreement over the basic freedoms we enjoy in America. 

But even in the United States, we have significant differences and major disagreements on the role of the government and third-party technology companies concerning issues like content moderation, free expression, and online governance. These complexities and differences are present even though we have some level of a shared culture and agreement on many basic human freedoms—even though that agreement seems to be fraying with each passing day.

An opportunity for Christian engagement

Technology policy expert Klon Kitchen, who serves at the American Enterprise Institute as a Resident Fellow, wrote a brilliant essay at National Affairs about the realities we face in this technological age. He states that “all governments must [now] acknowledge and adapt to the fact that they no longer wield exclusive power and influence on the global stage.” 3Klon Kitchen, “The New Superpowers: How and Why the Tech Industry Is Shaping the International System,” National Affairs, no. 49 (Fall 2021), https://nationalaffairs .com/the-new-superpowers-how-and-why-the-tech-industry-is-shaping-the-international-system. The rise of a technology industry operating transnationally with enormous power over public discourse presents a unique challenge to our society but also an opportunity for Christians to engage with these companies as we have historically done with governments, standing for human dignity and religious freedom around the world. The Christian church has a rich heritage of public theology and navigating church/state relations, drawn in large part directly from the scriptural calling to honor the leaders God has placed in charge, hold the government accountable to their calling to stand for justice, and honor the God-given freedoms of all as created in God’s image (Rom 13:1–6). 

While the rise of these transnational entities in the digital age may present unique challenges on issues like online governance, it also presents a unique opportunity for Christians to engage the technology industry with a robust public theology built upon an unchanging understanding of human dignity and freedom derived from Scripture. It is far too easy in our technological society to see other human beings as simply problems to be solved or as pawns in the pursuit of power. But a Christian understanding of humanity and the nature of society is rooted in the dignity of all people that transcends our national allegiances and even the technological order itself we spoke of earlier.

As Christians engage on these important ethical issues, we must do so from a position of principled pluralism—recognizing the inherent dignity of all people and with a clear moral vision of a common good grounded in God’s Word.

Grounded in these two truths, we can model for our society how to have these debates from a convictional, yet grace-filled perspective. In a society that prizes efficiency, speed, and at times public contempt for our political and social “enemies,” we should seek to prioritize the dignity of all, including those who disagree with us on these important issues. We can do so by recognizing that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the cosmic powers of darkness (Eph 6:12). That means that we engage from a position of hope and grace, knowing that we are to seek the right changes in the right way (Rom 3:8).

A second and vital requirement is understanding the basic tenets of the debates at hand, rather than simply dropping into these complex debates or speaking to issues without a full understanding of the gravity of the situation. Just as we seek to gain insight and expertise in other areas of life—especially engagement with government—to honestly engage, we must do the same with the technology industry and the complex issues they face doing business around the world. This is one of the many reasons this volume consists of two corresponding chapters speaking to the domestic and international issues of technology policy as well as a host of important issues in the digital public square. 

It does not serve well the message of the gospel, much less our society, to engage on issues without knowledge or awareness of the issues at stake, even if our society seems to reward hot-takes on social media over true action oriented toward lasting change. Even with the immense complexity of these debates, one thing is clear: the dignity of our neighbor is at stake around the world, especially under repressive authoritarian regimes. We must keep that truth central in this debate over digital governance. Even though these issues may at times seem to be simply about tweets, posts, and even the contours of content moderation, these are simply expressions of how human beings, created in God’s image, are able to communicate, express themselves, and do life in an ever-increasing digital society.

Adapted from The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society, edited by Jason Thacker, and published by B&H Academic.

  • 1
    Shira Ovide, “The Internet Is Splintering,” New York Times, February 17, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/17/technology/the-internet-is -splintering .html.
  • 2
    For more on the widespread use of technology to suppress human rights and free expression around the world, see chapter 11 by Olivia Enos in this work.
  • 3
    Klon Kitchen, “The New Superpowers: How and Why the Tech Industry Is Shaping the International System,” National Affairs, no. 49 (Fall 2021), https://nationalaffairs .com/the-new-superpowers-how-and-why-the-tech-industry-is-shaping-the-international-system.
By / Feb 2

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Feb. 2, 2023—Jason Thacker, director of the research institute and chair of research in technology ethics for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, released a new volume titled, “The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society,” published by B&H Academic.

