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

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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Doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, Department of History. Part-time Ro-Man.

10 thoughts on “A Debate for the Ages, Part II: What’s God Got to Do With It? David Wilkerson, Teen Challenge, and Evangelical Anti-Drug Activism”

  1. Success rate of “70 t0 86%”?? — All depends on whom you count, and what you count. Anyone that comes up with more than, say, 10 or 15%, is obfuscating the data for their own ends. I get a kick out of those who do so under the rubric of a loving and caring God. Obviously, they believe, with good evidence, that God is creating many fools to donate to them.

    • The 86% success rate was calculated by the The National Institute on Drug Abuse during a study funded by the federal government. The same study looked at secular treatment centers and documented their success rates in the single digits across the board. Teen Challenge didn’t obfuscate any data. They have simply quoted the results of independent studies. Intellectual honesty starts with facts and moves outward. You seem to start with a personal bias and in this case twist facts to prop up your opinions. Here’s a link to the report: http://iteenchallengetraining.org/index.php/itc/download/1053

      • Actually, the data were provided by Teen Challenge staff, not NIDA. NIDA only interpreted the data they were given. Also, the study did not “document” success rates of other types of programs — it only repeated some information from some other reports. Further, this report did not quote any “independent” studies of Teen Challenge.Finally, In stating their success rate, the Teen Challenge web site today neglects to say that this study was retrospective; that only 54.4% of the original sample were located, and that all data were obtained as of the time of interview, 6-7 years after treatment admission. All data in this report were based self-report by the subjects, and pertained ONLY to the time of the interview. No data from urinalysis or other objective sources were provided, although the report notes they were collected.
        For an exposition of the research done by Teen Challenge, I refer you to “Redemption and Recovery” by Daniel Hood (p 154 et seq) I do not claim that TC’s research was deliberately falsified; but I do claim that TC does not present the findings in an open, honest, non-biased way. If this makes me personally biased in your eyes, so be it.

    • I have already commented on the 1975 study by Dr. Hess, indicating some
      of its shortcomings. I urge blog members to read the study, available as
      study R1201.01 at this TC web page:

      Now I will comment briefly on the second study of five on that page —
      R1201.02. The TC web site says this about the study:” Teen Challenge of
      Chattanooga, Inc. commissioned an alumni survey in 1994 to assess the
      effectiveness of its program in helping drug addicts find freedom from
      their addictions. The survey was conducted by Dr. Roger Thompson, Head
      of the Criminal Justice Department at University of Tennessee at
      Chattanooga. The study determined that graduates of this Teen Challenge
      program had a 67% success rate in living a drug and alcohol free lifestyle.”
      (Wow!! Remember that claim!!)

      This study was conducted in 1994 for Teen Challenge of Chattanooga TN.
      The researcher, Dr Roger Thompson, selected a simple random sample of 50
      subjects from among program graduates over a 15 year period, who spent
      from 4 to 6 months in an “induction phase,” and for virtually all
      respondents, an additional 8 to 10 months in a “training program.”

      Of the 50 subjects, only 25 responded to repeated mailed survey
      questionnaires and attempts at telephone contact. As with the Hess
      study, the final sample is exceedingly small, and represents only 50% of
      selected subjects. It is well known that non-respondents to substance
      abuse surveys have higher rates of use than those who respond. This is a
      major shortcoming of this study. Another shortcoming is the failure to
      make any attempts to validate or confirm responses. For example, the
      researcher might have checked local police arrest records, or perhaps
      the Statewide treatment admission database, which was available in most
      States by the 1990s, or contacted even a subsample of the 25 subjects for
      urine analyses. The study relies completely on self-report, sometimes
      for events that happened as far ago as 15 years. The questionnaire is
      available on TC’s site.

      I was surprised to see that the research report gives all findings in
      percents, rather than simply stating the numbers of respondents in each
      category. Typically, percents are not given for such small samples
      because they offer an unwarranted appearance of precision. The one
      statistic for which the researcher specified a success rate was for
      self-reported entry into other treatment programs after leaving TC.
      Twelve percent of 25 subjects reported entering such treatment; 88% did
      not. The researcher said, “While the sample size does not meet
      scientific standards to draw final conclusions, it is clear from the
      pattern of responses given that success may be defined in the 80’s
      percentile [sic].” He then goes on in the next paragraph to emphasize
      this claim once more, saying “The significance of this 88% number can be
      seen when looking at how many drug treatment programs had been tried
      prior to entering Teen Challenge of Chattanooga.” My biggest pet peeve
      in research reports is a statement of an inability to draw a conclusion,
      followed by the conclusion. Uninitiated readers tend to see only the
      (faulty) conclusion.

