October 29, 2020

When Christians Won the Culture War

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)

• • •

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

PBS recently aired Ken Burns’ latest documentary, Prohibition. You can watch the videos online HERE.

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.

Wayne B. Wheeler, Anti-Saloon League

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.


  1. “Law is not the answer.” Well, that may well depend on what the question is. If the question is what can set man right with God, then you are correct it is not the answer (nor was it ever the answer). Only Jesus can do that, and the government can’t make people accept/believe/follow Him.

    However, I think we need to seriously think about what is the proper role of civil government. I think most people would be surprised to know where the line “You can’t legislate morality” came from. It was stated by a conservative Republican named Barry Goldwater. What piece of legislation led him to say that, well it was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. MLK responded that he was half right, that legislation can’t make my neighbor love me but it can keep him from hurting me.

    • Law also cannot eradicate sin, which is what Prohibition advocates were attempting to do.

      • I don’t know of any of the CCWs (that’s Conservative Culture Warriors) today that think it can (with the possible exception of some Postmillennialists). Utopia tends to be the pipe dream of the Left.

        I would also point out that “extreme positions” as you called them, is somewhat relative. In the 1850s abolitionism was considered pretty extreme and the “Free Soil” movement was considerate more moderate and realistic. Woman’s Suffrage, supported by most prohibitionists by the way, was also considered extreme by some.

        • Utopia tends to be the pipe dream of the Left.

          I don’t know about that. If you listen to the rhetoric of the American Family Association and all the rest they make appeals to the past all the time. An imaginary past when all women stayed at home, all men worked, gays didn’t exist and abortions never happened.

          Modern culture warriors share this kind of thinking with the prohibitionists. They both felt that one answer, banning alcohol in one case, banning gays, abortion in the other, were the answer to complex problems in the family that were really the result of complex cultural changes. It seems to me that the modern ‘culture wars’ are more a response by modern evangelicals to try to process the fact that they are no longer as cultural dominant as they once were.

          • It’s the left that are utopians. That’s why Michael Moore just said that “if there is no system to replace capitalism, then he will invent one.”

            Leftism always tears down that which is not ‘perfect, without any thought of the consequences.

          • So, so agree.

          • And my “So, so agree” is to topher’s statement, not Steve’s.

          • Yup….according to the AFA and Focus on Everyone Else’s Family you get the impression that segregation never happened. There were no illeagal abortions, pornograghy never existed (though Playboy was born in the 1950’s…) and that June Cleaver was the all American Mom. By all means lets keep Rosa Parks at the back of the bus!! 😛

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            As I said before, Eagle, they are operating from a highly-mythologized view of the 1950s as a Perfect Christian Paradise. A mythic Fifties according to Ozzie, Harriet, and Donna Reed which probably bears as much resemblance to the REAL 1950s as JFK the Myth does to John Kennedy the man.

            “When reality and legend conflict, print the legend!”
            The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

          • I have to agree with HUG here. I am apolitical…I vote for whomever I feel will do the best job at their post…I do believe the right espouses the idea of a return to something than never existed. People had moral issues in the 1950’s, just like today. In our time, though, the media exposes the underbelly fully, and culture glamorizes the things that were hidden way back when.

        • sowarrior, you give some valid perspective here. What I would say is, only the abolition of slavery and the Prohibition of alcohol were taken to the “extreme” level of having Constitutional amendments passed. The “extreme” remedy of a Constitutional amendment to eradicate slavery is to my mind more understandable than one to ban alcohol. With the first, we are talking about making sure that basic human rights are guaranteed. With Prohibition, however, we are talking about banning a product. No way does such an extreme measure equal the extent of the problem.

          • And making slavery illegal still did not take care of the problem of racsim. Its still exists!! In some parts of the US blacks only got the right to vote 50 years ago…well after the Civil War.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            That’s because racism is the dark side of the tendency to associate with those who are most like us. Just one tribe shaking its spears at the other, shouting “You Not Us!”

            Stephen Jay Gould wrote extensively on how White Supremacy was considered as fundamental a law of nature as gravity well into the 20th Century. On both sides of Mason-Dixon. And how bad science was used to prop it up.

  2. According to the Ken Burn’s documentary on the subject, Prohibition also introduced the federal income tax as a way to compensate for the loss of liquor tax revenues.

    • Quixotequest says

      I was going to ask whether Chaplain Mike had just watched the Ken Burns series. Enjoyed it. Brought to my mind some parallels with the “Marriage Amendment” culture war. Though I must confess I’m a little curious to see what form the mafia and speakeasys take in this latest round. Vermont? 😉

      • There have been several marriage fronts in the culture war. Besides gay marriage, a few years ago Louisiana started “marriage plus” (or something like that) which would make divorce much harder for couples who choose this form of marriage. Not very many people did, for some reason.