This volume is among the first to focus on questions of digital governance, content moderation and the role of social media in society from a distinctly Chrisitan perspective. It is a part of a long-term research project launched by the ERLC that explores the intersection of Christian ethics and the increasingly digital public square.  

“Social media and emerging technologies have challenged some of our most basic understandings of truth, faith, and even the idea of a public square,” said Thacker. “Today we face immense ethical and social challenges such as the proper role of government, corporate responsibility, and personal accountability in light of the ways that technology is shaping us and the public square. The Christian moral tradition is not only sufficient for the immense task before us but also reframes these debates in light of God’s unchanging character, the Christian concept of human dignity, and a vision of social transformation and the common good rooted in the gospel message.”

Thacker assembled a team of 12 contributors to aid the church in applying the Christian moral teachings to topics including: 

  • Censorship;
  • Technology policy; 
  • Free speech;
  • Conspiracy theories;
  • Sexual ethics;
  • Hate speech;
  • Religious freedom;
  • Digital authoritarianism;
  • Tribalism;
  • Discipleship; and
  • Christian witness. 

Contributors such as David French, Patricia Shaw, Keith Plummer, and Brooke Medina cast a distinctly Christian vision of a digital public theology to promote the common good throughout our society and around the world.

The Digital Public Square project was launched by Thacker and the ERLC in September 2021 and is a multi-year initiative in technology ethics. The ERLC released the first ever faith-based statement of principles on artificial intelligence in April 2019.

“For years now, the ERLC has produced a number of thought-provoking resources about technology and the ways it is both challenging and changing us,” said Brent Leatherwood, ERLC president. “This newest resource continues that work to help our churches understand the complexities of our increasingly online world. While it can be tempting to think the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about emerging technology, Jason Thacker and the incredible team of thinkers he’s put together in this volume reveal how, in fact, Christian ethics offer the best possible guide for successfully engaging the digital public square.”

For more on this volume and the other resources from the Digital Public Square research project, visit jasonthacker.com/books.

By / Aug 23

 NASHVILLE, Tenn., Aug. 23, 2022— What does faith have to do with pressing issues of life in a digital world? Jason Thacker addresses this question in his latest book, Following Jesus in a Digital Age releasing Aug. 30 from B&H Publishing Group.          

Thacker, who serves as the director of the Research Institute at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and as chair of research in technology ethics, wrote Following Jesus in a Digital Age to challenge Christians to consider how technology shapes their faith and how to navigate the most difficult aspects of digital culture—including the rise of misinformation, conspiracy theories, social media, digital privacy and social polarization.             

“The ERLC has for the last several years been at the forefront of thinking critically and biblically about emerging technologies and the influence they are having on our culture,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the ERLC. “This is due, in no small part, to the work of Jason Thacker, one of the leading thinkers focusing on the crossroads of ethics and technology. In fact, this very book springs forth from the very research Jason is spearheading on issues of the digital public square. It is a helpful resource that promises wisdom and insight for any individual, small group, or church that seeks to honor God as they navigate the digital age.” 

According to Hootsuite’s Global State of Digital 2022 report, the average person spends about two and a half hours a day on social media and nearly seven hours a day using the internet.  

Following Jesus in a Digital Age is designed to help readers understand the deeply formative nature of technology.  

“This book reminds all of us that technology is subtly, yet drastically altering how we perceive the world around us, including issues of the nature of truth, responsibility and identity in our digital age,” Thacker said. “Amid the confusion and seeming cultural chaos of our day, Christians can engage these pressing issues of technology and ethics from a place of hope rooted in God’s unfailing Word and how He calls us to live with wisdom in our increasingly digital culture.” 

In September 2021, the ERLC launched the Digital Public Square, a long-term research project convening top Christian thinkers to explore the intersection of Christian ethics, technology and today’s digital public square. 

In addition to Thacker’s Following Jesus in Digital Age book, leaders of the Digital Public Square project plan to release assets over a two-year period to equip Christians on why ethics of technology matter to human flourishing and our public discourse.  

Upcoming Digital Public Square project assets include:

  • Weekly podcast with top leaders across society called, The Digital Public Square focused on theology, ethics and philosophy in the public square;
  • Corresponding Bible study with Lifeway Adults on similar topics to Following Jesus in a Digital Age;
  • Edited collection of academic essays with B&H Academic entitled, The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society;
  • Guidebook for students and teenagers about social media set for release in January 2023 by Christian Focus.

