Religious Conservatives Kick Off the War on Drugs
When the Reagan administration turned up the heat on the drug war in 1980s, he had behind him a very religious, very powerful interest group: Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. The Moral Majority encompassed just about everything we now associate with the Christian political right wing: it was anti-gay, anti-feminist, and anti-drug, among other things. It was the Moral Majority and similar conservative groups which successfully pushed for tougher legislation against drug use. What drove them toward this? Was it a legitimate desire to seek public health and well-being, or was it something else? A close examination of the history paints a story not of a righteous Christian crusade but of a movement full of cultural superiority and subtle racism.
Let us take for granted that the war on drugs is, in fact, directly destructive to black communities. I have written as much just recently. However, most people who support legislation against drugs are not racist in the way that we learned of racism in our history books. The word “racism” implies to most people that they hate people strictly because of their race, conjuring images of the KKK burning crosses or of kicking Rosa Parks off of a bus. By contrast, anti-drug laws garner much of their support from a sort of moral distaste for drugs’ addictive and psychoactive properties. Raise the subject of legalization, and you will hear of the dangers of drugs, not a diatribe against black people. The question, then, is whether the war on drugs is racist at all, or whether its effect on minority groups is incidental to its main purpose.
Tracing Falwell’s Racism
Turning back to Falwell, those who knew him through Liberty University suggest that while he had been quite overtly racist in his earlier years, he had genuinely forgone such sentiment by his death in 2007. Taking this for granted, that means that sometime between the beginning of Falwell’s ministry as a pastor and his death there was a sincere change of heart. The next question I ask is whether that conversion happened before or after the 80s when Falwell-inspired conservatives managed to enact anti-drug legislation.
A released statement made by Falwell regarding South African apartheid during the 1980s suggests that, at the very least, he was prone to dramatic demonization of minorities while giving whites an unreasonable benefit of the doubt. He characterizes the anti-apartheid activists as “Marxist-leaning organizations … constantly creating violence and bloodshed among the blacks of the country.” On the other hand, he offers to his readers that apartheid government prime minister P. W. Botha was intent on moving “away from apartheid and toward a consensus government where all South Africans participate in the political process.”
History shows us Falwell was quite wrong. Why such clouded judgment? The clearest answer would be lingering racism. If not, then what? Did he truly believe that Botha, leader of apartheid, desired the well-being of blacks more than did the anti-apartheid resistance? It takes a good deal of creative reasoning to justify that sort of a conclusion without involving any hint of racism, whether or not it is overtly stated.
If Falwell engaged in such prejudiced judgments by the mid-80’s, then he most certainly did so in 1980 when he wrote his influential book, Listen, America! Clearly driven by impassioned rhetoric rather than coherent argument, Falwell rails on a variety of issues, from drug culture to welfare to the sad state of American marriage. Curious here is his focus on issues concerning the poor: repeatedly, he emphasizes the virtue of “hard work” and the moral depravity of “welfarism.” He implores Christians, then, to use their voting rights to “provide for strong moral leadership at every level.” In other words, why can’t everyone just be like him?
Falwell’s exhortations echo the sentiments of a new kind of conservative backlash against multiculturalism which started in the 70s. Any such backlash is an indication of preferential treatment for one’s own culture, and for many of the conservatives like Falwell, this preferred culture belonged to decidedly white, protestant, male-dominated families. The project here was to institutionalize this culture through legislation.
The Curious Success of Anti-Drug Legislation
While legislation in the intervening time has trended in favor of feminism and LGBT rights, the effort to enforce conservative moral judgments about drugs through legislation largely succeeded. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 enforced a minimum 5 year sentence for possession of 5 grams of crack, 1 gram of LSD, 10 grams of PCP, and a variety of other drugs.
The fact that the war on drugs gained traction during a period of cultural exclusivism is telling. While drugs raise legitimate concerns, they are health concerns, certainly not deserving of five years in prison at a minimum. That is no mere slap on the wrist: the harsh penalties belie the true motive behind of the war on drugs: cultural prejudice.
Yet why did anti-drug policies succeed in the legislature where anti-feminist and anti-gay legislation mostly maintained status quo in spite of rhetoric? The best answer here is that drugs are an easy, impersonal target, even if laws against them affect very specific people groups. Other values put forward by Falwell et al are often difficult to swallow in good moral conscience, because they directly target women, the LGBT community, etc. Laws against such people are much more easily construed as hateful than those against a set of chemicals.
The fact is, though, that Falwell’s opposition to drugs stemmed from the very same sense of cultural superiority which drove his anti-feminism and anti-LGBT rhetoric. It was not merely that he hated drugs themselves, but he resented the involvement of poor, black communities in what he called “drug culture.” Why couldn’t these [poverty-stricken] people just be like [middle class, privileged] white folk?
Paving the Way Forward
We should bear that in mind when we examine our drug laws: the anti-drug crusade in recent decades not only carries with it a concern for public health and safety but also an undue sense of moral and cultural superiority. Of course, you will rarely hear this in the rhetoric supporting the war on drugs, because racism and cultural privilege make for poor argumentative strategies in a culture which these days at least denies such things outwardly.
Because the moral outrage against drugs stems primarily from the politically-influential Christian subculture started by Falwell, I should remind Christians at this point that Christ came to abolish cultural opposites: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We are equally valuable in God’s eyes, no matter our background and especially no matter our skin color.
This is not some feel-good sentiment but a reality. Yes, others may have different and maybe even kind of weird cultural practices, and their socioeconomic status may render them vulnerable to different sorts of vice than those which we face. Let me suggest, though, that the greatest vice we face today is not drug addiction: it is the ubiquitous tendency to categorize people as “other,” stripping them of their humanity and failing to realize their intrinsic value as God’s children.
It would be a wonderful irony if Christians would lead the charge on drug law reform. I’m not suggesting universal legalization of all drugs whatsoever, though that may be a possibility. The fact is that right now, our legal system has essentially criminalized being poor and black. Cultural prejudice is law. We can excuse our complicity by pretending that this is just about combating the health issues posed by drugs, or we can admit to ourselves that the war on drugs has made it difficult to look at black man in public without raising an eyebrow and maybe checking the lock on the car door.
We have to turn things around. Pastors like Falwell have exploited our trust in leadership and led us down a path of prejudice, whether or not we like to admit it. Even as Falwell is dead, we are living in the shadow of his veiled racism which we institutionalized three decades ago. It has to stop, now.