Down on High Society

Where Is the Church?

colson2Silence is golden, everywhere but the Church. Yet, silence has largely been the Church’s response to the issue of drugs in American culture.


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In his most recent book High Society, Joseph Califano, a personal friend and the chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, offers a harsh, but accurate, look at America’s addiction to addiction. Listen to some of the shocking findings in his excellent new book:


Americans consume two-thirds of the world’s illegal drugs, although we make up only four percent of the world’s population. Sixty-one million Americans are chronic smokers. And more than 16 million are alcoholics. Not only that, but on any given day, 100 million people are popping antidepressants, tranquilizers, or painkillers.


But, instead of trying to fix the problem, the government is spending billions to shovel up after the social ravages caused by our self-medication, legal or illegal. Califano points out that substance abuse is the number one cause of just about every social ill—violent and property crimes, excessive health care costs, the disintegration of the family, domestic violence, child abuse, the spread of AIDS, teenage pregnancy, poverty, and of course, prison overcrowding.


Where is the Church in all of this? According to Califano, it’s being replaced by the drug store: “Chemistry is chasing Christianity as the nation’s largest religion,” Califano writes. “Indeed, millions of Americans who in times of personal crisis and emotional and mental anguish once turned to priests, ministers, and rabbis for keys to the heavenly kingdom now go to physicians and psychiatrists, who hold the keys to the kingdom of pharmaceutical relief, or to drug dealers and liquor stores, as chemicals and alcohol replace the confessional as a source of solace and forgiveness,” says Califano.


History tells us that when people run to something other than the Church for help, it’s because the Church is failing to accurately address their need. Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not discounting the role of appropriate medication for those suffering from chemical imbalances and serious depression.


But when more people are running to the needle, the bottle, and the drug store faster than to the Church, it’s time we step up to the plate. Some good things are happening like Celebrate Recovery, but the Church has the opportunity to do much more.


According to Califano’s research, more than 90 percent of priests, rabbis, and ministers say that drug and alcohol abuse is a significant problem in their congregation, but no more than 10 percent of seminarians and rabbinical students receive substance abuse education. This is a trend that must be reversed, if the Church wants to have the right to speak into the great American tragedy of addiction.


One way the Church can do this is by addressing teens—those at the breaking point between a life of addiction or a life of freedom. Califano says that most Americans will be offered drugs before they graduate from high school, but teens who attend religious services regularly are less likely to engage in substance abuse than teens who don’t.


For this reason the Church needs to take special interest in its youth—not simply by telling them to “say no to drugs,” but by showing them that they are God’s image-bearers and far too valuable to waste their lives in rehab.



Today's BreakPoint Offer


Joseph Califano, “High Society: How Substance Abuse Ravages America and What to Do About It” (PublicAffairs 2007).



For Further Reading and Information


Tavis Smiley, “Interview with Joseph Califano,” PBS, 9 August 2007.


CASA President Discusses New Drug Abuse,” CNN, 31 January 2002.


More Than 15 Million Americans Abuse Opiods, Depressants, Stimulants, Teen Abuse Triples in 10 Years”- Press release by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.


Teen Drug Abuse Triples in 10 Years in USA, Adult Rx Abuse Doubles,” Medical News Today, 8 July 2005.


Drug War Chronicle Book Review,” Drug War Chronicle, 13 July 2007.


Howard Markel, “Parents and Substance Abuse,” Medscape Today, 29 April 2005.


Breakpoint Commentary No. 950810, “Sentenced to Church? Crime and Moral Reform.”


Breakpoint Commentary No. 931210, “Pot is Hot: Cashing in on Illegal Drugs.”


Breakpoint Commentary No. 951120, “We’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Has the Church Lost its Impact?