February 10, 2014

Of Pot and Port: The Drinking Christian’s Guide to the Legalization Debate

In 1798, Elijah Craig founded a distillery in what is now the state of Kentucky. Facts have been distorted through the ages, but legend has it that Craig is the man who first distilled the uniquely American drink now known as Bourbon Whiskey. Challenging all notions about the stodgy puritanical Christians of days gone by, Elijah Craig also happened to be a Baptist minister.

Dr. Russell Moore, the great Southern Baptist thinker, recently affirmed his opposition to Marijuana legalization. Given the current official Southern Baptist stance on alcohol and Moore’s repeated rejection of libertarian thinking, the rejection is entirely consistent with most evangelical thought. Nonetheless, there is a growing divide among Christians as to how we exactly we should confront the problem. RNS reports that except for white evangelicals who still remain strongly opposed, most Christian groups contain slight majorities in favor of legalization.

Many take the position that, while drug use is harmful, incarcerating offenders is too much of a strain on our justice system and the substance should be taxed and regulated just like alcohol. Personally, and as a Christian who does drink, I find this position untenable, as most arguments for legalization are either purely utilitarian or stem from a failure to recognize any qualitative difference between alcohol and drugs.

There are generally three different charges that may be laid against Christians who oppose legalization. First, it is argued our position is an inheritance from the tee-totaling prohibition movement. This objection must fail as a grossly ignorant interpretation of history. Catholics were drinking wine and Baptists were inventing Bourbon long before prohibition ever became a serious political movement (if it ever can be considered a serious political movement). As historian Thomas Kidd has pointed out, insistence on absolute abstinence is a fairly recent notion and Christians have a long and beautiful history partaking of the bottle. No such history exists with recreational drugs, which awareness and widespread use of is a fairly recent phenomenon. The fact that many sects who oppose legalization today are the same sects that whole-heartedly endorsed drinking during prohibition is evidence that this is not the same debate that was waged a century ago.

The last two charges are essentially the same but come from two radically different camps. The more libertarian minded will often assert that alcohol and recreational drugs are essentially the same, and we cannot drink and oppose legalization without becoming hypocrites. An increasingly rarer argument, but one still common enough to be leveled against me not infrequently, comes from the fundamentalist sects who also contend the substances are the same and therefore should both be banned. Like the first argument, each of these must also fail for lack of historical awareness and failure to distinguish qualitative differences between the substances.

Wine is glorified throughout Scripture and other classical works. Indeed, sometimes it is difficult for fundamentalists to get around the passages that suggest wine is a gift from heaven. (Ecclesiastes 9:7; Psalms 104.) It seems significant that one of the most heroic and noble acts in the Old Testament, when Naboth refused to give away the land of his fathers, and the first miracle of Christ, the wedding at Cana, both involved the production of wine. Those who were present at the last supper, and those who would soon after read the drama, understood all too well the significance of Christ’s words when he took the cup and said “Hic est sanguis meus (This is my blood),” for they knew that wine, like the incarnate body speaking those words, was something both divine and human. It cannot be made in a factory. It requires both the earth God has given and the work of our hands.

While wine takes such a prominent place in the Christian tradition, it should be noted that most canonical references to being stoned are generally negative. (See I Kings 21:14). Jokes aside, recreational drug use is simply not glorified in the same way. Nor does it have it the same historical reputation. After General Grant won major victories for the Union Army, President Lincoln famously remarked, “Tell me what brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.” And during WWII I think we can all be thankful Churchill was knocking back his favorite Johnnie Walker Red instead of lighting up a joint. Perhaps the most that can be said for pot is that it has expanded our vocabulary to include the term “munchies.”

