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There was a time in the United States when Christians got deeply involved in the political process over issues of grave moral concern, and fought a long and difficult culture war against those they saw as purveyors of evil. And they won.
Much of this Christian engagement with the culture grew out of spiritual revival, which from an evangelical standpoint is exactly where all such reforms should begin. The Gospel had been preached. People had been saved and their lives transformed. Churches had been planted. Entire regions of the country had been Christianized.
Spiritual awakening led to concern about the state of the family, particularly with regard to the roles and responsibilities of men within the home. Certain practices and institutions were corrupting men and threatening to destroy families, leaving the most vulnerable exposed through the torn moral fabric of communities around the country.
This moral crusade took place in the midst of a technological revolution that had led people out of their more conservative towns and villages into the cities, where looser structures of community did not promote traditional patterns of social connection and accountability. Christians and moral conservatives feared that these relaxed circumstances would lead to irresponsible behavior, an increase in sexual promiscuity, and a host of other unacceptable lifestyle choices, with the result that America would become morally bankrupt.
This culture war was also fought during a period of increasing cultural diversity in America, as waves of immigrants flowed into her cities. Their unfamiliar practices, languages, cultural standards, and religious affiliations threatened those who saw the United States primarily as a white, conservative, Protestant nation.
Christian involvement in political life increased dramatically during this culture war as astute politicians, lobbyists, preachers, and “parachurch” groups organized grassroots support and activism through the churches. They focused their efforts on a single issue and encouraged Christians to “take our country back.” This singular focus gave energy and direction to their efforts, but in the end, the cause ultimately may have been undone by their insistence that only an extreme position was acceptable.
The parallels are striking to the way Christians have fought culture wars in our own day. However, today I am speaking of a campaign that took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries — the culture war that led to the 18th Amendment for Prohibition.
Perhaps we would be wise to consider what “winning” that culture war wrought.
As I viewed the series, I was struck by the parallels mentioned above. Actually, to speak of parallels is probably not accurate. It is more likely that the different divisions in American society and the way the issue of Prohibition was viewed by those various factions are, in fact, the SAME divisions and perspectives we still see operating in the U.S. today. Whether we are talking about “Wet” and “Dry” groups then or “Blue State” and “Red State” groups now, it seems to me that there are fundamental divisions in American culture that react to various problems and issues from fairly predictable positions. Many of these divisions came to the fore and became established in American culture and politics in response to the issue of Prohibition.
The 18th Amendment came to fruition largely through the efforts of the “Christian Right” of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The “Dry” movement, the Temperance movement (of which the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement was the preeminent activist group), groups who convinced people to pledge total abstinence from alcohol, those who prayed in front of saloons or took hatchets to their furnishings and alcoholic inventory (like the infamous Carry Nation), the preachers who inveighed against the evils of alcohol, and the lobbyists and politicians who sought to rid the land of alcohol were the “Christian Right” of their day. Wayne B. Wheeler, head of the Anti-Saloon League, and who proved to be the most powerful, influential, and effective leader of all the anti-alcohol movements declared, “Never again will any political party ignore the protests of the church and the moral forces of the state.”
There is not space here to do anywhere near a comprehensive analysis of Prohibition, but allow me to make a few observations to prompt our discussion today. I believe there are lessons to be learned from this amazing chapter of American life.
First, Christians and moral conservatives were right in identifying sinful behavior and its devastating consequences. Alcohol abuse was a terrible problem that grew exponentially in the 19th century. Christians and others were absolutely right to be concerned about this social issue. Burns notes in his series that in 1830 the average American over 15 years old was drinking the equivalent of 88 bottles of whiskey each year! Americans in the early decades of the 19th century spent more money on alcohol than the Federal budget. People drank morning, noon, and night, and the saloon was a corrupting influence in many communities. Hard liquor, replacing low alcohol content drinks like beer and cider, was becoming more available (and more of a problem) as the nation’s grain and corn crops expanded. Wives and children became subject to abuse and vulnerable to poverty in a day when few social services were available to assist them. Certainly something needed to be done!
