Televangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition Pat Robertson, with whom I have major theological, philosophical, and political differences, recently said something that even I must acknowledge was important, truthful, and courageous.
Speaking about the criminal justice system on his “700 Club” television program, Robertson remarked that it was a “shocking statistic” that the United States has “the highest rate of incarceration of any nation on the face of the Earth.” Then he said something few “law and order” conservatives – and especially Christian conservatives – would dare to say: “More and more prisons, more and more crime. It’s just shocking, especially this business about drug offenses. It’s time we stop locking up people for possession of marijuana. We just can’t do it anymore…You don’t lock u2018em up for booze unless they kill somebody on the highway.”
This is not the first time that Robertson has come out for the legalization of marijuana. Back in 2010, he raised the same points:
We’re locking up people that have taken a couple puffs of marijuana and next thing you know they’ve got 10 years with mandatory sentences.
I’m not exactly for the use of drugs, don’t get me wrong, but I just believe that criminalizing marijuana, criminalizing the possession of a few ounces of pot, that kinda thing it’s just, it’s costing us a fortune and it’s ruining young people. Young people go into prisons, they go in as youths and come out as hardened criminals. That’s not a good thing.
Not everyone at the Christian Broadcasting Network, however, shared Robertson’s views. A spokesman claimed that Robertson “did not call for the decriminalization of marijuana.” He was merely “advocating that our government revisit the severity of the existing laws because mandatory drug sentences do harm to many young people who go to prison and come out as hardened criminals.”
Pat Robertson is exactly correct on the subject of marijuana possession. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he favors the legalization of other drugs or even the fully legalized cultivation, sale, and distribution of marijuana, but it does raise the important question of whether Christians should support the war on drugs.
Although I am a theological and cultural conservative, and neither advocate nor condone the use of mind-altering, behavior-altering, or mood-altering substances, I believe that Christians shouldn’t support the government’s war on drugs any more than they should support the government’s wars on poverty, obesity, dietary fat, cholesterol, cancer, and tobacco.
Not only do I not use what are classified by the government as illegal drugs, wouldn’t use them if they were legal, and would prefer that no one else do so whether they are legal or illegal, I would rather see people use drugs than the government wage war on them for doing so.
As a believer in moral absolutes, I consider the use of any drug for any reason other than because of a medical necessity to be dangerous, destructive, and immoral, but I also consider the government’s war on drugs to be dangerous, destructive, and immoral.
As an adherent to the ethical principles of the New Testament, I regard drug abuse to be a vice, a sin, and an evil that Christians should avoid even as they avoid supporting the government’s war on drugs.
As a Christian, I oppose root and branch every facet of the government’s war on drugs just as much as I oppose the use of drugs themselves.
Yes, I know I am being redundant. But that’s because some Christians still just don’t get it. So let me make myself perfectly clear: drugs are bad. Smoking crack is evil. Getting high on marijuana cigarettes or brownies is a vice. Snorting cocaine is destructive. Shooting up with heroin is sinful. Swallowing ecstasy is immoral. Injecting yourself with crystal meth is dangerous. But none of these things means that there should be a law against doing any of them. And it is a myth that those who favor marijuana legalization or drug decriminalization just want to get high without being hassled by the police. Pat Robertson certainly doesn’t. And I certainly don’t either.
There are many reasons why Christians should not support the war on drugs.
Constitutionally, the federal government has no authority whatsoever to regulate drugs, let alone criminalize their manufacture, sale, and use. Just like the government has no authority to control what Americans choose to eat, drink, smoke, inject, absorb, snort, sniff, inhale, swallow, or otherwise ingest into their bodies.
Philosophically, it is not the purpose of government to be a nanny state that monitors the behavior of its citizens. It is simply not the purpose of government to protect people from bad habits or harmful substances or punish people for risky behavior or vice. Drug prohibition is impossible to reconcile with a limited government.
Pragmatically, the war on drugs should be ended because it is a complete and total failure. As I have pointed out many times, the war on drugs has failed to prevent drug abuse, reduce drug trafficking, or reduce the demand for drugs. It has ruined more lives than drugs themselves.
Practically, the war on drugs should be ended because all it does is clog the judicial system, unnecessarily swell prison populations, foster violence, corrupt law enforcement, hinder legitimate pain treatment, and unreasonably inconvenience retail shopping.
Medically, the war on drugs is misguided. In a study by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, it was alcohol that ranked as the “most harmful drug,” beating out heroin, crack cocaine, and ecstasy. And then there is the fact that tens of thousands of people die every year from prescription drugs and reactions to over-the-counter drugs like aspirin.