        Today, Mexico is considering recognizing temporary marriage. After two years, the couple can either re-up, or not, as they choose, and if one of them chooses not to, then no divorce is required–the marriage ends automatically. Permanent marriage will still be on offer, however, and I suspect few grooms will be so bold as to propose temporary marriage to their intendeds. Certainly one expects a certain amount of pressure from relatives… In other words, I predict this experiment will prove a dud as well. (I mean, what is the advantage of doing this, over just living together? Some legal stuff probably…)

        • Richard Hershberger says

          How is temporary marriage different from the modern version of living together? As I understand it, moving in together is seen as an intermediate step between a “committed relationship” with separate households and actual marriage. The understood subtext often seems to be that it is a de facto trial marriage, with fewer entanglements to sort out should things not work out. Presumably the advantage of a temporary marriage would be that it carries with it stuff like hospital visitation rights. Many persons of both sexes are comfortable with living together, but I can see some taking advantage of the legal benefits of temporary marriage. The inevitable wackiness that really should be resolved ahead of time is stuff like inheritance rights. Otherwise we will be blessed with sensational news stories of one spouse dying under suspicious circumstances mere days before the temporary marriage was due to expire.

        • Really off topic, but Mexico has an institutionalized form of common-law marriage. Usually means that children are recognized, but don’t always have their father’s name. It;s complicated. Maybe the temporary marriage thing is related to that.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was still around as of the mid-1970s. I remember hearing them on Christian radio of the time, and immediately recognizing the name in a “blast from the past”. Now, 35 years later, here’s what I remember about their radio program at the time:

    1) The show began with a hymn as background music, behind an male voice announcing themselves as the “Women’s Christian Temperance Union”. My ears perked up at the mention of the name, which I only knew from historical references. I didn’t know they were still around.

    2) The show consisted of an old woman’s voice lecturing against “beverage alcohol”. I distinctly remember that as I have never heard that term used by anyone else, before or since. I cannot remember if the woman’s voice had any specific accent, but she sounded OLD.

    3) The gist of the sermon was how Prohibition worked wonderfully (if not perfectly) until its sabotage by “the forces of the beverage alcohol industry” and how everything had gone downhill since Prohibition’s repeal.

    4) And how We Need To Bring Back Prohibition.

    I cannot remember the time slot when this aired, but I think it was late at night. The closest I can narrow down hearing it was sometime between 1973 and 1977. I remember treating it as a historical curiosity, and didn’t think much of it for 35 years until this IMonk posting brought it to mind.

    …a burgeoning trade in unregulated alcohol that took 1000 lives a year during Prohibition…

    Commemorated in this classic from 1923: “Jake Walk Blues”.

    …, 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.

    This was the origin of the Cocktail — small-volume, very strong mixed drinks you could chug quick in a single gulp before BATF could come in and bust you. As Hunter S Thompson put it, “They can’t bust you for what’s already dissolved in your belly.” After Prohibition, this type of drinking — strong, quick, and alone — was so ingrained that SF futures among the stars includied “Cocktail Hour” as a religious rite.

    • “Can you imagine a sorrier sight than a man eating fruitcake until he gets tight?”

      This is satirized in “The Song of the Temperance Union” also called “Away with Rum”. I saw it in a play years ago and just did a search for it. The lyrics have been added to ad infinitum to suit the times and the occasion, but these seem to be the basic ones. And I’ll throw in a youtube clip of the Briton Ensemble performing it.

      We’re coming, we’re coming, our brave little band
      On the right side of temp’rance we now take our stand.
      We don’t use tobacco, because we do think
      That the people who use it are liable to drink

      Away, away, with rum, by gum,
      Rum by gum, rum by gum
      Away, away, with rum, by gum,
      The song of the Temperance Union.

      We never eat cookies because they have yeast,
      And one little bite turns a man to a beast.
      Oh, can you imagine the utter disgrace
      Of a man in the gutter with crumbs on his face?

      We never eat fruitcake because it has rum,
      And one little slice puts a man on the bum.
      Oh, can you imagine the sorrier sight
      Of a man eating fruitcake until he gets tight?


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I remember the tune –it’s a popular one for filksongs. The only filk lyrics I can remember right now are those about an early D&D gamers’ proto-flamewar circa 1976 (“Glenn Blacow vs the entie West Coast,” a slow-motion flamewar done through monthly fanzines):

        “Hooray, hooray for the One True Way,
        The One True Way, The One True Way,
        Hooray, hooray for the One True Way,
        The song of lobotomized fandom!

        “You give varied armor and have static hits;
        We don’t do that in Edwyr so you must be twits!
        Our cause is so righteous, our logic is strong,
        And I’m Always Right, so You Must Be WRONG!”

        (The cryptic words in the above were specific game mechanics and campaign references of the time…)

      • I know that song well, Ted. When I was a teen, it was one of the songs my pals and I liked to sing while friend Dorrie played the guitar. It’s a great song to sing at parties, too, as you all wave your mugs of beer around as you sing, very loudly.

      • There also seems to have been a slight mishap in the musical campaign, where the original form of the song “The Pig and the Inebriate” (a.k.a. The PIg Got Up and Slowly Walked Away) was very pro-temperance, but within a year or so, there was an alternate version which went for humour and very much softened the anti-alcohol message.

        Original lyrics here and best-known popular version sung here for comparison.

    • “Beverage alcohol” would be in contrast to (for example) medicinal alcohol, lighter fluid, or communion wine.