The project will culminate with an in-depth report on the state of the digital public square and a set of guiding ethical principles for digital governance and the public square in the coming year. To learn more about the Digital Public Square project, visit ERLC.com/digital

By / Oct 18

Nearly every area of our lives has been technicized or digitized in one way or another during the past century. Technology has ushered in innumerable benefits for humanity, which often overshadow some of the damaging effects of these massive shifts in our daily lives. Smartphones have led to a growing culture of digital addictions and isolation, especially among young people. We see this fact clearly in the recent reports of how Facebook — and by extension, all of social media — has become toxic for teenage girls and for the rest of us as well.

Social and mass media have connected societies across the world, opening up new opportunities for everyone’s voices to be heard, stories to be shared, and economic opportunities to be spread like never before. But they have come with a price, exacerbating an exponential breakdown of civil discourse and leading to a weakening of various control mechanisms that helped govern our common pursuit of truth. Modern medical technologies have allowed for longer and healthier lives for millions of people, but have also led to a devaluing of humanity.  For all of the real benefits of technology, there are countless dangers that have often fallen outside of the public eye. In truth, technology has ushered in a breakdown of our social fabric and led to the commodification of everything. 

One of the most prescient figures and astute observers of the cultural and moral shifts taking place in the 20th century with the rise of modern technology, Jacques Ellul, opened his influential work The Technological Society by saying, “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world. And yet no subject is so little understood” (3). As a trained sociologist and a Protestant theologian, Ellul rightly saw that there are not only political or social components to technology, but also theological and ethical components as well. Southern Baptist theologian R. Albert Mohler Jr. echoed these truths by recently stating, “Christians must think seriously about technology and understand that technology is a theological issue.” 

Yet, in light of these realities, there is still only a small — though growing — library of theological and ethical resources on these crucial issues. So where might the church turn for wisdom in this technological age?

Equipping the Church

Over the last few years, the ERLC has sought to lead the way in preparing the church for this digital age and warn of the impending issues of technology in the public square and in our local contexts. In April 2019, the ERLC launched a groundbreaking statement of principles on artificial intelligence (AI) declaring that the imago Dei is not only the central element of Christian ethics but also a key aspect of how we navigate the pressing ethical issues of technology. In a world seemingly set on the immanent and material, this Christian teaching reminds us that we are uniquely created by God given dignity, value, and moral responsibility for the things we create and their shaping power over all of society and culture.

In September, the ERLC board of trustees approved an ambitious and large-scale research project called the Digital Public Square which will serve as a hub for Southern Baptists and evangelical engagement on these pressing issues of technology and digital governance over the next couple of years. The main goal of this project is to provide research and resources to help you navigate this digital age as we collectively think through complex and crucial ethical challenges with biblical wisdom and insight. It will include a state of digital governance report, statement of principles on digital technologies, two major book projects, and various resources — including the recently launched Digital Public Square podcast with conversations on theology, ethics, and philosophy in the public square.

The challenges ahead

As we look ahead to the ethical challenges of technology and the public square, we see three main areas of needed research and ethical reflection. 

First, the Church must be able to proclaim the inherent dignity of all people and their God-given, pre-political rights of free expression and religious freedom in an age that is increasingly hostile or apathetic to the truth of Christianity. The public nature of faith is a key aspect of the Christian worldview, even in a secularized culture that seeks to simply relegate religious belief to a private matter of individuals. Christianity is not a privatized faith, rooted in individualism, but a faith that radically transforms every aspect of our lives including how we love God and our neighbor in the digital age. These two issues are especially prevalent as society faces yet another epistemic crisis over the reality of truth and how we navigate the complexities of an increasingly diverse society.

Second an underdeveloped, yet key area of ethical research is defining the competing concepts of hate speech in a digital age and the key distinctions of physical threats of violence or immanent harm versus the dramatic growth of emotional safeism. In recent years, ideas — especially those of biological realities and historic Christian teaching — have been deemed as inherantly bigoted and harmful. But, as Brookings scholar Jonathan Rauch eloquently states in his recent work The Constitution of Knowledge, “words are not bullets . . . stopping words does not stop bullets, and . . . confusing words with bullets is a tragic error” (203).