Second, many Christians and advocates in the early days of the the temperance movement were right in seeking to exercise a salutary effect on society with regard to this issue. A summary from the PBS website about the roots of Prohibition describes how the movement morphed and changed over the years:
The country’s first serious anti-alcohol movement grew out of a fervor for reform that swept the nation in the 1830s and 1840s. Many abolitionists fighting to rid the country of slavery came to see drink as an equally great evil to be eradicated – if America were ever to be fully cleansed of sin. The temperance movement, rooted in America’s Protestant churches, first urged moderation, then encouraged drinkers to help each other to resist temptation, and ultimately demanded that local, state, and national governments prohibit alcohol outright.
So, absolute prohibition of alcohol manufacture, sales, and use was not the original intent of those who sought to remedy the crisis. That demand only came into being as the movement developed, became politicized, and began being led by people who forcefully demanded an all-or-nothing outcome. As the fight grew, their position became more and more extreme.
Third, Christians and temperance leaders were not wise in taking their movement to the extreme of Prohibition. As one commenter in the Burns series said, alcoholism was a serious problem — for about 10% of the population. The position that the dries ultimately demanded, however, was to put 100% of the country under Prohibition. This led to a multitude of unintended consequences which Burns’ series details, including the development of organized crime, a whole complex of negative economic consequences that included a huge drop in government revenues, a burgeoning trade in unregulated alcohol that took 1000 lives a year during Prohibition, and, not least, the encouragement of pervasive hypocrisy among those who really had no issue at all with alcohol itself or certain forms of social drinking. As Burns film notes,
The greatest unintended consequence of Prohibition however, was the plainest to see. For over a decade, the law that was meant to foster temperance instead fostered intemperance and excess. The solution the United States had devised to address the problem of alcohol abuse had instead made the problem even worse. The statistics of the period are notoriously unreliable, but it is very clear that in many parts of the United States more people were drinking, and people were drinking more.
The Prohibition fight also escalated into a true cultural and religious war as the U.S. immigrant population rapidly expanded. Catholics and Jews in particular were singled out as possibly not being “real Americans,” and in the southern states the issue only made racial tensions worse. As Daniel Okrent wrote in The Smithsonian, “In the South, Prohibitionists stood side by side with racists whose living nightmare was the image of a black man with a bottle in one hand and a ballot in the other.” America’s entrance into World War I prompted an outcry of anti-German fervor that identified “the Huns” with the (mostly German) beer brewers and implied their trade was treasonous.
Fourth, Christians showed their ignorance of what “law” does when it is applied so forcefully and universally upon a population of sinful people. The text quoted at the beginning of this article says it all: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. (Romans 7:9-10, NRSV)
Law is not the answer. And extreme application of law to eradicate moral problems simply does not work. The Prohibition experiment is a modern testimony to this truth. Several people interviewed in the Prohibition film noted that there was plenty of room for compromise, for groups of differing perspectives to work together to deal with the problem of alcohol abuse, for the acceptance of lesser measures focused on taking care of the problem rather than putting everyone under an absolute ban. However, people like Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League would not budge from their extreme positions.
Burns’ documentary, from a Christian perspective, is not perfect. One gripe I have is the repeated refrain, “You cannot enforce morality by laws.” That statement is too broad and imprecise to be satisfying. All laws, to some extent, seek to do that. God has given the nations the gift of civil government, laws, and enforcement and judicial systems to curb the spread of sin and its devastating consequences. Without them, we would all be Somalia.
However, there is a grain of truth here. When Christians try to exercise power over others, refuse to budge from extreme positions, and seek to pass laws that are unwise and unrealistic, they are not following the footsteps of Jesus. Culture war politics is not his way.
They weren’t in the days of Prohibition. They are not today.