Church and Prohibition

This week I have been watching Ken Burns’ documentary, Prohibition, which spends 5.5 hours chronicling the train wreck that was the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While this was a culture war of another era, the story gives us much to ponder for the battles we face today.

The prohibition movement was a century-long response to rampant drunkenness and the destructive nature of “saloon culture” in America. According to the documentary, “By 1830, the average American over 15 years old consumed nearly seven gallons of pure alcohol a year – three times as much as we drink today.” It was an era of heavy dependence on the man of the house for income, and the tragically common narrative was of men working long, hard hours in the newly industrialized city then taking their weekly paycheck to the saloon rather than home to provide for their families. What they did bring home in their uninhibited state was domestic and sexual violence. Wives and children had very little recourse, making this issue much less about the consumption of alcohol and much more about giving justice to the powerless and abused.

The trumpet call for justice and self-control sounded from the Protestant church, amplified by the Second Great Awakening (roughly 1790-1830). These brothers and sisters were gripped by a passion for personal holiness and social justice. Too many pastors had seen promising young disciples lose their jobs, families, and sometimes their lives to heavy drinking. The church’s foray into the issue began with calls for moderation, but when these had little effect, the battle cry became for T-total abstinence from alcohol. Though I am not a teetotaler, as I watched the documentary I could easily see myself joining the cause of the Anti-Saloon League had I been a gospel minister a century ago. Their sustained efforts eventually led to Eighteenth Amendment that prohibited the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol.

For all its right intentions, prohibition turned out to be a disaster. It was weakly enforced and its unintended consequences included the birth of the American Mafia and widespread corruption at every level of government. It highlighted deeper divisions in America, as prohibition efforts were fueled not only by pious Protestant but nativists–most extremely the thriving Ku Klux Klan–whose denouncements were more anti-immigrant than anything else. After being in place shy of 14 years, the Eighteenth Amendment became the first and only Constitutional amendment to be repealed.

What does this tell us about the church’s pursuit of justice and mercy in our world? As we look at the contemporary “war on drugs” or economic inequality or debate over abortion, is this a cautionary tale for us to not impose our morals on others? Certainly not. Prohibition was not all bad. The call for temperance was intertwined with women’s suffrage, a movement that continued its fight for gender equality long past the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Furthermore, we are not, as we once were, a “nation of drunkards.” The saloon culture was reduced to a less pervasive and overt version of its former self. Good did come from the fight.

Yet there is a cautionary tale for us here, namely, that any efforts we expend in a fallen world will have mixed results. Our call to love our neighbors as ourselves disallows us from retreating from social issues. Yet the Bible teaches clearly that only the return of our King will bring about perfect righteousness.

On this topic, let me commend work of James Davison Hunter, who masterfully chronicles the missteps of both the religious right and the religious left in their efforts, as his book title puts it, To Change The World. Hunter closes his work with these words:

“Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help make the world a little bit better” (p. 286).

As we look at the injustices of our day, may we be faithful to our King and his gospel, love our neighbor sacrificially, and fix our faith on the Day when God will make all things new.

Pastor Chris

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