Several years ago, Forest Jones, the youth minister at the First Assembly of God in Raleigh, North Carolina, joined a local campaign against teen smoking. He counseled his young flock about the temptations of tobacco, enlisting the teens to lobby local merchants to stop selling cigarettes to kids. “The tobacco industry started taking note,” Jones recalls. Soon afterward, when he moved to a church five counties away, Jones got a creepy phone call from the local officer of a tobacco company. “It was somebody in management,” the minister remembers. “He wanted to know if I was here to pastor, or was I going to start any trouble?”
Similar questions confront a growing number of conservative Christian clergy and political activists as they grapple with the contradiction between their beliefs about the sanctity of life and the Christian right’s conspicuous silence about the tobacco industry. Successive revelations about smoking-induced death and disease, the marketing of cigarettes to children, and the manipulation of nicotine to encourage addiction are gradually reducing cigarette purveyors from the status of honest businesspeople to that of pushers, pimps, and pornographers. Yet the industry provides the Christian right with a vast grassroots base and a staunch Republican ally. Will religious conservatives continue to accept tobacco’s support in exchange for their silence? Or will they start making trouble?