    • Also, if I am to believe G.K. Chesterton’s comments on Prohibition from “What I Saw In America”, the rich were not bothered by Prohibition because they were permitted to drink up whatever stocks of liquor they had in their cellars (and there seemed to be no worry about those stocks ever running out):

      “I see that some remarks by the Rev. R. J. Campbell, dealing with social conditions in America, are reported in the press. They include some observations about Sinn Fein in which, as in most of Mr. Campbell’s allusions to Ireland, it is not difficult to detect his dismal origin, or the acrid smell of the smoke of Belfast. But the remarks about America are valuable in the objective sense, over and above their philosophy. He believes that Prohibition will survive and be a success, nor does he seem himself to regard the prospect with any special disfavour. But he frankly and freely testifies to the truth I have asserted; that Prohibition does not prohibit, so far as the wealthy are concerned. He testifies to constantly seeing wine on the table, as will any other grateful guest of the generous hospitality of America; and he implies humorously that he asked no questions about the story told him of the old stocks in the cellars. So there is no dispute about the facts; and we come back as before to the principles. Is Mr. Campbell content with a Prohibition which is another name for Privilege? If so, he has simply absorbed along with his new theology a new morality which is different from mine. But he does state both sides of the inequality with equal logic and clearness; and in these days of intellectual fog that alone is like a ray of sunshine.

      Now my primary objection to Prohibition is not based on any arguments against it, but on the one argument for it. I need nothing more for its condemnation than the only thing that is said in its defence. It is said by capitalists all over America; and it is very clearly and correctly reported by Mr. Campbell himself. The argument is that employees work harder, and therefore employers get richer. That this idea should be taken calmly, by itself, as the test of a problem of liberty, is in itself a final testimony to the presence of slavery. It shows that people have completely forgotten that there is any other test except the servile test. Employers are willing that workmen should have exercise, as it may help them to do more work. They are even willing that workmen should have leisure; for the more intelligent capitalists can see that this also really means that they can do more work. But they are not in any way willing that workmen should have fun; for fun only increases the happiness and not the utility of the worker. Fun is freedom; and in that sense is an end in itself. It concerns the man not as a worker but as a citizen, or even as a soul; and the soul in that sense is an end in itself. That a man shall have a reasonable amount of comedy and poetry and even fantasy in his life is part of his spiritual health, which is for the service of God; and not merely for his mechanical health, which is now bound to the service of man. The very test adopted has all the servile implication; the test of what we can get out of him, instead of the test of what he can get out of life.”

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was still around as of the mid-1970s. ”

      The Women’s Christian Temperance Union is still around as of 2011. They even have a website, with exactly the address one would have guessed: http://www.wctu.org/

  4. “Law is not the answer.”

    You were right to qualify that statement by saying nations had the responsibility to inhibit the effects of sin through the machinery of government, law being a cog in that machine.

    It is sad, however, when Christians look to law to solve their problems and save society. The Lord has given us the Gospel of Jesus Christ to save us. For most of my life, the Bible was presented to me as a book that offered a set of rules, laws, steps, and how-to advice to solve all of my problems. It has only been recently that I have come to understand it as a book about the One, Jesus, who has already solved my problems (and everyone else’s). I am glad He did, because we seem to have a bad record at problem solving.

    Thank you for this timely post.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    However, people like Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League would not budge from their extreme positions.


    Another thing I remember from somewhere on the Web had to do with Billy Sunday, the big-name celebrity evangelist of the time. During World War One and the run-up to Prohibition, his sermons tended to concentrate exclusively on Demon Rum, to the point the Gospel was completely pushed out. (Preaching Against rather than Preaching For.) Sunday (a former pro baseball player) was probably a recovering alcoholic himself, so a lot of this might have been “I have X Problem, so Everybody Else must have the same problem.”

    • HUG that susm of many people’s approaches. How many peopel who tirade against homosexuality ended up being gay? How many people who rail against alcohol were a closet alcoholic? How many people who rail against sex were caught in a prostitution sting or were into pornograghy?

      Do you know what killed William Jennings Bryan? Gluttony!! On July 26, 1925 he gorged himself and overate and died in his sleep. But gluttony is okay as a sin and has no consequences what so ever.

      • William Jennings Bryan had his flaws but was, overall, an honorable man. The one thing I know for sure about him is that when he saw what was going in the Wilson administration with regard to the Federal Reserve System and Wilson’s dealings with Europe during WWI, he resigned his post as Secretary of State to keep his moral integrity.

        If only we had more Christians with the same integrity these days, rather than sycophants for the neoconservative Right.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Actually, Bryan had been suffering from diabetes for some time, and had burned himself out pretty badly during and after the Scopes Monkey Trial. This was still in Dayton, Tennessee, and they like to eat hearty in the former Confederate States; it’s possible Bryan was partaking of such Southern Hospitality.

        “He died of a busted belly” was Clarence Darrow’s comment upon learning of Bryan’s death from reporters (i.e. the media) and being asked for a statement. Darrow & Bryan did not get along very well. The comment was popularized by the play and movie Inherit the Wind, leaving out Darrow’s immediate followup of “His death is a great loss to the American people.”

        • But HUG, in the play, didn’t the Darrow character snap back at a reporter who ridiculed the Bryan character after his death? At least in the version I remember. Different directors may have done it differently.

      • Well, aside from the natural consequences that occur, as Gramma used to say, from “Digging your grave with your fork!”

        • Love it, Pattie! My grandma used to say, “He eats like a fattenin’ hog.”

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          And the image of the grossly-fat preacher railing and ranting and calling down God’s Wrath on some other (usually sexual) sin happens IRL. There’s probably a lot of RL footage of it on YouTube.

  6. flatrocker says

    “Law is not the answer. And extreme application of law to eradicate moral problems simply does not work.”

