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Illegal drug use is up in South Dakota and across America.

Meanwhile, churchgoing is down.

Are the two trends connected?

Is the decline of the Christian church’s influence in part responsible for the increase in illegal drug use and addiction?

I put the question to Constanze Hagmaier, Madison, newly elected bishop of the ELCA Lutheran Church in South Dakota. She was in Rapid City last week performing official duties, including the installation of Eric Thone as associate pastor at South Canyon.

Bishop Hagmaier is not the first cleric to be asked about the trend lines that intersected in the 1960s — one ascending, reflecting a growing drug culture, and the other descending, indicating fewer Americans attending church.

Both trends continue, unfortunately.

Naturally, I wanted the bishop’s take on present day conditions and outlook. But there was something more, and that is the continuing emphasis on addressing the symptoms of the growing drug problem instead of its root causes.

A recent report by South Dakota News Watch said meth-related crimes increased by 625 percent between 2002 and 2017, when 3,390 persons were arrested on meth-related crimes. Meth has become the most destructive drug in the state, but there are addiction problems for heroin, marijuana, opioids and alcohol, which take scores of lives each year in our state. In 2016 alone, 69 died of opioid overdoses.

I am not criticizing the efforts to treat drug addiction. The programs are many, varied, and needed. However, with numbers piling up with each succeeding year, could more be done to prevent this destructive infatuation with drugs? And if so, does the Christian church have a role in it?

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Bishop Hagmaier said that even though she did not have hard data on the “connection,” she could argue that “there is evidence for a correlation between a lack of life-giving faith and a rise in substance abuse.”

History has shown us, she said, that humankind is broken in many ways. Pain and suffering are an undeniable part of life.

“When suffering and pain get overwhelming, our inclination or reflex is to avoid it or numb it — the fight or flight reflex. Substances carry the promise to bring you pleasure and peace without you needing to work for it.”

Of course, there are other explanations for drug abuse, the most common is that people — often young people — want to experiment. They would taste beer in the 1950s and smoke marijuana in the 1960s. But today, those who “experiment” are ill-equipped to handle the significant increase in the variety, intensity and addictiveness of what is available.

The bishop suggested that there is a relationship between the growth of the illegal drug culture and an erosion of the church’s influence.

“My experience and history lead me to say that I see a correlation.”

If so, how then can the church reassert itself and modify those trajectories? One approach Bishop Hagmaier emphasized was a change in the church’s message.

“God’s Church is not a social club,” she said. “My vision is that the church is a church that shows up, shows up in places where the world throws its hands up in the air and says, ‘We are done!’ This is not a new concept looking at Christian history. We need to be a church that leaves its buildings and lives among God’s creation with the message that any kind of death is intolerable and that the church refuses to submit to death, but at all cost will be a bringer of life, light and hope.”

The bishop and church leaders of all denominations have plenty of work ahead.

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Noel Hamiel is a retired newspaperman and former state legislator. He can be reached at noelhamiel@gmail.com.

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