Financially, the costs of drug prohibition far outweigh the benefits. According to a 2010 study by the Cato Institute, spending on the drug war tops $41 billion a year. What have we gotten for this except the militarization of the police, the erosion of civil liberties, and the destruction of financial privacy?
Theologically, and most importantly, there is no warrant in the New Testament for Christians to support a war on drugs by the government. And it is the theological reason that I wish to focus on.
Christian Inconsistency and Hypocrisy
It is unfortunate that many Christians – and probably most conservative Christians – are supporters of legislation to prohibit the doing of things like taking drugs that libertarians would consider to be victimless crimes and therefore not crimes at all. This support is inconsistent and hypocritical.
Getting stoned on crack or tripping out on LSD is, of course, not mentioned in the Bible. The closest thing would be getting drunk, which is definitely condemned:
Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying (Romans 13:13)
And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; (Ephesians 5:18)
Yet, every bad thing that could be said regarding drug abuse could also be said of alcohol abuse – and then some.
Alcohol abuse is a factor in many drownings, home, pedestrian, car, and boating accidents, suicides, fires, violent crimes, child abuse cases, sex crimes, divorces, and fetal abnormalities. The number one killer of young people under twenty-five is alcohol-related automobile accidents. Alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of premature deaths in the United States. It can also be a contributing factor in cases of cancer, mental illness, and cirrhosis of the liver.
Although the manufacture and sale of alcohol is heavily regulated by the federal and state governments, anyone is free to drink as much as he wants in his own home without fear of reprisal. Except for a small number who want to return to the days of Prohibition, Christians are woefully inconsistent and hypocritical when they call for the government to wage war on drugs but not on alcohol.
Sin and Crime
We know that murder, robbery, and rape are both crimes and sins, but everything the state or the authorities brand a crime is not necessarily a sin. This has been true in all ages.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew midwives were commanded by the state to kill any newborn sons (Exodus 1:16). But because “the midwives feared God,” they “did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive” (Exodus 1:17).
In the book of Daniel, we read that King Nebuchadnezzar “made an image of gold” (Daniel 3:1) and decreed that when the music started, everyone was to “fall down and worship the golden image” (Daniel 3:5). The three Hebrew children – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – defied the king and refused to worship the golden image, for which they were cast into a burning fiery furnace (Daniel 3:18-20).
In the New Testament, the apostles Peter and John were imprisoned by the authorities for preaching and then brought before them and commanded “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). But instead of being in subjection, they replied: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
After this incident, some apostles were again brought before the authorities and asked: “Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? And, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). It was then that the apostles uttered the immortal line: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
No Christian could read these accounts and say with a straight face that everything the state labels a crime is a sin. The Bible is very clear about what sin is. Sin is “whatsoever is not of faith” (Romans 14:23). Sin is transgressing the divine law (1 John 3:14). Sin is knowing to do good and doing it not (James 4:17). Sin is “all unrighteousness” (1 John 5:17). But if not all crimes are sins, then why are some Christians often so quick to nod in agreement when it comes to the state’s war on drugs? The only explanation is that some Christians think that disobeying the state is itself a crime. They have made the state into a god. They have violated the First Commandment.
But taking drugs to get high is a sin, says the Christian drug warrior. Agreed. But should it be a crime?
There is another side of sin/crime coin: not all sins are crimes. If they were, then everyone would be in trouble, Christians included, for the Bible says that “there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Saying that not all sins are crimes is just a Christian way of rephrasing what was said by the nineteenth-century classical liberal political philosopher Lysander Spooner:
Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property.
Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.
Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.
No Christian would be in favor of criminalizing all sins. Not when the Bible says that “the thought of foolishness is sin” (Proverbs 24:9). Why, then, are some Christians so quick to applaud making some sins criminal just because the state happens to select them and not others?
There are two types of victimless crimes: the immoral and the moral. This is because God’s law never changes. What the state declares to be a crime one day can be declared not to be a crime the next day. Immoral victimless crimes are crimes that are sins in the eyes of God even if the state one day declares them not to be crimes; moral victimless crimes are crimes that have been labeled as such by the state that are not, in and of themselves, sins in the eyes of God. But either way, every crime needs a victim.