    It has always struck a curious tone on how our firmly held convictions shift when the ox that is being gored changes. Case in point – what happens to our perspective if we change what is being “prohibited” from alcohol to the “vice du jour” that confronts us every day. Substitute the word “alcohol” in the above post with the words marijuana, prostitution or gambling. Watch how our justifications, rationalizations and passions take over as we alter our positions concerning these various vices.

    Do we really believe “that an extreme application of law to eradicate moral probelms simply does not work” as evidenced by the folly of the 18th amendment? If so, why are we still applying so much law to eradicate moral problems?

    Why do our convictions (pro or con) shift when we bring in the next gored ox?

    • I agree. Which is why there aren’t easy answers here. It requires discussion and case by case judgement. Should pot really be illegal? I like it when Ron Paul questions “How many resources have we wasted fighting a naturally growing comparatively harmless plant?” (And no, I don’t smoke it. At least not in the past 30 years or so.)

      • Problem with RP’s statement, Dan, is that it isn’t naturally growing, it is highly cultivated. And it isn’t harmless. It is a mind-altering, addictive substance. There are enough loaded people driving as it is. I don’t think we need to add more.

        • Anne – I’m not saying that pot is “good.” Only that it is better to handle it in society the same way we handle alcohol. We need to apply the lessons we learned from prohibition.

  7. Just as some thought they had won the culture war with Prohibition, but were to later learn that they had not, so it will be with the present day Christian “culture wars”. They amount to wasting a lot of resources that could better be used elsewhere.

    • Sam…it gets better. Can you imagine being a female who had an abortion when you were 18 or 19? Maybe you made the decision becuase you were scared. You were frightened of being caught sleeping with someone or you never thought you’d get pregnant. Then you find yourself making a decision that haunts you in life. Can you imagine going to a fundgelical chruch and hearing people talk about, “How in someone’s right mind could anyone get an abortion?” and they tell that to you in a sarcastic manner and you are expected to agree. But what frightnens you is that you are afraid of how they would react if they knew you had one 20 years ago.

      or take the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issue that some fundgelicals want to reinstate. What is going to happen? Do any of the people who push this realize the harm that such a policy has? How many lives have to be destroyed? I mean its not like one gets discharged and then oh well. In some cases people’s lives are destroyed. I’m sure that there are people who have committed suicide over the issue. So why do some people think that reversing the law will work?

      For an idea watch this as to what one person in the military struggled with dealing with this issue.


      The same holds true for so many other issues. Divorce, adult pornograghy, offensive music, etc.. How will any legislation solve the issue or help?

      • In fairness, let’s note that the Catholic Church has support groups for women who have already had abortions, and they are routinely prayed for. Beating a woman (or, sometimes, the man who pushed for the abortion) for a sin past is useless. We serve a God of Forgiveness, and all we can do about anything in our past is acknowledge and repent of that action, and try not to repeat it.

        • Pattie,

          My wife actually counsels women who’ve had abortions through a program called Rachel’s Vineyards. It’s very noteworthy that abortion is not a once-and-done act – that the psychological effects on a woman can carry through the rest of her life if not addressed. And as Eagle said, many times this decision was made under a lot of stress and confusion and is a secret that can carry a lot of grieve and shame.

      • I think abortion and homosexuality are good examples of where law is and is not appropriate. Should homosexuality be illegal? IMO no because even if I disagree with it, it is between you, your partner, and your God. However, abortion is different because it causes a rather dramatic effect on someone else…

      • As CM mentioned, there is a difference between banning a product, one used for thousands of years, btw, and dealing with a life and death issue like abortion. Also, changing all of society’s structure for 1-3% of the population is not the same as banning a product like alcohol.

        BTW if anyone cares, there was not more consumption of alcohol during prohibition but less. The number of persons with cirrhosis of the liver dropped dramatically during prohibition. From some of the reading I’ve seen, it was because of lower availability of saloons where alcohol could be literally poured onto a person who was staggering drunk. I’m not saying that the law was a good idea, but let’s get the facts straight. I have not seen the documentary, but the above are facts you can check.

  8. Kerri in AK says

    Putting my toe in the water gingerly here as this is a first post for me…

    “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. ”

    Even with the qualifier of only 10% of the population being affected by alcoholism, what came to mind first was a question: Why? Why was alcohol becoming a problem when it hadn’t been one before? What had changed in so many American lives? Something was happening culturally – a malaise if you will – at a deeper level than Prohibition was addressing. Prohibition addressed the symptoms but left the disease undiagnosed.

    “The temperance movement, …, first urged moderation”

    Sounds like there were genuine attempts to “love thy neighbor” that were pushed out of the way for increasingly harsher stances. We all see what that got us. But I still remain with the question: Why? What had happened that caused alcoholism to rise? And, also, are we just seeing more and more of the same now?

    • Why? What had happened that caused alcoholism to rise? And, also, are we just seeing more and more of the same now?

      My hypothesis would be industrialization and increased immigration. You have to remember that most working people worked 12 hours a day 6 days a week. Their jobs were often dangerous and if “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair is accurate you could be fired for any reason at any time and blacklisted just as easily. Hard liqueur is a cheap, quick way to get drunk after 12 hours of numbing work. Also, living conditions were nasty, dark, and dank. thus, going to the saloon for the evening was one way to not be stuck in the closet you share with your wife and four kids.
      Anyway, just some thoughts really.

