God Can’t Help

By Chez Pazienza:

Back in August of 2001 I did a month-long stint in rehab in an effort to kick a pretty terrible heroin habit that I’d been stupid and selfish enough to pick up while living in L.A. and working for KNBC news. I documented my downward spiral, initial recovery and attempt to rebuild my life in New York City in the wake of 9/11 in a book I published a few years back called Dead Star Twilight. Anyone who’s read this book — or, really, who paid attention to that first sentence — knows that one of the minor issues I had in rehab was a willingness — or unwillingness — to submit myself fully to the supposedly infallible wisdom of “The Program” and to accept the 12 Steps as an article of unwavering faith.

The reason for this was two-fold: First, while I absolutely understood that my rehab counselors merely wanted what was best for me and all those in their care — and I was incredibly grateful for this fact — it stood to reason that not every path out of addiction was going to work for every single person. I didn’t think I was different from those I was fighting the same battle alongside in that we all had, in fact, been brought to the same lowly place by the same scourge, one that didn’t give a damn about any of us. But I did think that each person’s fight was personal and therefore involved his or her own beliefs, backgrounds, weaknesses and, yes, even strengths.

Personally, while I knew that I needed to let go and relinquish a certain amount of control, I simply couldn’t accept the notion that what had happened to me wasn’t my fault — that it was all part of “my disease.” I wanted to take full responsibility for what I’d done, from the very beginning of my drug use, rather than give myself a pass. There’s no denying that once you’re in the throes of addiction things are far beyond your control, but I needed to take the blame for starting to do heroin in the first place because that decision was at the center of my crisis. It was my fault and I didn’t want to pretend that it wasn’t.

Second, I’m wholly opposed to faith-based religion and nothing, not even a devastating addiction to heroin that had laid waste to everything I held dear, was going to change that. Anyone who’s been through the AA 12-Step process knows: It was conceived as a faith-based program and, while often tip-toed around or denied outright, it continues to preach a reliance on God to get those in its study out of the mess they’ve found themselves in. I spent a good portion of my time in rehab debating this approach with my primary counselor, a really good guy whose dedication and compassion I’ll always appreciate. I understood the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer from a secular perspective, but I never sought the serenity, courage and wisdom of which it speaks from the Lord, I sought it from within. That’s what worked for me. That’s all that was ever going to work for me.

What’s worth mentioning, by the way, is that the rehab center I went to wasn’t some fancy private estate on the beach in Malibu where I could do yoga and get my chakras realigned for 28-days — it was an understaffed, underfunded and occasionally unmerciful public facility in South Florida. Let me say that again: It was a public facility, one kept afloat through a combination of private donations and, yes, the allocation of taxpayer dollars. In other words, an argument could easily be made that a governmental agency was being allowed to push a religious agenda, which as you know is expressly forbidden by the U.S. Constitution. Not that the modern American right, which claims to be strictly beholden to the will of the Founding Fathers and their supposedly infallible document, would ever see any hypocrisy in this, as they rarely show a willingness to embrace and defend the Establishment Clause when it results in their favored faith, usually Christianity, being silenced or otherwise insulted.

Case in point: A couple of days ago the ACLU, an organization whose work I at turns appreciate and abhor, filed a formal complaint with the state of Oklahoma in the wake of a local judge’s startling ruling in a DUI vehicular manslaughter case. Back in December of last year, 17-year-old Tyler Alred crashed his pick-up into a tree while drunk, killing the passenger, a 16-year-old friend of his. In August of this year, Judge Mike Norman made Alred an offer he couldn’t refuse: go to prison for at least four years or accept a ten-year deferred sentence, meaning no jail time, in exchange for community service, submitting to regular drug and alcohol screenings — and going to church every Sunday for ten years. Needless to say, Norman’s sentence is unconstitutional. Not only is it unconstitutional, maybe most perniciously, Norman knows it’s unconstitutional.

Here’s what he had to say about the decision and the backlash he’s received to it:

“”One gentleman from Missouri left a message on my phone. He said judges can’t order people to go to church. People are calling from all around the country. I live in the Bible Belt, though. The Bible is still alive down here; churches are still open. I’m sure those people are right, but they’re going to have to do what they want to do.”

That guy from Missouri is right and it’ll surprise no one that the ACLU is making the same argument: A judge can’t order someone to go to church. It’s a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. Not only are secular groups making this claim but at least one secular-religious organization is as well. The Reverend Bruce Prescott, who’s the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, responded this way:

“I’m a minister. I want people to go to church, but it’s not helpful for a judge to sentence someone to church. What will the judge do if the young man changes his affiliation in the next few years? Will he be allowed to switch to a mosque or become an atheist? Religion is not a tool of the state and it’s certainly not for the state to use as a tool of rehabilitation.”

