As states across the country legalize marijuana, pastors are struggling to speak with their congregations about the ethics of using pot.
Many don’t even realize they should try, said Todd Miles, author of the forthcoming book “Cannabis and the Christian: What the Bible Says About Marijuana.”
“A lot of older pastors, in particular, don’t think this is an issue because they doubt anybody in their congregation would be smoking pot,” he said. “That’s just not the case.”
In reality, research has shown that nearly as many Americans use marijuana each year as smoke cigarettes. Around two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) believe smoking pot is not morally wrong, a 2018 Gallup survey found.
These figures are likely to rise even further in coming years as marijuana prohibitions become the exception rather than the rule. President Joe Biden has called for decriminalization and Democratic leaders in Congress could act on a federal marijuana legalization bill as soon as this year.
Already, more than 1 in 3 Americans live in states where it’s legal to smoke pot recreationally, FiveThirtyEight reported last month.
Christian leaders should recognize it’s time to speak up, said Miles, who is also a theology professor at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.
“If pastors think their congregations aren’t wondering about what to do with marijuana, whether it’s recreational or medical, they’re fooling themselves,” he said.
How do pastors feel about pot?
What’s holding pastors back is more than just the misguided notion that no Christian would smoke marijuana, Miles said. They sometimes worry about questioning a drug that enjoys such widespread support.
Overall, 60% of U.S. adults say both medical and recreational marijuana use should be legal, according to Pew Research Center. An additional 31% are OK with legalizing just medical use.
“From 2009 to 2019, the share of Americans saying marijuana should be legal more than doubled,” Pew reported.
Among U.S. Protestant pastors, however, marijuana legalization remains unpopular. A new LifeWay Research survey shows that just 18% of these leaders believe pot use should be legalized throughout the country for any purpose.
Additionally, nearly 4 in 5 Protestant pastors believe it’s “morally wrong” to get high smoking pot, the study found.
“It is clear from their views on legalization that pastors see moral problems with getting high beyond simply disobeying government authorities,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, in a press release.
But few Christian leaders openly discuss their concerns, Miles said. Instead, they often rely on doctors and other authority figures to lead discussions on marijuana access and use.
“When you’ve basically leaned upon federal and state governments to define what is moral and what’s not, then you haven’t been training your congregation on how to think about it,” he said.
When pastors stay quiet about marijuana, they also miss chances to influence related public policy. In Utah in 2018, religious leaders who spoke up about their concerns were able to help shape the state’s approach to medical marijuana legalization.
“The bill you have before you today is a product in large part of the ongoing public input,” said then-Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes when a compromise bill passed, praising the work of faith groups, policymakers and patients’ rights advocates.
The bill replaced a ballot initiative on medical marijuana that voters approved in November 2018. Religious leaders and other community stakeholders had worried the initiative would unintentionally allow for recreational marijuana use, so they crafted a policy that would limit how patients could access marijuana and who could recommend its use.
“We’d like to see (people with medical needs) get access to these medications in an appropriate, safe manner,” said Marty Stephens, who then served as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ director of community and governmental relations, in September 2018.
Although faith leaders in other states have also been involved in both pro- and anti-marijuana advocacy work, such engagement is still uncommon. Few pastors see joining debates over marijuana use and legalization as part of their religious calling, Miles said.
He wants to change that by helping Christian leaders see that their congregants are struggling. People need help knowing how to apply the Bible’s wisdom to issues it doesn’t directly address, Miles said.
“Pastors need to equip church members to think biblically about something that isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Bible,” he said.
Like many of the pastors LifeWay Research surveyed, Miles believes getting high is morally wrong. He points to biblical passages on intoxication to argue that Christians should take care not to lose control of their bodies and minds.
However, Miles understands that other Christians might come to different conclusions about marijuana, and he’s OK with that. What matters most to him is that marijuana legalization starts to be seen as a religion-related issue and be openly discussed in religious spaces.
“Pastors shouldn’t treat this as a black-and-white issue,” he said. “They can ask tough questions and show care and concern at the same time.”