      • “My hypothesis would be industrialization and increased immigration.”

        There you go. Blame it on the Irish.


        • Well I know my great-great Irish grandfather contributed to it. Between times as a shoemaker he ran a liquor store and just about everyone in brooklyn (and they all pretty much Irish at the time) were making their own rum…

        • We Irish had Father Matthew and his celebrated Temperance movement which was astoundingly successful in the 19th century, but we never contemplated anything like Prohibition.

          The increase in the popularity of “hard” liquor like spirits (such as gin) was at its height in the mid-19th century –

          Descriptions such as these by Charles Dickens in his “Sketches by Boz” of 1836, of a typical ‘gin palace’, perhaps shows why such establishments became so successful and were so appealing; they combined a showy glamour which contrasted sharply with the environments the poor lived in with maximum ‘bang for your buck’ (as Hogarth put it in his 1751 print showing the contrast between “Beer Street and Gin Lane”, it was “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, clean straw for nothing”):

          “Although places of this description are to be met with in every second street, they are invariably numerous and splendid in precise proportion to the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighbourhood. The gin-shops in and near Drury-Lane, Holborn, St. Giles’s, Covent-garden, and Clare-market, are the handsomest in London. There is more of filth and squalid misery near those great thorough-fares than in any part of this mighty city. We will endeavour to sketch the bar of a large gin-shop, and its ordinary customers, for the edification of such of our readers as may not have had opportunities of observing such scenes; and on the chance of finding one well suited to our purpose, we will make for Drury-Lane, through the narrow streets and dirty courts which divide it from Oxford-street, and that classical spot adjoining the brewery at the bottom of Tottenham-court-road, best known to the initiated as the ‘Rookery.’

          … All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. The interior is even gayer than the exterior. A bar of French-polished mahogany, elegantly carved, extends the whole width of the place; and there are two side-aisles of great casks, painted green and gold, enclosed within a light brass rail, and bearing such inscriptions, as ‘Old Tom, 549;’ ‘Young Tom, 360;’ ‘Samson, 1421’ – the figures agreeing, we presume, with ‘gallons,’ understood. Beyond the bar is a lofty and spacious saloon, full of the same enticing vessels, with a gallery running round it, equally well furnished. On the counter, in addition to the usual spirit apparatus, are two or three little baskets of cakes and biscuits, which are carefully secured at top with wicker-work, to prevent their contents being unlawfully abstracted. Behind it, are two showily-dressed damsels with large necklaces, dispensing the spirits and ‘compounds.’ They are assisted by the ostensible proprietor of the concern, a stout, coarse fellow in a fur cap, put on very much on one side to give him a knowing air, and to display his sandy whiskers to the best advantage.”

          Anybody else ever hear gin described as “Mother’s Ruin” and “Strip-and-go-naked”? 🙂

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Descriptions such as these by Charles Dickens in his “Sketches by Boz” of 1836, of a typical ‘gin palace’, perhaps shows why such establishments became so successful and were so appealing; they combined a showy glamour which contrasted sharply with the environments the poor lived in with maximum ‘bang for your buck’…

            AKA “Maximum Bling-Bling.” Same as American slums today, where BLING! is Everything.

    • Yes! We so often want to remove the symptom and, by focusing on that, forget the underlying disease.

      As for the place of the legal system in culture – I want laws that protect people from…..well, the stupidity of others. Sticking with this example, I can’t see telling someone not to drink, but don’t get drunk and then drive on the same road as me and my family or abuse your children as a result. Morally, I would want to help anyone who felt they needed to escape that way – but that is not the job of the legal system, it’s the job of the Body of Christ.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      One possibility was you were seeing more distilled hard liquor displacing lower-alcohol beers, wines, and ciders.

      Drinking low-alcohol stuff had a long tradition in Europe, where beer or wine was the normal drink; water could carry disease, and a few percent alcohol sterilized the drink. America was first settled from Northwestern Europe, where below-freezing winters selected for beer instead of wine. Unlike wine, beer and ale (especially when unhopped) has a very short shelf life, so there was the pressure to drink it before it could go bad. This would tend to select for binge drinking, especially when the introduction of distilled liquor (like Whiskey) upped the alcohol content from a few percent to 50% or more.

      I read once of a group of American seminarians in Rome, who were taken aback by the Italians who ran the seminary serving wine with breakfast. (Wine is a staple for all non-Muslim Mediterranean cultures, not just French or Italians.) Said Americans said they’d “taken the pledge” (i.e. were “drys”), which provoked the following response from their Italian mentor:

      “You Americans are just like the Irish! You only drink as strong as you can and as much as you can, in order to get as drunk as you can as fast as you can!” The mentor then introduced them to the Italian/Meditteranean use of wine.

      • Prohibition was also a way that Protestants also hoped that they could reverse the Catholic immigration tide that was coming from Ireland and Europe. In some ways Prohibition was a form of class warfare just like the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882. I mean wasn’t in convienant to allow teh Chinese to build the Pacific Railroad in 1862 and complete the Northern Pacific railroad in 1831. And before the railroad is ocmpleted then bam!! Pass legislation to suspend immigration and discrimiante against the Chinese. Prohibition discriminated against a lot of Irish Catholics in the same way. For some people it had little to do with Temperance and concerns about alcoholcism. It was driven by xenophobia.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Remember that under the Scientific Racism of 100-150 years ago, Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Greeks, Jews, and Slavs were NOT considered White. The definition of “The White Race” was drawn much more narrow than today — “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” in the English-speaking world. (The lumping of Catholic Europeans as “not white” might have been a holdover from the Reformation Wars, translated into “race theory” instead of religious affiliation.)