Prescott hits the nail on the head when it comes to the hypocrisy often displayed by the right on the subject of faith and we’ve seen it so many times that it practically goes without saying at this point: Freedom of religion to many conservatives these days means the freedom to promote what they believe is the one true religion. If you’re talking about Christianity, it’s all in; if you’re talking about, say, Islam, all bets are off. What you get then is the American equivalent of a Taliban-esque theocracy. It leaves me contemplating the comedy gold that would’ve ensued had Tyler Alred quickly agreed to the deal and then declared that he was converting to Wicca.

An incidental question we’re left with in the wake of this ridiculous ruling, though, involves exactly what I mentioned earlier — the subtle proselytization at the heart of the 12-Step program which many courts have no problem ordering defendants accused in alcohol and drug-related crimes to undergo. Is it legal? Is it constitutional? Obviously there’s a very big difference between making someone submit to a treatment that can be personally secularized — that is, the religious aspects can be ignored because the system isn’t wholly dependent on them — and one that’s based entirely on a faith in God, like going to church. While I found that there’s still a very quiet form of preaching going on in AA, it’s a fact that not everyone approaches it that way and many, many people find their way back to life from the hell of addiction by embracing the basic tenets of the 12 Steps without acknowledging the oft-cited “higher power” as God. I obviously took what I needed from the AA gospel and left the rest safely behind, creating a personalized plan that worked for me.

Legal scholars and the ACLU are already touting one of the most offensive problems with Judge Mike Norman’s ruling: the fact that he knows it’s unconstitutional and won’t stand up on appeal and yet is issuing it anyway. As the Oklahoma ACLU is saying about this case, the Constitution can’t be exercised at a judge’s discretion; he or she either upholds the law of the land all the time or leaves the bench, simple as that. But this is where we are as a nation and this is what Norman is saying when he talks about living in the Bible Belt and when he offers it as an excuse for his actions. As far as he’s concerned, he serves the word of God first and the law that governs the United States as a whole second. I’m willing to bet that he even finds ways, as so many hardcore conservatives do, to parse the Establishment Clause until he can argue that it exists not to keep religion out of government but solely to keep the government from intruding upon religion.

There will always be times that a hint of religion leaks into governmental processes and pronouncements and, believe it or not, I’ve never had an insurmountable problem with that. It doesn’t thrill me, but as with AA I treat it as a case of a system being subject to human foibles. I’m too tired and too busy to pick a fight with everyone over every little thing that irks me. But there’s a difference between a reference to faith by the government and a reliance upon it in its decision-making and in the rulings made by its courts. There’s a difference between mentioning God and force-feeding him to defendants for a decade.

God didn’t help me do what was necessary to initially kick my drug habit and he has nothing at all to do with what keeps me from going back to drugs each and every day now. I seriously doubt that subjecting yourself to his teachings one hour a week is going to keep you or anyone else, Tyler Alred included, from being a stupid kid who kills somebody while drinking and driving.

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  • Christopher Foxx

    It leaves me contemplating the comedy gold that would’ve ensued had Tyler Alred quickly agreed to the deal and then declared that he was converting to Wicca.

    Exactly. The judge was completely out of bounds, but if I were in the defendant’s place I can see how I’d consider the immediate pragmatism of being free (except for Sunday mornings) over arguing a principle and instead spending a decade in jail. (“You can’t order me to church, your honor. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s off to jail with you then.” Ouch.)

    But I would hope any defendant who took the “I’ll go to church instead of jail” option would then choose a religion that, I dunno, had as a main tenet that Sundays should be spent at football games, or that God is a Spaghetti Monster.

  • Christopher Foxx

    faith-based religion

    I’ve seen that phrased used around here a few times lately. Can someone clarify what a “non-faith based’ religion is? Or give an example of what religion is without faith?

    I would have thought faith was an integral part of and inextricably intertwined with religion. I don’t get how you have one without the other, so am not following the “not against religion, just against faith” view.

    • Chez Pazienza

      There are “religions” that teach self-reliance and peace to be found from within. My reason for using the term “faith-based” is that I don’t want to lump everyone’s beliefs into one pile — only the ones that rely on an absolute faith in some sort of unprovable deity.

      • Christopher Foxx

        OK. When I encounter it I’ll try reading “faith-based religion” as “deity-worshiping religion ” and see if that makes things clearer for me.

        Thanks.