The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission weighs in on a wide variety of moral issues, so last week, it posted a video online about the ethical treatment of animals.
And then hours later, the ERLC took the video down — and its vice president for communications, Daniel Darling, wrote a lengthy apology for posting it.
Just what was so wrong about a video endorsing the humane treatment of animals?
See if you can tell me. Coming in at under 50 seconds, the video is short enough that I can write out the transcript of most of it. Try to spot something in there worthy of Darling’s apology.
“Nonhuman animals, though obviously not as important as human animals, merit our serious attention. They’re also vulnerable. They’re also voiceless. They also are pushed to the margins because they’re inconvenient, interestingly just like prenatal children are. And there’s a growing number of people who are pro-life in that they’re antiabortion, but also pro-life in that they want to stand up for the dignity of nonhuman animals.”
The speaker is Fordham theology professor Charles Camosy, who last year in The Washington Post called on Christians to become vegans. Camosy told me he wasn’t surprised that the video was taken down. After all, for many Christians, the suggestion that their eating habits impose great harms on other beings takes them to a “deeply uncomfortable place.”
But there’s more to the ERLC’s position than simply finding it hard to give up meat-eating. There’s a crucial theological doctrine. In his apology, Darling called the incident “particularly embarrassing” for him given that he just finished writing a book that makes “the exact opposite argument from the one seen in the video.” Darling is referring to the notion of imago Dei — the image of God — in which the Bible suggests humans are created, but animals are not.
James N. Anderson, a professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary, explained it this way: “On a biblical view, there’s a categorical — an essential — distinction between humans and animals grounded in the idea of the image of God, which speaks to the uniqueness and sacredness of human life as opposed to any other form of life.”
In the video, Camosy subsumes animal welfare under the umbrella of antiabortion concerns, traditionally the exclusive province of life issues of a human sort — a grave error in the eyes of some evangelicals. But even if animal rights are not on par with human rights in this theology, that is not grounds for indifference in the face of animal suffering.
Karen Swallow Prior, a research fellow at the ERLC, suggested that two adjacent but different sentences in the Bible should be the source of our concern for humans and for animals. First, Genesis 1:27 says that the dignity of human life proceeds from the doctrine of imago Dei. A deep concern for the welfare of animals stems from the mandate in Genesis 1:28, which places the whole of God’s creation into the care of human beings.
I’m not sure how much weight this distinction ought to receive when it comes to specifying our moral imperatives. As a Christian, I affirm that human beings have been endowed with a remarkable, species-elevating and status-enhancing metaphysical quality — the quality of being made in the image and likeness of God. Yet why treat this distinction as the most significant when determining which moral causes we ought to take up?
A distinction arguably even more important for ethical action is the one between things imbued with a capacity for pain and things blissfully exempt from this condition. This is the concept of sentience, and it sidesteps theological considerations by reorienting ethical concern toward the alleviation of needless suffering.
Using the binary — as Camosy does in the video — of “human animals” and “nonhuman animals” can strike Christians as subversive to a theological anthropology grounded in Scripture. But the distinction between creatures who feel pain and creatures who don’t does not include a claim suggesting their metaphysical equality. Thus, Christians should have no problem using it as a framework for moral action.
The philosophical distinction between moral agents and moral patients can work in concert with a biblical one between humans and animals. Moral agents are those who, like us, possess the capacity for moral deliberation and action, whereas moral patients, while lacking the cognitive equipment necessary for ethical reasoning, nevertheless are sentient and thus ought to be treated with great care and consideration. There is, after all, a biblical emphasis on protecting the most vulnerable among us.
Camosy does not believe we should eschew the “human animals”/“non-human animals” terminology. For him, lumping humans and animals into a single category doesn’t diminish the dignity of human beings so much as it elevates the dignity of animals.
There is more to this story than a good-faith debate over subtle philosophical and theological differences. In recent years, the ERLC has been no stranger to backlash. Russell Moore, who is president of the commission, has faced calls for his dismissal over the Trump-critical stance that he took during the 2016 election. Some members of the conservative evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, have seen in the ERLC’s actions a leftward drift toward “social justice.”
“Right now, the ERLC is under the microscope of some Southern Baptists who are convinced that creeping liberalism is corrupting the commission and convention. When they heard an analogy made between unborn humans and animals, it set off alarms,” Christian author O. Alan Noble said. “But I don’t think there was any reason to be alarmed. The ERLC is staunchly pro-life. They aren’t going to claim that animals are ontologically the same as persons. However, in the interest of calming a senseless controversy, I understand why they pulled the video and apologized.”
The ERLC told me that Darling was not available to comment.
I’m left with numerous questions about how evangelicals, some of whom see animal rights as a totally unimportant issue, should approach this subject. For example, if causing needless animal suffering is a moral wrong, where does that leave hunting for sport? Where does that leave participation in a system of factory-farm-produced meats operationally dependent on subjecting animals to intense pain and suffering? These are uncomfortable questions.
Thankfully, we have the capacity to think through questions of deep moral significance. We’re made in the image of God.