Lastly, in light of the dangerous abuses of technology and data happening all across the world today, the Church needs serious reflection on the ethical aspects of digital privacy, data collection, and the growing authoritarian abuses of technology. Examples of this are the desperate longing for complete and unfettered control of the Chinese Communist Party over the Chinese people — and, by extension, the growing influence of the CCP abroad — and the concerning trends of data collection being used to alter the behaviors of countless people through digital technologies. The combination of the power of these tools and the sinful nature of humanity does not allow for the Church to passively engage these issues.

Through the Digital Public Square project, the ERLC hopes to chart a new path for Southern Baptist and evangelical engagement on these pressing issues of technology. We will do this based on the unchanging Word of God and the kingship of Christ, alongside a rich heritage of public and social engagement built upon the dignity of every human being. Technology is not a tertiary issue in the public square. It is a deeply theological and ethical issue that the Church must engage, compelled by the love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-31).

Learn more about ERLC’s work in the digital public square and sign up to receive articles like this at ERLC.com/digital

By / Oct 6

The digital age promised deep connections, rich communication, and more access to information than we could ever imagine. But while technology has brought incredible benefits and conveniences into our lives, it also has led to countless unintended consequences and deep ethical challenges that push us to consider how to live out our faith in a technological society.

This week, Chelsea Sobolik’s ERLC colleague Jason Thacker joins her to discuss his new project, the digital public square and important tech policies that you need to know about.

Guest Biography

Jason serves as chair of research in technology ethics at the ERLC. He also serves as an adjunct instructor of philosophy, ethics, and worldview at Boyce College in Louisville, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Following Jesus in the Digital Age with B&H Publishing, as well as The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity with Zondervan. He also serves as the editor of a forthcoming volume with B&H Academic on Christian ethics and the digital public square, focused on content moderation and online governance. He is the project leader and lead drafter of Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles, and his work has been featured at Slate, Politico, Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and World Radio.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Sep 16

My family lives just outside of a small town in Tennessee with a historic downtown district. Like many small towns throughout our nation, we have a downtown square that serves as a hub. In prior generations, these public squares were gathering places for everyone. People regularly traveled in from the outskirts of town to shop, eat, and do business. They would also come together for community events and to freely engage with one another. While many historic downtown public squares have been abandoned in light of the growth of suburbs, there is a renewed interest in revitalizing these historic neighborhoods and to provide a place for communities to gather once again — especially in a digital age that has led to increasing isolation.

These public gathering places serve as an apt metaphor for a period when much of our daily communication, commerce, and community are facilitated in the digital public square of social media and online connectivity. With the rise of the internet and various social media platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, and massive online retailers and internet companies like Amazon and Google — these new digital public squares promised to bring about a vibrant era of connectivity and togetherness across distances, more diverse communities, and more access to information. Many of these initial promises were made in light of oppressive regimes throughout the world that stifled free speech, suppressed human rights, violated religious freedom, and limited access to information in order to maintain control over other human beings made in the very image of God. 

Ethical challenges in the digital age

While technology has brought incredible benefits and conveniences into our lives, it also has led to countless unintended consequences and deep ethical challenges that push us to consider how to live out our faith in a technological society. Each day we are bombarded with fake news, misinformation, conspiracy theories, ever growing polarization, and more information than we could ever hope to process. We are regularly faced with challenges where wisdom and truth are needed, yet faith is not always welcomed in the public square and in the important debates over digital governance. In truth, technology has always been used and abused by those who seek to hold on to power and wield it to suppress free expression all around the world. But today, these threats seem more visceral and dangerous to our way of life than ever before.

One of the most challenging ethical issues of our day with technology is centered around the proper role of digital governance and the ethical boundaries of free expression in the digital public square. Many have recently begun to question the role of the technology industry over our public discourse, as well as the responsibilities of individuals, third-party companies, and even the role of the government in digital governance. While much of the dangerous, illegal, and elicit content is rightly moderated, questions remain as to what kind of ideas or speech are to be welcomed in the digital public square and how we’re to maintain various ethical boundaries as we seek to uphold free expression and religious freedom for all. 

On one hand, our digital public squares are very public and have an incredibly diverse group of community members. But on the other hand, there is often immense pressure to conform to certain secular ethical principles that tend to push people of faith out of public conversations and debates simply based on their deeply held beliefs about God, the nature of humanity, and how we are to navigate these challenges to free expression and religious freedom. 

