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A Debate for the Ages, Part II: What’s God Got to Do With It? David Wilkerson, Teen Challenge, and E

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: In this, the second installment of Points’ “A Debate for the Ages” series, Emily Dufton discusses the enormous popular success of Teen Challenge, a program that, by virtue of its embrace by evangelicals and Republican Presidents, has had a major impact on the modern state of youth drug treatment.

David Wilkerson, Man of God.

When Reverend David Wilkerson, a Pentecostal minister with the Assemblies of God church, died on April 27, 2011 at the age of 79, there was a monumental outpouring of grief among those who viewed Wilkerson as a savior, the archetypal man of God who was responsible for changing the destinies of thousands of lost and drug-addled youths.  Wilkerson was the founder of Teen Challenge, a Christian rehabilitation program he began in 1958, one of the first ministries in America to cater specifically to inner city, non-white, drug- and gang-involved youth. Wilkerson’s immersion program saw drug abusers live a structured Christian life for one year and work towards sobriety. The first branch set up in Brooklyn, New York, but Teen Challenge quickly expanded to include over 1,000 centers both in the United States and abroad, and it now considers itself “one of the most successful addiction recovery programs in the world, with a 70 to 86% success rate.” Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush have all supported Teen Challenge, and evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have applauded Wilkerson’s work.

As popular with politicians as he was, it was with the public where Wilkerson found his warmest response. In 1962, Wilkerson published his memoir about establishing Teen Challenge, The Cross and the Switchblade. The book was enormous success, selling eleven million copies in its first ten years in print. Wilkerson’s message spread even more widely with the release, and widespread popular acclaim, of a commercial film version of his memoir in 1970. (Fun facts: the film starred Christian pop music hero Pat Boone as Wilkerson and Erik Estrada – from CHiPs! – in his film debut, portraying gang warlord Nicky Cruz.) The popularity of the book and film skyrocketed Wilkerson to international fame.

Wilkerson used Teen Challenge as both an institutional and media tool to address growing concerns over drug use and juvenile delinquency. Disregard for authority, the seriousness of the crimes committed by those under eighteen, and the postwar baby boom (which was populating America with more potential delinquents) concerned everyone from suburban mothers to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who reported in 1953 that, nationally, “persons under the age of 18 committed 53.6 percent of all car thefts; 49.3 percent of all burglaries; 18 percent of all robberies, and 16.2 percent of all rapes.” The common response to this threat – a response heartily supported by Hoover – was to incarcerate these delinquents and remove them from society, particularly if their crimes involved drug abuse. Teen Challenge offered a different approach, even though drug trafficking routes interrupted by World War II were reestablished by the early 1960s and narcotics addiction was steadily increasing. Wilkerson’s claims that personal conversion and individual responsibility could defeat drug addiction resonated loudly among those trying to quell the looming drug scourge.

"Absurd" theorist Paul Goodman.

Teen Challenge offered itself as an alternative to large-scale federal programs like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, which sought to eradicate poverty and unemployment rather than focus on individual criminality and addiction. New York intellectual and sociologist Paul Goodman, whose 1960 polemic Growing Up Absurd deeply influenced this generation of social thought, persuasively argued for society to address the ‘root causes’ of delinquency and drug abuse. Goodman noted that most delinquents, especially those in non-white urban areas, were socially created and, because of economic and educational opportunities they were systemically denied, had good reasons for acting defiantly. Without access to quality education or worthwhile jobs, Goodman argued, “our economic society is not geared for the cultivation of its young or the attainment of important goals they can work toward.” Delinquency and bad behavior were the likely results.

Goodman also believed that drug use, as an element of juvenile delinquency, was a “social creation” and “the illegality of marijuana increases [juveniles’] contact with pushers of addictive drugs, and the intransigent attitude towards heroin as a criminal rather than socio-medial problem guarantees worse consequences still.” (Goodman had felt this way for a while, mocking the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 at length in his 1959 novel The Empire City.) In Growing Up Absurd, he argued that since society had created both the troublemaker and the trouble, it was responsible for rescuing both. This gave Goodman enormous influence in the shaping of the anti-poverty policies of the New Frontier and the Great Society. His exhortation that the federal government must step up involvement to ensure that the poor fell no lower had major ramifications throughout the 1960s, until a rising surge of Republican rule overturned his recommendations.