          • Kerri…lovely, thought provoking post! Welcome to our little corner of the internet!

          • Remember though that the Irish immigration came first, so by the time the rest came over we were firmly in place and running things (queue the maniacal laughter and hand wringing)…..

        • Eagle, Chesterton’s essay from 1922 on Prohibition also indicates a racial (racist?) element to Prohibition; that it was pushed among some sections as a means of controlling drinking amongst the black working-class:

          Now among the many problems of the presence of an alien and at least recently barbaric figure among the citizens, there was a very real problem of drink. Drink certainly has a very exceptionally destructive effect upon negroes in their native countries; and it was alleged to have a peculiarly demoralising effect upon negroes in the United States; to call up the passions that are the particular temptation of the race and to lead to appalling outrages that are followed by appalling popular vengeance. However this may be, many of the states of the American Union, which first forbade liquor to citizens, meant simply to forbid it to negroes. But they had not the moral courage to deny that[Pg 160] negroes are citizens. About all their political expedients necessarily hung the load that hangs so heavy on modern politics; hypocrisy. The superior race had to rule by a sort of secret society organised against the inferior. The American politicians dared not disfranchise the negroes; so they coerced everybody in theory and only the negroes in practice. The drinking of the white men became as much a conspiracy as the shooting by the white horsemen of the Ku-Klux Klan. And in that connection, it may be remarked in passing that the comparison illustrates the idiocy of supposing that the moral sense of mankind will ever support the prohibition of drinking as if it were something like the prohibition of shooting. Shooting in America is liable to take a free form, and sometimes a very horrible form; as when private bravos were hired to kill workmen in the capitalistic interests of that pure patron of disarmament, Carnegie. But when some of the rich Americans gravely tell us that their drinking cannot be interfered with, because they are only using up their existing stocks of wine, we may well be disposed to smile. When I was there, at any rate, they were using them up very fast; and with no apparent fears about the supply. But if the Ku-Klux Klan had started suddenly shooting everybody they didn’t like in broad daylight, and had blandly explained that they were only using up the stocks of their ammunition, left over from the Civil War, it seems probable that there would at least have been a little curiosity about how much they had left. There might at least have been occasional inquiries about how long it was likely to go on. It is even conceivable that some steps might have been taken to stop it.”

      • On the money, HUG. I went on a mission project to Eastern Europe, and our group was told over and over, “No alcohol consumption.” Every Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Albanian we worked with on the trip had wine with their meals.

        Later on, a pastor I know went on a trip to Macedonia, and greatly offended a family he was attempting to “witness” to by refusing to sample their homemade wine.

        I, on the other hand, have enjoyed several evenings in the Eastern European countryside, enjoying good discussion and warm fires with some of the best red wine in the world.

        • …and common sense prevailed…..

          • Not necessarily. We lived in Austria. Beer or wine with breakfast was common. I just can’t do that. With lunch, sure, the wine, not beer.
            But, there is a very high incidence of cirrhosis from a low but consistent level of alcohol use in Germany, Austria and most other countries. So much of a problem that for Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and Czech R their blood alcohol permissible for driving is 0.00.

        • Speaking of Eastern Europe, Lee: In a history study I did, once upon a time, I read a comment that the chief differences between Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary are vodka, beer and wine.

          Overly simplistic, I know, but interesting.

        • When my husband was in the Army and served went to Bosnia, one of my ‘wifely words of wisdom’ was ‘if you have a choice, drink the beer, not the water!’

          He was ‘gifted’ a bottle of homemade something that he politely accepted, but never drank.

    • Hug’s explanation goes a long way toward explaining the increase in the problem. The Burns film shows that alcohol consumption was always a big part of American life — the Mayflower that brought the Pilgrims to the U.S. had its holds filled with barrels of beer. Beer and hard cider were staples of every meal and many communities even had bells that tolled “grog hours” when workers in the field would take breaks and slake their thirst with fermented drinks. But these were relatively low in alcohol content and were used in place of unsafe drinking water. Of course, their choices were very limited, especially compared to our own day, which makes their habits hard for us to imagine. But as the bread basket regions of the country began to yield prodigious amounts of grain and corn, distilled liquors were produced that were much more potent. As these proliferated, so did the problem of alcohol abuse, the saloons that catered to hard drinking, and all the consequences that emerged from such abuse.

      • I’m re-reading That Hideous Strength, the third of C.S. Lewis’s trilogy (which HUG needs to read, by the way; he’s far too resistant for his own good, kicking and screaming) and in this book Lewis paints alcohol into the canvas of his story, both on the side of the forces of good as well as the forces of evil.

        While the bad guys (the Nazi-like group in the euphemistically-named organization N.I.C.E.) drink to excess (while wreaking havoc on post-war Britain via modern technology and bureaucracy), the good guys (led by Elwin Ransom, who appears in the earlier books on Mars and Venus) drink as responsible British gentlemen and gentlewomen, presumably as good Anglicans should.

