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The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush

The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice-President at Auburn Seminary in New York City.

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American Baptist Churches USA

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Auburn Theological Seminary

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: The Right to Privacy and Religious Communities

April 20, 2018


Facebook often reads like a prayer circle in religious communities. We lift up our mental and physical health challenges, professional concerns, experiences of discrimination and faith questions. We share prayers with one another - giving and receiving spiritual and emotional support. And then, of course, there are the fights. Facebook acts like a contentious annual meeting, but done daily, with people familiar and unfamiliar leveling accusations of all kinds of apostasies and receiving them in return. Religious life happens in real time online on Facebook, as well as all other forms of social media.

Which is why the absence of religious voices in the current ethical debate about how Facebook is using our information is all the more curious and troubling.  

Facebook is just one, albeit large, part of the technological and communication upheaval of the Internet. The only event that remotely compares is the advent of the printing press, and its first major beneficiary was the Bible. The difference in our current technological revolution is that while religion was at the center of the Gutenberg Press, religious voices are not present when tech entrepreneurs are making moral and ethical decisions around the Internet.

But we should be. Ethical questions abound around emerging technologies including access, economic ramifications, censorship and, of course, privacy. Privacy is a spiritual issue. In 1890, My great-grandfather, Louis D. Brandeis, with Samuel Warren, wrote an important article for the Harvard Law Review called "The Right to Privacy." Brandeis was arguing for what would come to be known as "the right to be let alone." Interestingly, Brandeis and Warren used the word "spiritual" in their writing to describe that which extends beyond the physical body or property of the individual, to feelings or the intellect. Brandeis was making the argument that our rights extend beyond harm to body or property, to the intangible, the "spiritual" part of our lives, including information about ourselves that we should be allowed to keep safe and private.

An unprecedented amount of what Brandeis might call our "spiritual" information is now available including our health information as patients, as well as our genes, our games, our consumption, our investments, our political interests and, even more intimately revealing, our thoughts and our prayers. The question of who has the right of access to this "spiritual" part of us is more important than ever. It is not just a legal question around privacy, but also an existential question about what part of our lives that are lived in such an increasingly hybrid online/offline existence is really "us," and therefore "ours."

Unwelcome access to our "spiritual" information by corporations and government agencies is an affront, not only to our right to privacy, but also to living a life of integrity and faith in the digital age. The privacy debacle at Facebook has ramifications for the free practice of religion without harassment or surveillance, faith-rooted justice organizations that seek political change, and the use of information shared within "sacred" faith-rooted circles online can be used to create profiles that redline individuals for health insurance, housing and employment.  

Hopefully, we are seeing the emergence of a moral awakening in Silicon Valley and a deeper consideration of the implications of what they are building for people using them. Religious leaders have been thinking about questions of privacy and holistic wellbeing of people since the beginning. It would benefit technologists to have some of us in the room so that together we might consider the way technology might actually serve people and the good of humanity and the planet and not betray our trust.  

Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice President at Auburn Seminary and Editor of Voices 

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