In 2001, Mexican president Vicente Fox made something of a splash when he, contrary to his campaign rhetoric, came out in support of the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. Fox noted that, despite the number of people imprisoned for drug trafficking, and despite the legal penalties for the possession and use of substances, drug use was going up, not down.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
In the United States, at least, the criminalizing of drugs – and this includes alcohol, too, for the period of 1920 to 1933 – was very much the product of a religious crusade. This is vital in considering the role religion should play in present-day government, or if it should even play a role at all.
This might sound odd coming from an adherent to a religion that makes little distinction between the civil and the religious. In Judaism, laws concerning property rights are just as much a part of the Torah as laws governing sha’atnez. There are not separate judicial systems for “religious” and “secular” law; rather, Judaism is an all-encompassing system that demands rigorous observance, whether a rule is delineated as between man and man (bein adom l’chaveiro) or between man and God (bein adom l’Makom).
But the interlocking feature of civil and religious law is very much a characteristic of theocracy, or at least of a self-governing community, such as existed for Babylonian Jewry during the time of the Talmud Bavli, but that we don’t have today. Clearly theocracy is not wrong; indeed, observant Jews the world over pray three times a day for the ingathering of the Jewish exiles to the Land of Israel and for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty – for a time in which theocratic rule will both be the norm and be perceived as just.
In the present day, without the proper conditions, however, theocracy, as I argue in the second chapter of my book Orthodox Judaism, Liberalism, and Libertarianism, is problematic. As I note there:
“When a society moves away from simply protecting the individual’s right to act as long as the individual is not harmful to others and protecting people from injurious behavior initiated by others – from assault, thievery, fraud, deceit, slander, and the like – and into the realm of the economic and the moral, countless problems result. It is only too easy for a country to enmesh itself in a morass of rules, regulations, expropriations, and programs from which it cannot extricate itself.”
But move toward a theocracy it does, albeit something I term a secular theocracy. In a nutshell, from both sides, special interest groups are determined to have their agendas legislated at taxpayer expense, dictate morality, and have us abrogate the use of individual conscience, often in the name of protecting ourselves from ourselves.
In a place and time where the standards of morality may vary from religion to religion, from culture to culture, even from individual to individual, legislating morality is tricky, if not impossible. We may disagree with someone’s belief or practice, but we have to be very careful, lest someone disagrees with our belief or practice, and tries to legislate it out of existence. Of course, that is something that has already been done in Switzerland and Sweden with shechita.
While we, as part of a community, may feel something is morally wrong – take the illicit drug example above – it is also important to realize that making laws based on one’s religious beliefs has consequences, sometimes quite dire.
Thus, the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, while on its face designed to fulfill “international treaty obligations,” was spearheaded by the Reverend Charles H. Brent and William Jennings Bryan, men of great religious conviction and prohibitionist tendencies – in other words, special interests who wanted to ban or regulate substances based on their deeply-held religious beliefs. The United States was now able to regulate opiates and coca-leaf derivatives, but we also got more than we bargained for: black markets in opium, heroin, and cocaine; more addiction; wasted federal funds used to police drug traffic and imprison those who were now criminals; and the introduction of impurities into illegally trafficked substances.
The era of Prohibition, launched by a constitutional amendment no less (the Eighteenth), was the product of a very zealous religious Temperance Movement. Widespread sobriety would now become a reality, tipplers would be on their way to reform, and religion would play a much greater role in society. Instead, there was a massive increase of crime, gangsterism, alcoholism, and yet more wasted federal funds.