Is the Religious Right’s Powerful Opposition to Drugs Finally Fading?

The state of the universe.
Jan. 4 2013 11:22 AM

Colorado’s Pro-Pot Vote Shows the Fading of Evangelical Fervor

The religious conservatives who brought you Reefer Madness rolled over for Amendment 64.

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Moralism is historically the winningest anti-pot argument. The religious right was MIA, but a smattering of mainline pastors, black clergy, and other Christian leaders did speak out in opposition, stepping into the big, empty, clown-size shoes they’d never fill. The media saw pastors talking pot and labeled it, in the Huffington Post’s words, “a marijuana holy war.” It amounted more to a sideshow.

The highlight came Oct. 23, when a handful of clergy, mostly inner-city pastors, held a press conference at Agape Christian Church in Denver to proclaim that legal pot “is heading to a path of total destruction.” Mason Tvert, the Yes on 64 co-director, says his side, which had compiled its own pro-pot clergy list, got word of the Denver shindig the day before. “We had planned to release our list on Thursday,” he told me, “but when we heard they were meeting on Tuesday, we just put ours out right before they met.” A holier-than-thou standoff ensued that the Denver Post slapped with the headline “Holy Schism Emerges.”

It emerged, yes—and then receded after one anticlimactic day. Warm religious bodies on both sides numbered fewer than three dozen. Supporters of legalization won the standoff with a slightly greater turnout, but not with any surprises. Its supporters had pro-pot histories or belonged to denominations that did, in many cases motivated by objections to high incarceration rates for drug offenses. But both sides’ announcements seemed extraneous. Major endorsements had already been made, and Smart Colorado, run by a well-connected consulting firm, paid the anti-pot clergy little mind before or after.

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The twist was that, perhaps for the first time, opponents of marijuana decriminalization didn’t seriously attempt to take the moral high ground. Why, Tvert argues, is because “people are tired of the moralist argument. It’s not compelling anymore.” If this sounds a little like a victor’s draft of history, it is, but it’s also more or less true: While Yes on 64 sounded confident it could win with appeals to legal highs and a tidy sum in tax revenues, the anti-64 side resorted to a buckshot approach—there’d be federal lawsuits, more crime, higher unemployment, highway pileups, chonged-out teens, fields of marijuana! It left morality alone, suggesting organizers thought it’d be toxic. (Smart Colorado declined to comment.) Tvert even says he wielded CitizenLink’s $25,000 gift as a cudgel, knowing it sat uneasily with Roger Sherman, Smart Colorado’s director. Sherman was simultaneously directing Fight Back Colorado, an effort to defeat Colorado pols running against gay rights—a position entirely anathema to groups like Focus on the Family, underscoring the anti-pot campaign’s apathy toward courting evangelicals. Tvert adds: “I almost think they were scared to have that kind of support,” meaning the evangelical community’s.

Loud anti-pot evangelical lone rangers such as Denver pastor/conspiratorialist Bob Enyart were tapped by the media as anti-pot evangelicalism’s face, partly for lack of other options. The Yes on 64 camp, meanwhile, scored big evangelical boosters with Tom Tancredo, the former GOP presidential candidate, and Ron Paul, a presidential candidate himself for much of the 64 fight, both solid if unorthodox born-agains with strong name recognition.

In March, the Yes effort got more manna from heaven when Pat Robertson told the New York Times he “absolutely” supported 64–quite an evolution since he argued, in 1988, for life sentences for dealers. This wasn’t a complete 180; in 2010, he remarked on The 700 Club that criminalizing “the possession of a few ounces of pot” was “costing us a fortune and it’s ruining young people.” But now he added that laws “should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” coincidentally echoing Yes on 64, whose official name was the Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. (Robertson begged off campaigning for 64, though. “I’m not a crusader,” he said, undoubtedly inviting eye-rolls all around.)

Ultimately, more problematic for Smart Colorado than big-name evangelical defections or ho-hum official opposition to legalization was the eerie quiet from everyone else in that crucial evangelical bloc. “I know the impact [of marijuana],” John Ashmen, president of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, told me. “I know it’s a gateway drug. We just chose not to become involved in the politics of it.” He never said that publicly during the fight, but his association’s decision not to take a position on 64 spoke pretty clearly. Almost all of Ashmen’s board is Republican, and they were fully aware that the amendment potentially puts a Schedule 1 drug in 3.7 million new Coloradan hands. “You have to choose wisely what you’re going to get involved in,” he explains. Which they did: They decided to just say no.

Clint Rainey is a writer based in New York. His articles have appeared in New York Magazine, the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Dallas Morning News, among others.