A new research project

The complex nature of the questions surrounding ethics and religion in the digital age is exactly why I am excited to announce that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is pioneering a new research project called the Digital Public Square. This project is designed to help provide the local church and the technology industry with thoughtful resources that will help everyone engage these important debates over digital governance and promote free expression as well as religious freedom for all. We seek to cast a robust vision for public theology and ethical engagement in a technological society — a vision grounded in a historical understanding of the role of the church in society and in the unchanging Word of God. While some believe that religion has no role to play in a modern society, we believe that our faith is central to how we engage these pressing issues and live faithfully in the digital age.

The Digital Public Square project will gather some of the best voices from across academia, journalism, public policy, think tanks, and most importantly, the local church to clarify the state of the digital public square and to cast a vision for Christian engagement in the areas of content moderation, online governance, and engagement with the technology industry as a whole. Just as Christians have sought to develop a robust public theology on matters of church and state relations for many generations, Christians must also think deeply about how God would call us to engage the challenges of technology and these companies that operate around the globe in vastly different cultural contexts. We will seek to answer questions surrounding the nature of free expression, the role of democratic values around the world, and best practices for cultivating a truly diverse digital society where people of faith are a vital part of these important conversations.

We will do so in a four-prong approach that will extend throughout 2021 and 2022. The project will include an in-depth report on the state of the digital public square, a set of guiding ethical principles for digital governance, and numerous resources for the local church to use in order to engage and bear witness to the gospel in the digital age. These resources will include two different book-length volumes: Following Jesus in a Digital Age with B&H Publishing, and The Digital Public Square: Ethics and Religion in a Technological Society from B&H Academic in 2022. The latter will feature contributions from 14 leading thinkers from across society addressing the pressing issues of digital governance, such as the nature of the public square, US and international technology policy, religious freedom, hate speech/violence, seuxality and gender issues, pornography and other objectionable content, misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, and the rise of global digital authoritarianism. 

To learn more about the Digital Public Square project and to receive project updates, along with our weekly content on technology ethics, visit ERLC.com/digital.

By / Sep 16

Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 16, 2021—The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is launching a new, long-term research project today convening top Christian thinkers to explore the intersection of Christian ethics and the digital public square.

The Digital Public Square project will focus on the areas of human dignity, ethics, free speech and religious freedom. Jason Thacker, ERLC’s chair of research in technology ethics and author of the forthcoming book, “Following Jesus in the Digital Age,” from B&H Publishing, is spearheading the project. 

ERLC trustees affirmed the project by a unanimous vote after a special presentation from Thacker during their annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 15.

“The ethical issues surrounding technology are often extremely complex and challenging,” said Thacker. “In an increasingly digital society, technology is the primary means through which much of our public discourse occurs. The ERLC wants to equip Christians and the wider culture to make sense of an ever-changing digital culture and to gain wisdom to navigate the most challenging aspects of technology and social media—including the nature of religious freedom and free expression in the digital public square. We often fail to see how technology is shaping not only our own walk with Christ, but also our churches and communities in ways that are contrary to our faith.”

Acting ERLC President Brent Leatherwood stated, “The ministry assignment Southern Baptists have given the ERLC asks us to assist churches in applying the moral and ethical teachings of the Bible to Christian life––and this is especially crucial as technology affects more and more aspects of our society. Jason has proven himself to be one of the leading voices in technology ethics and we are so thankful for the biblical wisdom he is providing in this area.”

In addition to Thacker’s book, leaders of the Digital Public Square project plan to release a number of assets over a two-year period to equip Christians on why ethics of technology matter to human flourishing and our public discourse. 

The project will include an in-depth report on the state of the digital public square, a set of guiding ethical principles for digital governance and numerous resources for the local church to engage and bear witness to the gospel in the digital age—including two different book length volumes: “Following Jesus in a Digital Age” with B&H Publishing and “The Digital Public Square: Ethics and Religion in a Technological Society” with contributions from 14 leading thinkers from B&H Academic in 2022.

To learn more about the Digital Public Square project, visit ERLC.com/digital

About Jason Thacker: Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and leads the Research Institute at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Following Jesus in the Digital Age” with B&H Publishing, as well as “The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity” with Zondervan. He is also the editor of a forthcoming volume with B&H Academic on Christian ethics and the digital public square. He is the project leader and lead drafter of “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles,” and his work has been featured at Slate, Politico, Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and World Radio.

He is a graduate of The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies. He also holds a Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is currently pursuing a doctorate in Ethics and Public Theology. He serves as a founding member of AI and Faith. He is married to Dorie and they have two sons. They live outside of Nashville, Tenn.