A Higher Power: Religious Legacies in Popular Conceptions of Substance Use Disorder

Sam Keaser


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This article traces theologies of individual and divine agency as they relate to faith healing throughout three cases in U.S. history—the milieu of faith healing movements at the end of the 19th century, Alcoholics Anonymous at its founding in the mid- and late-1930s, and a Pentecostal pastor’s work with New York City teenagers with substance use disorders (SUDs) in the 1950s and 1960s. Given the importance of religion in American life, faith healing’s role as a generator of theological innovation, and the persistence and dynamism of individual and corporate religiosity in the United States, it is argued that religious conceptions of health and recovery play an important role in the construction of social and political narratives.

Although not always and not at all times, this paper argues that one outcome of theologies of agency in relationship to healing and the divine is the popular assumption that people with substance use disorders who are not abstinent do so because they have made a conscious choice against such an option. This has ramifications for social understandings of SUDs, notions of what constitutes sobriety, and alcohol and other drug policy in the U.S. as the country works to address its ongoing opioid epidemic.


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