Goodman’s views are countered completely by those of Wilkerson, who made no claims for the necessity of government intervention or medical knowledge in defeating problems of drug addiction or juvenile delinquency. “Medicine does not have an answer to drug addiction,” nor did the “experts” who had no hope for mainlining teens, Wilkerson argued in his memoir. And marijuana was no harmless offense whose only real danger was leading children into the arms of narcotics dealers – it was a horrendous gateway drug that undoubtedly led to harder stuff. Only religion could solve a problem like addiction, Wilkerson argued, since addiction was merely an issue of deviance from the path of Christian discipleship and nothing else.

Wilkerson used his position as a cleric to further reaffirm his claims. Within the 1960s and 70s conservative backlash against control by political “experts” and “eggheads,” Wilkerson’s outsider status was a benefit. It allowed him to see that the real solution to drug addiction and juvenile delinquency was not fixing a lack of economic or social opportunity, but feeding a deep-rooted hunger for excitement, companionship, and understanding that only a Wilkerson-approved relationship with God could provide. Once this hunger was met, Wilkerson explained, addicts would know how to cope. As a twelve-year-old addict named Neda explained in Wilkerson’s book, “we still get tempted, but now when we do we always run into the chapel and pray.”

Newsweek proclaims 1976 "The Year of the Evangelical"

This view aligned closely with several key views gaining prominence in the increasingly conservative (and religious – note that 1976 was the Year of the Evangelical according to Newsweek) 1970s. Teen Challenge emphasized a focus on personal responsibility and a commitment to God to end drug addiction. It de-emphasized the importance of government intervention in matters that were increasingly viewed as issues of personal culpability. And Teen Challenge promoted itself as supplying the missing ingredient – Jesus Christ – that was lacking in the government’s bureaucratic approach. This belief in a Christ-centered, non-governmental technique quickly found support among people like Charles Colson, special counsel for President Richard Nixon, who claimed, “the Teen Challenge program succeeds when all of the government programs have failed.” Later, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan also showed enthusiastic support for Teen Challenge when he declared, “I speak from more than twenty years of knowledge of the organization when I tell you that the Teen Challenge program works. It’s effective – it’s literally changing the lives of young Americans from every walk of life. The government can’t do it alone no matter how hard it tries.”

The most influential supporter of the Teen Challenge approach by far, however, was George W. Bush, who saw the program as a paradigm for his White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, launched in 2001. Previously, during his governorship, state-based medical accreditations were lifted on all Teen Challenge chapters in Texas, and their non-compliance with health and safety codes was disregarded as Bush implemented an alternative licensing system in 1996. As President Bush expanded his initiatives to a national level in 2001, he noted Teen Challenge’s success as evidence for Christian organizational power, and Teen Challenge received considerable levels of federal funding, with Minnesota’s branch receiving over $10 million alone. In most states, especially Texas, Florida, and Missouri (where the bulk of Teen Challenge chapters are housed), this order ensured that there was virtually no state oversight of any Teen Challenge branch, even though reports of abuse and scandal have plagued these chapters in recent years.

Wilkerson: bringer of The Word, befriender of Dubya

Over the last fifty years, Teen Challenge has clearly come down on the side of personal fault in the debate on the root causes of drug abuse. By bringing religion into the discussion, Teen Challenge posts addiction not only as symptomatic of personal vice, but as being a spiritual failing as well. This view – politically conservative and morally compelling – has had major consequences for the development of national drug policy. When Bush stated “when we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups” to respond, he reified the strength of Teen Challenge’s belief in ‘personal culpability,’ and no administration since has been able to overturn this view. Has it worked? Well, it depends on what you believe.

Next week: We look at the discussion of rights (personal, civil, economic) that’s at the heart of the drug war. Or, as lolcats would say, I can has drugz? Stay tuned!


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