Pot and Pastors: Faith Leaders Debate Morality of Marijuana Legalization

As public opinion has shifted in support of legalized marijuana, religious leaders are wrestling over competing interests, including high prison rates and legislating morality.

Sunday’s Super Bowl was dubbed by some as the “pot bowl,” as the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks hail from the two states where fans can soon get marijuana as easily as they can get pizza. As public opinion has shifted in support of legalized marijuana, religious leaders are wrestling over competing interests, including high prison rates and legislating morality.

According to a 2013 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, 58 percent of white mainline Protestants and 54 percent of black Protestants favor legalizing the use of marijuana. On the other side, nearly seven-in-10 (69 percent) white evangelical Protestants oppose it.

Catholics appear to be the most divided Christian group, with 48 percent favoring legalization and 50 percent opposing it. Opinions on how states should handle those who possess or sell marijuana varies among Christian leaders.

Caught in the middle of the debate are pastors, theologians and other religious leaders, torn over how to uphold traditional understandings of sin and morality amid a rapidly changing tide of public opinion.

Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for several prominent evangelicals including Franklin Graham and Hobby Lobby founder Steve Green, admits he takes a view that might not be held by most Christian leaders.

“When 50 percent of our prison beds are occupied by nonviolent offenders, we have prison overcrowding problems and violent offenders serving shortened sentences, I have a problem with incarceration for possession of marijuana,” he said.

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“None of that’s to say I favor free and rampant marijuana use. I don’t think it’s the most serious blight on America.”

Alcohol abuse, he said, is a much more serious issue. President Obama suggested something similar to The New Yorker recently when he said that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol. But don’t expect pastors to start preaching in line with DeMoss, who said he has not seen much comment from religious leaders on the issue.

“If a pastor said some of what I said, there would be some who would feel the pastor was compromising on a moral issue,” he said. “No one wants to risk looking like they’re in favor of marijuana. I’m not in favor, but I think we should address how high of a priority it should be.”

Both Colorado and Washington state approved the recreational use of marijuana by adults in the 2012 elections. Even Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who found early support among some evangelicals during the 2012 presidential race, has come out supporting the decriminalization of marijuana. Laws on marijuana have disproportionately impacted minorities, said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

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Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Religion News Service
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