The Christian’s ultimate rule of faith is the New Testament, not canon law, church tradition, church councils, papal decrees, creeds and confessions, the musings of televangelists, the opinions of theologians, the sermons of some popular preacher, denominational pronouncements, church covenants, and not even the Old Testament, although “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
There is no support in the New Testament for the idea that Christians should seek legislation that would criminalize victimless acts like taking drugs. Specific sins are mentioned that are in fact crimes, like murder (Romans 1:29), stealing (Ephesians 4:28), rioting (Romans 13:13), and extortion (1 Corinthians 6:10). But what we mainly see in the New Testament are admonitions about how Christians should behave:
Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. (Romans 12:17)
As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men. (Galatians 6:10)
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth. (Ephesians 4:29)
Abstain from all appearance of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22)
Then there are the lists of vices for Christians to avoid: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, covetousness, anger, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication, effeminacy, idolatry, hatred, strife, reveling, witchcraft, evil speaking, envy, lying, and bitterness. Should people be fined or jailed for these things if they don’t result in harm to someone else’s person or property? Then why should they be fined or jailed for taking drugs?
There are no indications anywhere in the New Testament that Christians should seek or support making these things crimes. Where did the Apostle Paul, in his travels throughout the Roman Empire, ever express support for any type of legislation? When did he ever tell people who were not Christians how they should live their lives? It is unfortunate that many Christians who support the drug war would support legislation against almost anything they considered to be bad behavior – as long as it stopped short of their particular vice.
It is not the purpose of Christianity to change society as a whole outwardly; it is the purpose of Christianity to change men as individuals inwardly. The Christian is in the world, but not of the world. He is to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11), not legislate against them. The Christian is to “live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). Christians are to pray for those in authority that they (Christians) “may lead a quiet and peaceable life” (1 Timothy 2:2). The attitude of the Christian should be to mind his “own business” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and not be “a busybody in other men’s matters” (1 Timothy 4:15).
I believe that Christians have for the most part failed to fulfill their calling. Instead of making converts and instructing them in the biblical precepts of Christian living, they turn to the state to criminalize what they consider to be immoral behavior. Instead of changing people’s minds about what is and what is not acceptable in society, they seek to use the state to change people’s behavior. Instead of being an example to the world, they want to use the state to make the world conform to their example. Instead of educating themselves and other Christians about what is appropriate behavior, they rely on the state to make that determination. Instead of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, they want the state to assume those roles. Instead of minding their own business, they mind everyone else’s business.
Christians are making a grave mistake by looking to the state to legislate morality. The state is no real friend of religion, and especially not of Christianity. Why do so many Christians defend, support, and make excuses for the state, its politicians, its legislation, and its wars? Why would Christians even think of looking to the state to enforce their moral code?
It is not the purpose of Christianity to use force or the threat of force to keep people from sinning. Christians who are quick to criticize Islamic countries for prescribing and proscribing all manner of behavior are very inconsistent when they support the same thing here. A Christian theocracy is just as unscriptural as an Islamic theocracy.
But instead of greeting with a healthy dose of skepticism the state’s latest pronouncement about what substance needs to be banned, regulated, or taxed, many Christians wholeheartedly embrace it. Instead of looking internally for funding, they look to the state to fund their faith-based initiatives.
Most Christians simply have too high a view of the state. They are too quick to rely on the state, trust the state, and believe the state. Sure, they may criticize the state because it permits abortion, but they generally fail to discern the state’s true nature.
Economist William Anderson has summed it up nicely:
Most conservative Christians abhor libertarianism because they see it as promoting a permissive lifestyle, from abortion to taking drugs. Yet, what they fail to understand is that the restrictive, prohibition-oriented state that they are trying to create (and also preserve) is much more likely to take away all liberties than a state that gives people permission to live as they wish.
Although drug abuse is a great evil, the war on drugs is an even greater evil. Christians should not compound these evils by supporting a war on behavior the government doesn’t approve it. If getting high is against God’s law. Then, as columnist Charley Reese once said: “Presumably God will enforce his own laws. You won’t find in the Christian Bible any passage that says the responsibility for enforcing God’s laws rests with the secular state.” And furthermore:
Christianity is a personal religion, not a tribal or state religion. If you wish to be a Christian, then you have a personal obligation to obey the commands of the Christian religion. Whether someone else does or does not is of no concern to you. You can be a devout, scrupulously pure Christian in the midst of the most outrageous sinners. Your obligation is to obey God’s commandments, not to compel someone else to do it.
It is simply not biblical to promote legislation or crusades to punish sin that does not aggress against person or property. The proper approach to the problem of drug abuse was wisely spoken by the late economist Ludwig von Mises:
He who wants to reform his countrymen must take resource to persuasion. This alone is the democratic way of bringing about changes. If a man fails in his endeavors to convince other people of the soundness of his ideas, he should blame his own disabilities. He should not ask for a law, that is, for compulsion and coercion by the police.
That is the spirit of New Testament Christianity. It’s just unfortunate that it is a nonreligious Jew expressing such an opinion instead of the typical evangelical Christian.