        Lewis portrays the occasional glass of beer, or even brandy or whiskey, as not only normal but beneficial in the right setting. He also portrays his heroes and heroines taking the occasional smoke, which of course is one of the cardinal sins among us American Evangelicals. Right up there with premarital sex, which of course leads to dancing.

        This sort of writing is anathema to the Christian Booksellers Association (TM) which undoubtedly would (and still may!) ban C.S. Lewis from all Christian bookstores were he writing today. But that is a topic that might take HUG off on a tangent, and we won’t go there.

        • I would smoking is not just one of the cardinal sins of American evangelicals. I wouild say it is the general culture that has taken the antit-smoking crusade to an extreme. Reasonalbe limits on when and where people can smoke is one thing; telling private property owners what they can and cannot do in their own homes and businesses is something else.

          • It used to be that even Fred MacMurray, the saintly father in My Three Sons, smoked a pipe. Times have changed.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Before Saaaaving the Plaaaaanet from Global Warming, Militant Anti-Smoking WAS California’s State Religion. Those thin grey ponytails in Sacramento with their Che T-shirts HAVE to have some Activist Cause so they can Feel Morally Superior to the proles.

          • WMC – You are correct. While enjoying the occasional pipe or cigar on my back deck I have to endure my own daughters opening the door to scold me. Where did that come from? Not my wife or I. It is social conditioning. Scary stuff that is pushed in school, TV, movies, etc.

          • But Che Guevara loved a good Cuban cigar now and then. I seen the photos.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says


            Online Journalist James Lileks had a similar experience several years ago with children beign encouraged at school to scold and tattle on their parents for smoking or eating non-healthy foods. (And during the Assault Rifle Moral Panic of the early Clinton years, there was a big stink over Activist teachers encouraging their students to inform on their parents regarding firearms ownership.)

            Lileks illustrated the essay with a still from the 1984 movie of 1984 showing a larval Comrade in the uniform of the INGSOC Youth Brigade.

        • Radagast, I have a small wooden box that belonged to my granfather containing his pipes and a few of his old watches. I intend to clean the pipes and start having a smoke in his honor at least once a year. I used to love the smell of his pipes. Plus, I think it would be cool to be “the old guy with the pipe”.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        The Burns film shows that alcohol consumption was always a big part of American life — the Mayflower that brought the Pilgrims to the U.S. had its holds filled with barrels of beer.

        Not just that; I understand the reason they settled Plymouth (Massachusetts) instead of their original destination of Virginia was the Mayflower made landfall way north of Virginia and while inching down the unfamiliar coast, they ran out of beer around Cape Cod.

        And that the first thing they built when they started their colony was a brewery.

        Dour Massachusetts Puritans for centuries afterwards would spend Sunday listening to hours-long hellfire, damnation, and predestination marathons in their churches; after which the pastor would join the men in the tavern for a few cold ones.

    • Jack Heron says

      You might well have something there, Hug, but compare America and Germany. The Germans love their beer, but they don’t seem to have the same binge drinking problems. Of course, Germany is noted for the low-strength, long-lasting beer known as lager (German for ‘storage’) but then what I’ve seen of American beer is an imitation of this, so that doesn’t solve the problem. And then there’s Russia, which has the eternity-lasting vodka and truly terrifying levels of alcohol abuse.

      As an aside, one of the Byzantine emperors (forget which one) in the 12th century complained that his English guards were constantly binge-drinking and vandalising the city centre. Nothing ever changes.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And then there’s Russia, which has the eternity-lasting vodka and truly terrifying levels of alcohol abuse.

        Don’t know about today, but during the Cold War the Russian Army had the highest alcoholism rate and tightest liquor regulations of any major army. Russian soldiers not only brewed their own (“Samogon”, Russian moonshine) any chance they got, they’d drink brake fluid and shoe polish for the alcohol. They’d even sell their equipment and weapons for alcohol — there are actual accounts of main battle tanks being traded to locals for a couple bottles of vodka, and jokes about nuclear warheads going for a case or two.

        • In Anthony Beever’s “The Fall of Berlin 1945” he tlaks about how Soveit troops raped and pillaged in efforts to search for alcohol as the Soviet Army pushed westward toward Berlin in 1944 and 1945.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        The Germans love their beer, but they don’t seem to have the same binge drinking problems.

        Like the French with their wine, Germans have beer as a part of their culture and cuisine. It’s something that’s always been there as far back as anyone can remember. There is no minimum drinking age over there, and it’s always been available.

        The American custom of minimum drinking age (possibly a holdover from the War Against Demon Rum) results in alcohol being a taboo Forbidden Fruit up until you turn 21, then freely available from that birthday on. From totally forbidden to near-unrestricted. And if it’s been the Forbidden Fruit, you’re not going to know how to handle it when it becomes legal for you. (“As strong as you can as much as you can, to get as drunk as you can as fast as you can.”) Plus with the association of drinking age with adulthood, drinking is right up there with losing your virginity as a rite of passage into real adulthood. And that pushes people in entirely the wrong direction.

    • I believe that the Burns documentary also mentioned that many immigrants were used to drinking a very low alcohol beer or wine because they had come from, and often ended up, in areas with no clean drinking water available. Beer and wine manufacturers in America upped the alcohol content considerably, but people kept their old drinking habits, which had worked fine before.

      Also, yes, industrialization brought with it a dehuminization of the worker. Had I worked in some of those early factories, I’d have drunk heavily as well.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Someone told me once the only reason Britain didn’t have a French Revolution was Cheap Gin.

