The War on Drugs: What's God Got to Do With Fighting Addiction?

Reverend Wilkerson's Teen Challenge quickly expanded to 1,000 centers after it was founded in 1958, but it still had an outsize impact.


When Reverend David Wilkerson, a Pentecostal minister with the Assemblies of God church, died on April 27, 2011, at the age of 79, there was a monumental outpouring of grief among those who viewed Wilkerson as a savior, the archetypal man of God who was responsible for changing the destinies of thousands of lost and drug-addled youths. Wilkerson was the founder of Teen Challenge, a Christian rehabilitation program he began in 1958, one of the first ministries in America to cater specifically to inner city, non-white, drug- and gang-involved youth. Wilkerson's immersion program saw drug abusers live a structured Christian life for one year and work toward sobriety. The first branch set up in Brooklyn, New York, but Teen Challenge quickly expanded to include over 1,000 centers both in the United States and abroad, and it now considers itself "one of the most successful addiction recovery programs in the world, with a 70 to 86 percent success rate." Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush have all supported Teen Challenge, and evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have applauded Wilkerson's work.

As popular with politicians as he was, it was with the public where Wilkerson found his warmest response. In 1962, Wilkerson published his memoir about establishing Teen Challenge, The Cross and the Switchblade. The book was an enormous success, selling 11 million copies in its first 10 years in print. Wilkerson's message spread even more widely with the release and widespread popular acclaim of a commercial film version of his memoir in 1970. (Fun facts: the film starred Christian pop music hero Pat Boone as Wilkerson and Erik Estrada -- from CHiPs! -- in his film debut, portraying gang warlord Nicky Cruz.) The popularity of the book and film skyrocketed Wilkerson to international fame.

Wilkerson used Teen Challenge as both an institutional and media tool to address growing concerns over drug use and juvenile delinquency. Disregard for authority, the seriousness of the crimes committed by those under 18, and the postwar baby boom (which was populating America with more potential delinquents) concerned everyone from suburban mothers to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who reported in 1953 that, nationally, "persons under the age of 18 committed 53.6 percent of all car thefts; 49.3 percent of all burglaries; 18 percent of all robberies, and 16.2 percent of all rapes." The common response to this threat -- a response heartily supported by Hoover -- was to incarcerate these delinquents and remove them from society, particularly if their crimes involved drug abuse. Teen Challenge offered a different approach, even though drug trafficking routes interrupted by World War II were reestablished by the early 1960s and narcotics addiction was steadily increasing. Wilkerson's claims that personal conversion and individual responsibility could defeat drug addiction resonated loudly among those trying to quell the looming drug scourge.

goodman.jpg Teen Challenge offered itself as an alternative to large-scale federal programs like Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, which sought to eradicate poverty and unemployment rather than focus on individual criminality and addiction. New York intellectual and sociologist Paul Goodman, whose 1960 polemic Growing Up Absurd deeply influenced this generation of social thought, persuasively argued for society to address the 'root causes' of delinquency and drug abuse. Goodman noted that most delinquents, especially those in non-white urban areas, were socially created and, because of economic and educational opportunities they were systemically denied, had good reasons for acting defiantly. Without access to quality education or worthwhile jobs, Goodman argued, "our economic society is not geared for the cultivation of its young or the attainment of important goals they can work toward." Delinquency and bad behavior were the likely results.

Goodman also believed that drug use, as an element of juvenile delinquency, was a "social creation" and "the illegality of marijuana increases [juveniles'] contact with pushers of addictive drugs, and the intransigent attitude toward heroin as a criminal rather than socio-medial problem guarantees worse consequences still." (Goodman had felt this way for a while, mocking the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 at length in his 1959 novel The Empire City.) In Growing Up Absurd, he argued that since society had created both the troublemaker and the trouble, it was responsible for rescuing both. This gave Goodman enormous influence in the shaping of the anti-poverty policies of the New Frontier and the Great Society. His exhortation that the federal government must step up involvement to ensure that the poor fell no lower had major ramifications throughout the 1960s, until a rising surge of Republican rule overturned his recommendations.

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Emily Dufton is a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University, where she works as a teaching assistant in GW's University Writing Program. She served in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa, where she worked as an agriculture extension agent.

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