Calling on God to tackle addiction

In the run-up to this year’s presidential election, a $100m voucher programme is to be rolled out in the US which would allow addicts to buy places on some of the nation’s most controversial faith-based drug programmes.

“Religion,” Karl Marx famously declared in an 1843 critique, ” is the opium of the people”.

US President George Bush may be at odds with the revolutionary philosopher on most issues, but both would concur on the power of religion and its heady effects.

The patch of common ground would however be a small one. Mr Marx was keen that people throw off what he saw as the shackles of faith, and embrace not drugs but revolution.

Mr Bush, who himself gave up drinking with the assistance of faith, is hoping to harness the potential of religious belief to help American drug addicts kick their habit.

To its critics, the faith-based programmes are an underhand way of breaking down the constitutional barrier between church and state through the indirect federal funding of religious groups, and one which will leave vulnerable individuals open to state-sponsored proselytising with no proven benefits in terms of reducing drug addiction.

But to its advocates, the new system can only benefit the nation’s estimated 14 million drug users, giving them access to a vast range of programmes and techniques – both faith-based and secular.

Boot camp

The success, or otherwise, of Christian and other faith groups in weaning their charges of drugs is largely anecdotal. To their supporters, they work. To their detractors, they do not; neither side has much empirical evidence to support their claims.

However the track record of Alcoholics Anonymous is frequently called upon as an example of the beneficial role faith can play in treating addictions.

AA is explicitly non-denominational. But its 12 steps which make up the road to recovery are very similar to the spiritual exercises established by St Ignatius de Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, and the programme requires that its participants embrace a belief in a higher power – a God of their choice.

Dennis Griffith is a graduate of Teen Challenge – an evangelical Christian drug treatment programme which stands to benefit from the voucher system. He now runs the California branch of the programme, the main component of which is bible study and prayer.

“It is the belief in something larger than oneself that helps them kick the habit when they are here, and it is the faith they acquire during their time with us that stops them descending back into their addiction when they leave,” he says.

“We insist that they find a church to attend in the area they return to, firstly so they can nurture their faith, but also so that they can slip into a readymade community. Loneliness can be a one-way ticket back to where they came from.”

At the core of Teen Challenge’s activities is a year-long residential course – a programme Dennis himself completed in his early 20s when his heroin addiction threatened to destroy his marriage. His young wife was pregnant and said she would leave him unless he acted. Family members urged him to try a new programme that had just set up in the Los Angeles area.

“I thought it sounded dumb at first. I wasn’t in the least religious and was very dubious. But I was desperate – I knew I was about to lose everything. I phoned – spoke to a guy at the end of the line – and for the first time in years I felt a spark of hope, that this might be a turning point.”

Teen Challenge has elements of the boot camp. The week lasts seven days, kicking off at 6:30am each morning with a chapel service, which is followed by classes – most of them involving bible study and discussion of how religious teachings can be applied to everyday life.

It claims a success rate as high as 86% – although this figure only takes into account those who complete the programme. Many do not.

“Ideally we want people to come to us of their own accord. The programme is most effective when participants actually want to be there. That’s why we would happily work with the voucher system – the addicts themselves would be choosing our programme rather than it being foisted upon them.”

Keeping the faith

The prospect of an organisation like Teen Challenge receiving federal assistance is welcomed by some advocacy workers.

“At present, one in five American addicts gets no help. We know that some of these programmes work, so it doesn’t make any sense to shut them out when people need them,” says Jenny Collier, director of national policy and state strategy for the Legal Action Center.

“$100 million may not seem a lot, but given that we’ve currently got a budget deficit and most programmes are having their funding slashed, it displays a real commitment on the part of this administration to helping addicts. That’s very encouraging from our point of view.”

During his four years in office, President Bush has worked hard to further involve religious groups in the provision of welfare across a broad range of services.

Many members of the administration are convinced that religious groups provide a service that can compete with or improve on secular state provisions.

Mixed results

The involvement of religious bodies in welfare is not new as such. But theoretically at least, under previous practice, groups have only been able to claim federal money for services which are secular in nature, in keeping with the constitution.

The voucher system would allow them to keep the religious aspect as the central plank of their programme, which must be approved by the state. For the politicians who favour these groups, such a caveat is essential if the programme is to retain the very element which makes it attractive to them in the first place.

But research is still being carried out to establish whether the assumption of efficacy in the case of faith-based welfare provision is a sound one.

Preliminary results from the first academic study comparing secular providers of social services with faith-based ones – in this case those providing job training – suggested the religious-oriented groups were not performing as well.

However, for some US campaigners, the issue at stake is not so much their effectiveness but what they see as the blurring of the division between Church and State, a line which they argue has down the centuries allowed American churches to flourish free of political interference and government to operate without religious bias.

“The president is trying to blast a huge hole in the wall of separation,” declares Reverend Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “In America, houses of worship are perfectly free to evangelise, but they should do so with their own funds, not money from the taxpayer.

“When people with addiction problems seek government help, they should receive medical treatment and support services, not sermons and scriptures.”


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Mar. 9, 2004
Clare Murphy
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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday March 11, 2004.
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