addiction treatment christian secular america
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When it comes to addiction rehab, I doubt many people connect it with religion. But connected it is.

addiction treatment christian secular america
Painting of Benjamin Rush attributed to John Neagle from painting by Thomas Sully. (Marion Doss, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nonreligious addicts seeking treatment and rehabilitation options throughout the United States find that in many locales only faith-based, predominantly Christian, programs are available, and none tailored to secular patients’ needs.

This is actually a constitutional problem, according to the nonprofit Secular Coalition for America (SCA), which on September 26-27 will hold its fourth annual Secular Lobby Day & Evening Reception on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. SCA leaders will use the two-day event to interact with lawmakers who have supported secular policies in the past and other elected officials, and to reiterate the importance of church-state separation.

“The Trump Administration and their allies are actively working to tear down the wall between church and state,” the SCA warned in a newsletter to its members Tuesday. “It is more important than ever that Members of Congress experience a Secular Lobby Day and hear from voices from across the nation like yours.”

SCA’s focus of this year’s lobbying event is “increasing access to secular addiction recovery options” for Americans struggling with addictions. The organization stresses that such interactions with lawmakers are important:

“First, because far too often, courts require that people participate in recovery programs when there is no secular option in the area, violating their constitutional rights.

“In fact, twelve-step programs, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, have been judged ‘pervasively religious’ in federal appeals courts. So, if the federal government requires a person to participate in a recovery program, there must be a secular program offered for the order to be constitutional. … Congress can and must set this right by providing the funding necessary to ensure that all people are empowered to choose a recovery program that honors their ideas and values.”

Both faith-based and secular addiction recovery and rehab programs utilize many of the same protocols, but the difference is in who personally is directing the rehabilitation. In 12-step-type Christian programs, patients must acknowledge their personal helplessness against addiction and admit that only the intercession of a higher power will lead to success. In contrast, the patients themselves are directly responsible for their own recovery.

According to the website, Christian-based rehab programs stem from alcoholism research in 1784 by Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, physician Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

“Rush found that patients who struggled with alcohol addiction were more successful in their efforts to quit drinking if they utilized their faith in Christianity,” writes. “This connection led to a variety of revivals in the proceeding decades tat focused on helping those who suffered from alcohol addiction. … As addiction therapy evolved, programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous were formed. As a result, a fair amount of addiction recovery remains highly linked to Christianity and faith-based recovery methods. However, secular counseling has emerged as an alternative to those who don’t want Christian counseling.”

Rush’s insight ultimately led to the founding of the Salvation Army (in 1880) and other faith-based groups that then focused on treating alcoholics.

However, with religiously unaffiliated Americans, including atheists and agnostics, now comprising a quarter of the U.S. population, the need for nonreligious rehab programs has grown more urgent.

“[T]he goals of Christian addiction counseling and secular addiction counseling are essentially the same,” explains. “However, the main difference lies in the type of faith emphasized in each. In Christian counseling, faith is placed in God’s will and its ability to transform a person’s life. In secular counseling, faith is placed more on man’s ability to change their own destiny and to make positive changes with their own will.”

The SCA supports SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training), a global community of mutual-support groups dedicated to science-based addiction recovery related to drugs and alcohol, and even gambling or overeating.

Christianity got a jump start on treating addictions in America, due to the early dominant influence of the faith on our culture, but nonreligious programs are working to catch up and broaden their availability.

In the meantime, note that the marked preponderance of Christian addiction treatment choices in the U.S. is a direct result of the faith’s deep embedding over centuries in American culture—and the perpetuation of the arbitrary idea that supernatural religion should be citizens’ first choice in facing life’s difficulties in any sphere.

In fact, we should first turn to the power inherent in ourselves.


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...