Ministers struggle with ethics of growing tobacco Moral dilemma pits health considerations against economic staple


DUNGANNON, Va. - The road to Richard Austin's farm winds past big open-sided tobacco barns, hung with their darkening harvest.

Sometimes, a barn will share a hilltop or a hollow with a little church. They endure together in the mist, a time-honored silence between them.

For generations in tobacco country, churches have kept quiet about tobacco. In turn, tobacco has sustained their communities, put money in their collection plates.

Still, times are changing. The silence is slowly breaking.

When Richard Austin started farming here 21 years ago, his land, like most of the land worth having around here, came with a federal tobacco allotment.

A persisting dilemma

For Austin, an ordained Presbyterian minister, the supposed boon of an allotment presented a deep and persisting dilemma.

Austin figured the 2,500 pounds of tobacco he was entitled to grow on his farm would feed the addictions of several hundred people. Some, he assumed, would die of smoking.

Thinking about his tobacco allotment, Austin weighed the bad against the good things he knew about tobacco. "Guaranteed price. A family crop. Everybody in the family involved." The intimate knowledge, the skill, and the hard work that go into growing tobacco - a crop so labor intensive that it has been called handmade.

"What tobacco has done in the Southeast," says Austin, "is keep small farms alive."

Should he walk away from tobacco? If he did, would he also be walking away from his neighbors, his community?

What would be the righteous thing to do?

"I went through the moral struggle," he recalls.

The answer he arrived at wasn't simple.

That, church leaders say, goes with the territory.

Smoking kills about 400,000 people a year in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is more than twice the number of deaths blamed on alcohol (100,000), firearms (35,000), motor vehicles (25,000) and illicit drug use (20,000) combined.

The moral dilemma of tobacco reaches far beyond the churches of tobacco-growing regions. It reaches to the factory towns, and big cities and foreign countries where the nation's tobacco giants market and produce their goods, and of course to Washington, where tobacco policy is made.

It's a dilemma like that faced by ministers whose communities include both conservationists and lumber companies, management and labor, the powerful and the poor. "Where is the living totally clean?" says Allen Bingham, a North Carolina United Methodist pastor who used to minister to two tobacco churches. Bingham, a pacifist, is now posted next to the Marines' Camp Lejeune.

In New York's Harlem, Calvin O. Butts, pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, has led defiant marchers in painting over the cigarette and liquor billboards that target their neighborhood.

In Milwaukee, Michael Crosby, a Catholic priest concerned about the morality of cigarette marketing in third world countries, persuaded his Capuchin Franciscan order to invest in a few shares of Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds stock, so that he might speak his conscience at shareholders' meetings.

'Thou shalt not kill'

"Always for me, it's coming out of the Fifth Commandment, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill,'" says Crosby. He works on tobacco issues with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, based in New York, where 275 religious institutions try to influence corporate policies through their investments.

And in Washington this summer, when the Food and Drug Administration decided to classify nicotine as a drug, the Muslim, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic members of the Interreligious Coalition On Smoking OR Health praised the move as "a righteous deed."

Not all church folks were so wholeheartedly pleased about the FDA's action. In Kentucky's burley belt, Dorothy Robertson, a tobacco farmer and pillar of her Christian Church, worried about the future of her aging neighbors, her aging church, the farms that have kept both alive.

"Certainly we don't want children smoking," she says. Still, tobacco "is a way of life for us."

"At one time, we raised tobacco in the church yard," says Robertson. "It went into expenses."

In terms of profit, tobacco easily tops just about any other crop. The tobacco program, which dates to the Great Depression, protects small farmers by controlling production through allotments and quotas.

But with growing disapproval of smoking at home and with tobacco companies turning toward foreign markets and foreign growers, these farmers fear their quiet, old-fashioned world is changing forever.

Amid this change, a few church leaders have found an opportunity to break the silence about tobacco. The job isn't easy, or clear-cut.

Bennett Poage, a former agricultural economist and county agent, now a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister based in Richmond, Ky., tells a joke to illustrate the quandary.

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