Recognizing historical differences leads us to inquire if there are any qualitative differences. As I understand it, the primary reason for using recreational drugs is the effect it produces on one’s mind. Conversely, as Walker Percy observed, the true value and benefit of drinking good alcohol is in the aesthetic conditions surrounding the communal experience. “The effect of the alcohol,” Percy said, “is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.” If you drink alcohol for the purposes of procuring a certain effect on the mind, you are abusing it. The troubles and wrongs associated with drinking in our age largely flow from the perverted way our culture drinks. Visit the nearest yuppie bar and you will undoubtedly see both men and women imbibing fruity concoctions that were designed to mask the taste of alcohol and be consumed hastily in order to bring about a drunken state. The aim is debauchery and debauchery is the result. There is no inherent evil in the bottle; it merely propels the desires already rooted in the heart. It will either lay bare all your vices or polish all your virtues. If you are gathered around good friends with the purposes of having good conversation or are wanting something to enjoy while reading the poems of Herbert, then pulling out a bottle of Bordeaux will not result in drunken rage. If cultivation of friendship and discussion of the higher things is the aim, it will also be the result.

Historically, most churches have taken note of this difference. The Catechism of the Catholic Church commands prudent temperance in food and drink, but it instructs that the use of drugs, except on therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Pope Francis, the jolly go-lucky fellow people think he is, affirmed the Church’s teaching last year by condemning liberalization of drug laws. Even noted atheist Christopher Hitchens, who was famously fond of “Mr. Walker’s amber restorative,” recognized a qualitative difference and advised that one should “avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company.” Put simply, drinking is not always about getting drunk. Drugs are always about getting high.

There remain utilitarian objections regarding the cost of enforcing the status quo, which are not entirely without merit. That a large portion of inmates across the country are incarcerated for drug use does seem unnecessary and financially untenable. I do not know whether a solution exists that does not involve legalization or some form of liberalization. It is worth noting, however, that incarceration as the principal form of punishment for crimes in general is a very recent experiment, and is likely destined to fail. By no means should we return to executing or enslaving people for the slightest offense, but there must be other forms of civic punishment and rehabilitation that do not involve indefinite incarceration. To change the status quo would require a revolution of thought in our legal and criminal justice systems, but I imagine it would be a more worthy revolution than inventing a right to get high.

This will become an increasingly more important discussion as more states consider legalization, and Christians will be called upon to give answers. Whichever answer leaders choose to give on the matter, it should not be based on the simplistic reduction that alcohol and drugs are the same and should be treated the same.

Now, like the medieval monk, I can say, Nunc scripsi totum, pro Christo da mihi potum (Now I have written everything, for the sake of Christ get me a drink).

  • Ian Ivey

    Useful discussion. You overlook a key difference between drugs and alcohol, namely, that only one of them is food. Alcohol is a preservative, as well as an intoxicant. I think this difference shores up your argument better than the distinction in use that you draw, which seems more contrived: if a benefit of alcohol is that it “enlivens company,” the primary mechanism by which it does so is intoxication — alteration of the mental state. The fact that alcoholic beverages are preserved drinks that provide sustenance is a more absolute distinction.

    It is, however, incomplete to describe the libertarian argument as merely “utilitarian.” To be sure, the libertarian argument complains about the financial cost of incarceration as inefficient, and this is not a trivial claim.

    But the libertarian argument is a moral argument. It is wrong to deprive a human being of his liberty for behavior that does not infringe other individuals’ rights to life, liberty, or property. Worse still — and this trend is escalating at an alarming rate — we see the state using violent means of enforcement against citizens engaged in non-violent activity. No-knock warrants in which armored and armed police batter down doors and rush a residence needlessly create situations in which citizens’ lives are in serious peril.

    The question, then, is whether this cost of making drugs illegal exceeds the likely cost of legalizing them. How many people will begin habitual, self-destructive use of drugs as a result of legalization, and what is the cost to society of that shift? (In trying to calculate that, it is important to remember that there may be a short-term initial rush of new users immediately after legalization and then a prompt decline, once the novelty wears off, and thus avoid the error of equating that likely initial rush with an ongoing reality.)

    Costs of an unknown outcome are always hard to predict, but it seems at least reasonable to argue that the moral costs of the status quo are too high.