Tobacco, Christians and moral meddling

By Joel Miller

While not the same level of sway it held in previous years, the church has a lot of influence in the world. As the most clearly God-instituted body on earth, people look to it for standards of morality, even if their copy of Holy Writ sports a layer of dust as thick as the lunar surface (actually, usually because of it – too lazy to look for themselves).

In recent years, of course, the church’s ethical high-bar has served as a robust target for hypocrisy-nigglers, but it is only because of its position as the “arbiter” of morality in society in the first place. People don’t charge curbside hookers with hypocrisy about sexual matters, nor back-alley boozers about drunkenness. The slings and arrows are reserved for pastors, priests and preachers who eschew and condemn such profligacy.

The upside to this is that people have an easy reference to gauge behavior. The downside is that the church – composed of mere men – is fallible and shifting. With the Scriptures themselves, things are a little less prone to the willy-nilly – hence Martin Luther’s appeal to sola Scriptura. At least the text wouldn’t change on a whim or be subject to men’s far-reaching folly – folly that can lead to terrific abuses.

A possibly extreme example taken from Iain Gately’s excellent book, “Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization,” makes this clear:

While many European countries, especially England, were excitedly using the newly discovered plant, Russia’s response to tobacco was ruthless – and mainly ludicrous, thanks to the holier-than-thou set. Seems that the Orthodox Church, by some strange sort of exegesis, determined it was in fact the noxious weed that had inebriated Noah in his tent, not wine as the immediate context might hint:

    And Noah … planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. … And Shem and Japheth took a garment … and covered the nakedness of their father … (Genesis 9:20-23).

Apparently worried about a rash of birthday-suited inebriants smoking in front of their ashamed children, the church declared tobacco verboten in 1624.

Undaunted by the obvious absurdity of its interpretation (made all the more absurd when you realize that Noah and tobacco did not even share the same continent), some 60 years later the church argued, using Mark 7:15 as its text, that smoking was morally corrosive: “the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.”

Given the seriousness of such defilement, the patriarch of Moscow threatened to excommunicate tabagophiles because of their corrupting exhalations. For more modern secularists, this may not sound like a big deal, but it certainly was for flocks of the faithful: Smokers would be damned. (Whether the patriarch considered such severe punishment worthy of Christians who spit or have runny noses is not known.)

If church weed-whackers were looking closer to the text in Mark, however, they might have come up with a different take on tobacco. Christ is addressing the Pharisees who had missed the spiritual side of the law of God in their fallacious flap about Jesus’ disciples not cleaning their hands before eating. The Messiah’s response was that dirty hands do not dirty souls make. It is what is inside a man (spiritually speaking) that is corrosive, not vice versa:

    For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man (Mark 7:21-23).

By missing the point of the text, the church gave support for Russian czars to wallop their subjects with onerous punishments for toking their pipes and sniffing their snuff.

The first Romanov czar out of the gate, Michael Feordorovich (1613-1645), glommed onto the church’s stern dislike for tobacco and made any use of the weed the subject of horrific punishment. By comparison, rich tabagophiles got off easy, merely stripped of their property and hauled off to Siberia to pine for their pipes in the freezing cold. But as Gately points out, less well-to-do smokers and snuffers were beaten, flogged (often fatally), sometimes castrated and frequently had their lips slit. If this treatment seemed severe, no prob; the church said it’s all for the best, and who can argue with God?

Because of an arbitrary misreading of Scripture, countless Christians were brutalized while in continental Europe and the British Isles, their fellows in the faith suffered no worse than possibly excessive tobacco taxes. In Spain, the chief consumer of snuff was in fact the clergy.

The grueling torture from tabagophobes continued in Russia until Peter the Great ascended.

An ardent smoker, Pete was not about to punish his people for his own chosen vice. This put him at odds with the patriarch. As the church rallied its support for Scripture’s supposed condemnation of smoking, Peter sidestepped the entire argument and taxed the beards fancied by Orthodox priests. One absurd turn deserves another.

What is not absurd, however – what is actually dangerously serious – is the church’s support of public policy decisions that cannot be validated except by muddling and misreading Scripture.

Think of the various denominational statements about, for instance, gun control, environmental “protection,” gambling, alcohol, abortion, even tobacco use and taxes – thankfully no lip-slitting recommendations here. (All samples taken from the website of the Reformed Church in America, the continent’s oldest denomination, founded in 1628.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the positions taken by the church have more in common with those of big-government control freaks (liberal or conservative) than with scripturally measured responses to social concerns. Given the limits on the state found in the Bible, most of those responses would not include any reaction by the government at all; instead, what we get from the RCA and many other denominations are repeated calls for government action informed not by genuine scriptural truths, but by statist and sometimes radically antibiblical fancies, closely akin to progressive do-gooder schemes.

This unbiblical moral meddling is taken by many ill-informed Christians and others to be – because it is the voice of the church – the correct and ethical thing to do. It’s not.

If the government indeed serves as an occasional moral wrench, the church must make certain it never cranks it except when it is very clearly in the right. And when it comes to politics and public policy, frequently it seems that it isn’t.

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