      Subjects were asked to give the frequency of substance use in the first
      six months after leaving treatment, and in the last six months prior to
      completing the questionnaire. Twenty four responded, and the results are
      presented for the last six months — 75% abstaining from illegal drugs,
      and 67% abstaining from drugs and alcohol during that time period. (Remember that TC claim? Here it is!) There
      are a host of other variables reported, such as church attendance,
      arrests, education, employment, family — the major life measures, all
      with multiple categories, given in percents. The author provides
      discussions of the meaning of these results.

      The most surprising thing I found in this study was that the researcher
      seemed to treat the results as though they had statistical validity. The
      report itself, as presented on TC’s web site, is clean, with few typos,
      and gives an appearance of credibility, but of course the findings, if
      we can call them that, are not valid.

      Again, I urge bloggers to read this study.

  2. This is interesting but in its zeal to characterize the Teen Challenge orientation as individualistic, it neglects to discuss the intense community orientation of TC programs. TC isn’t an individualistic, do-it-yourself program: rather it seeks to bond individuals together in a supportive community defined by religious meaning–meaning which, incidentally, Paul Goodman seems to have been not quite able to provide.

    The result is an essay modeled upon a well-worn but deeply flawed dualism that defines social beliefs almost exclusively in terms of individualism versus communalism. That dualistic interpretation isn’t entirely wrong, but without careful nuance it distorts more than it reveals.

    As for John French’s accusations regarding TC success rates, I suggest something called empiricism. If the commonly cited TC statistics are inaccurate, let this be demonstrated by actual evidence. If they are accurate, let this also be demonstrated by evidence.

    • I claim only that Teen Challenge obfuscates the data for their own ends. I cannot demonstrate that TC’s data are inaccurate. In fact, the data given in their report speak for themselves. In the study cited above, they have self-reported data from a small sample, of whom only 54% could even be located. This in itself would cause any researcher to seriously question the findings. And since the self reported drug use is ONLY for the time of the interview, I must question their definition of “success.” There have been several studies of TC to date. All have serious shortcomings. Absolutely, NIDA should fund a real, objective, independent research study of TC.

      • John French– so that folks who are only now coming into this discussion can get up to speed, could you provide links to the “several studies” you mention above?

  3. I agree with Kenneth that TC can’t be understood through the old science vs. religion binary, but I think that’s exactly what Emily’s insightful post hits on. TC provokes commentary because—despite the rise of the NIDA brain disease paradigm of addiction—its philosophy and methods are still relevant. Otherwise we would view the program as a historical oddity, another funny relic of the crazy things people promoted in the 70s, like key parties or disco. Setting aside the search for a miracle anti-addiction pharmaceutical, the NIDA paradigm is fairly agnostic; it recognizes that a variety of methods (including religious practices like meditation, integration with a new community, psychotherapies, anti-craving meds) can aid brain-based recovery. At the same time, even the most faithful among us recognize the need for efficacy studies—as evidenced by our current discussion.
    An aside: I’ve recently heard the addicted brain and the teen brain described in similar neuroscientific terms. If this conflation continues, it might mean that Teen Challenge’s slippage between the risks of adolescence and addiction weren’t wacko, but prescient.

  4. I am providing a link to TC’s web site. I have only reviewed one study by TC, by Dr. Hess, which TC offers as their defining study, citing an 86% success rate for graduates 6-7 years after treatment admission. TC notes on their site that this study is “NIDA completed.” In fact, TC staff provided NIDA with materials, and then NIDA wrote a report based on what they were provided. This report states that ALL data unless otherwise noted, pertain to the time of the interview. As to the claim of 86% success, I found another site (link below) with an article purportedly by a TC staff that contains this statement about Hess’ study:
    “The Teen Challenge definition of “drug-free” means abstaining from all use of narcotics, marijuana, alcohol, and cigarettes. 67% of the graduates (P3) are drug-free as indicated by the urinalysis test. (86% stated they were drug-free on the questionnaire.)”

    This statement speaks volumes about TC’s obfuscating the data. Their report and their widespread promotional material do not clearly say that their definition of 86% success rests on a personal statement regarding one day in the life of the addict, and that urinalysis taken on the same day shows a sizable portion of them to be lying!!! Whoaaa! My point is made.As I said before, it all depends on whom you count, and what you count.
    For the link to TC’s mention of other studies, see:
    Only one of the studies named on this web page directly relates to TC, who provide a one page summary of the study. I saw others elsewhere, but don’t have the link. It behooves TC to conduct valid, rigorous, independent studies before they make claims so high as to invoke the saying — If it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.

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