Should Christians oppose the “surveillance state”?

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The NSA has been extensively surveilling American citizens. How should Christians respond? - Image courtesy of Jonathan McIntosh (

The NSA has been extensively surveilling American citizens. How should Christians respond? - Image courtesy of Jonathan McIntosh (

The NSA has been extensively surveilling American citizens. How should Christians respond? - Image courtesy of Jonathan McIntosh (

The NSA has been extensively surveilling American citizens. How should Christians respond? – Image courtesy of Jonathan McIntosh (

Apparently anything goes in the “war on terror”—even spying on your own citizens.

That’s the message Americans have gotten from their government over the last decade, and it has only been reinforced by the brewing National Security Administration (NSA) surveillance scandal. Thanks to information leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden—a man who proves that one can be both adored and despised at the same time—we now know details of massive telephone and Internet surveillance programs enacted by America against its own citizens. According to this information, your recent Google searches, cell phone conversations, and even personal emails may have been viewed or recorded by government intelligence agencies.

No wonder the Obama Administration is getting fileted and served up with a side of tartar sauce.

But the President is not solely to blame for the Orwellian reality we’re now facing. It is, in part, the Bush Administration’s policies come to roost. Legal cover for these actions has been provided by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which President Bush expanded with an “Authorization” to allow NSA to intercept Americans’ communications, and the Patriot Act of 2001. The super-secret $1.7 billion NSA data collection center in Utah, where much of this intelligence gathering has occurred, is the “realization of the ‘total information awareness’ program created during the first term of the Bush administration.”

Of course, few people argue that surveillance should never be allowed in a world as dangerous as ours. But what we’re seeing now is a government with carte blanche power to infringe on individual freedoms with almost no restraint. Out of some 8,600 invasive search requests submitted to the FISA court, only two have been denied.

Americans are justified to be outraged as such power run amok. And the Christians among them, even more so.

Growing up, Americans are taught that we live in the cradle of liberty and democracy. But according to NSA documents, it turns out that America may be one of the most surveilled countries in the world. This rightfully offends our American sensibilities because the impulse of our republic is to provide the most freedom possible for those who call our country home. It is difficult to engage in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when you’re always looking over your shoulder to see if Big Brother is spying on you.

American Christians have even more reasons to oppose the surveillance state. At the core of Christian theology is an affirmation of human dignity. Every human—regardless of race, gender, country of origin, religion, or anything other marker—is made in the image of God and is the object of that God’s love. Human dignity is a permanent and ineradicable endowment of God to every person.

As Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity, argues, “Persons of faith should be deeply concerned about the current surveillance flap not because privacy is an absolute end in itself but rather because it points to and safeguards something else even more basic and fundamental, namely, human dignity.”

His view is echoed by the Roman Catholic Declaration on Religious Freedom, which rightly states that human dignity requires that people “should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by sense of duty.”

Infringing on someone’s privacy without just cause robs them of divinely-bestowed dignity.

Additionally, the surveillance state trusts government too much. Christians believe that humans are utterly depraved and especially dangerous when in possession of unchecked power. Therefore, justice can increase only when power is held in check. As Gary Haugen, President of International Justice Mission writes, “[governmental] power must be limited by clear boundaries, and individuals exercising such power must be transparently accountable.”

Christians know that nothing can ultimately be hidden. In one sense, there is no ultimate privacy if an all-knowing God exists. As Paul Tillich says, “We are always held and comprehended by something that is greater than we are, that has a claim upon us.” But for Christians, only one entity should have and can be trusted with unlimited surveillance: God, not government.

“Only God is omniscient. To God alone are we to be a completely open book,” George writes, “To God, and only to God, should we say—or need to say—‘You know when I leave and when I get back; I am never out of your sight. I look behind me and you are there, then up ahead and you are there, too…is there any place I can go to be out of your sight?’”

Christians should desire and help create a society where the tendency of citizens is to look up, not over their shoulders.

  • Tim

    Blind patriotism because we supposedly live in the best place imaginable is not only short sighted but dangerous, Jonathan. It’s dangerous to us here and now in a temporal sense, and it’s dangerous to us in an eternal sense as well. The real danger is that patriotism run amok blinds us to these temporal and eternal dangers.

    Thanks for helping us see that today.


    P.S. A bit on why patriotism is not always a virtue:

  • Dale

    I agree with the general idea that unwarranted government invasion of privacy is a bad thing. However, I don’t think Mr. Merrit makes his case that this is a Christian issue. His quote of Timothy Beeson seems to the point, however his quote from a Catholic document seems irrelevant. Similarly, his claim that the US is “one the most surveilled countries in the world,” is not supported by the document he links to.

    Merrit proclaims that “Infringing on someone’s privacy without just cause robs them of divinely-bestowed dignity.” I think that sounds reasonable. However, I don’t think he made a good argument in support of that view.

  • Mr. Obama owns his share of the Patriot Act. After all, he signed the reauthorization bill into law. If he had an issue with the bill his veto pen, though rarely used, could have been dusted off and put into service. Taking a principled stand against at least some of the most egregious provisions of the Patriot Act would have garnered broad public support. Alas, he did not and many continue to blame the Bush administration. Could it be that the nature of the threats facing our nation are such that candidates, once elected to govern and learning of those threats, arrive at similar conclusions regardless of their own ideology? I suppose one could make such an argument.

    On many social issues, the difference of ideology is stark. On a great many other issues, the differences are much less stark. Both political parties in our nation would see a much larger role for government in the lives of American citizens. They simply differ on how much more and how quickly.

  • I have given both their share of the blame though it doesn’t seem you do.

    Btw, if not using a veto bill offends you, then you might want to know that George W. Bush was the first President since…wait for it…John Quincy Adams not to veto a single bill during an entire four-year term.

  • I think you missed my point. The current administration could have done something about the Patriot Act instead of renewing it. Mr. Obama chose not to. It should have never been passed in the first place to be sure but to say it is no wonder that the Obama Administration is “getting fileted and served up with a side of tartar sauce” and implying that he is powerless to stop it is simply untrue. This is what prompted my question about the nature of the threats facing our nation. What do these men know that drives them to arrive at very similar conclusions given their diametrically opposed views?

  • I never implied that the President is powerless to stop it. Only that “the President is not solely to blame for the Orwellian reality we’re now facing.”

  • Without a doubt BUT he could have done something about it. Renewing the Patriot Act is not something Mr. Obama had to do. Any pressure his administration is receiving in light of the recent revelations of Eric Snowden belongs squarely on his shoulders. In fact, strictly from a political point of view, Mr. Obama could have drawn support from moderate-leaning Republicans by exposing and bringing an end to the very programs his signature reauthorized. He chose not to do so. One is left to conclude that Obama shares the same view of these programs as Mr. Bush did when they were create on his watch.

  • BTW: the extension is only four years so given the outrage since the Snowden revelations perhaps we will see a major overhaul of the Patriot Act or even allowing the law to expire.

  • Moderate republicans? Isn’t that an oxymoron these days? 🙂

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