        • And for early jokes about the Irish being drunkards, we have (1) the 9th century Irish monk Johannes Scotus Eriugena at the court of Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, and the exchange between them as given by William of Malmesbury:

          “The king having asked, Quid distat inter sottum et Scottum? (What separates a sot (drunkard) from an Irishman?) Eriugena replied, Mensa tantum (Only a table). [or, in other versions, “The width of a table”, and Scottus being used interchangeably for Irish or Scots]

          and (2) the 1188 work “The Topography of Ireland” by Gerald of Wales, where amongst other things, he describes the native-born Irish clergy as follows, after praising their continence, prayers, following the routine of church services and fasting:

          “But among so many thousands you will scarcely find one who, after his devotion to long fastings and prayers, does not make up by night for his privations during the day by the enormous quantity of wine and other liquors in which he indulges more than is becoming. Dividing the day of twenty-four hours into two equal parts, they devote the hours of light to spiritual offices, and those of night to the flesh; so that in the light they apply themselves to the works of the light, and in the dark they turn to the works of darkness. Hence it may be considered almost a miracle, that where wine has the dominion lust does not reign also.”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Somebody just told me as I was reading off these comments:

            “The reason God made Whiskey was to keep the Irish from conquering the world.”

          • Headless, we did conquer the world, the rest of you just have to realise that it happened (hint: when you’re drinking your green beer while devouring a plate of corned beef and cabbage in the middle of a cold wet early Spring month, claiming your grandfather’s name was really Tim O’Shenko) 🙂

  9. I’ve only watched the first episode of the Burns documentary, and I enjoyed it very much. The thing that struck out to me was that the reason prohibition was able to become the law of the land was in large part because Christians who we would call conservative and liberal actually largely agreed about this issue. So I would say that the conservatives were more of a driving force, but more liberal Christians were definitely involved, too. Actually, at the heart of both movements tends to be the same thing – trying to legislate what people can do. Conservatives tend to focus more on individual sins, whereas liberal tend to focus on societal sins. The law is really powerless to bring about change in both cases, though.

    • Great point. Actually, progressives played a key role in the process, which is a point I neglected to mention. The temperance movement was first linked with abolition, then with many efforts to help women and children and the poor. Culture war politics can and are used by both left and right to advance their agendas, and in neither case are such tactics compatible with the way of Jesus.

      • I couldn’t agree more! Jesus didn’t tell us to legislate our society into a utopia as the “religious right” wants. He told us to connect with people and make disciples. And God doesn’t encourage us to petition our government to confiscate the wealth of the rich and redistribute it as the “left” wants. He encouraged us to look at our lives, reach into our own excess, and take care of the widow and orphan. We always seem to want someone else to do it for us and that someone else is the government. Problem is you can’t expect the government to do anything without added power and money. And those in government are happy to promise both sets of idiots (right and left) that they will take care of “whatever” as they take our freedom and money and then squander it on themselves.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I couldn’t agree more! Jesus didn’t tell us to legislate our society into a utopia as the “religious right” wants.

          And we have current examples of such Godly Utopias in the Islamic Republic of Iran and wherever Talibanistan is set up these days.

  10. Good read…I wait for the comments and discussion. We can legislate moral BEHAVIOR, but not the thought process and choices that lead to that behavior.

    So the question remains…how much influence should we as Christians have regarding choices that we find sinful and/or evil, such as abortion on demand, gay “marriage”, and the abuse and exploitation of children (physically, sexually, or in any other manner.) And…what is the correct response to those who not only disagree with our outlook, but find our rationales to be “hurtful”? And how big is the divide between “tolerate” and “support?”

  11. Few would dispute that Prohibition was, on balance, counterproductive in its effect on American society. I certainly do not. But, Chaplain Mike, I am uneasy with where you seem to be headed in extrapolating to today’s culture wars from that unhappy experiment with “extreme positions.”

    A plausible case could be made that Prohibition’s error lay in elevating circumstantial judgments to a moral absolute. Abortion* is intrinsically evil, like slavery and unlike the drinking of alcohol. Outlawing abortion is not *the* answer, and it will not come without a profound cultural shift, but it certainly fits with Christ’s call to protect the vulnerable among us.

    * A medical procedure to cure a proportionately serious medical condition in the mother but that results in the unintended death of the unborn child is not an abortion.

    • Sheepcat, unfortunately, some factions of the prolife movement seems to be heading in the direction of considering a medical procedure that unintentionally results in the death of a fetus as murder. I heard an interview recently with a man from some prolife group in Mississippi, and although I am adamantly prolife, he scared me. He kept reiterating the same point to every question which was that at the moment of conception you have a person and that anything that results in the death of that person should be illegal and considered murder. What about a pregnant woman who over-exercises and miscarries, the interviewer asked? Again, he responded that that fetus is a person, and any taking of that life would be murder.
      That is not a world I want to inhabit.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        A world where Purity of Ideology trumps Reality.

        Ask anyone from the Killing Fields of Cambodia how far that can go.

        • “Our criminals are no longer helpless children who could plead love as their excuse. On the contrary, they are adults and they have a perfect alibi: philosophy, which can be used for any purpose – even for transforming murderers into judges.” – Albert Camus.

      • Not a world I want to live in, either. There is a HUGE gap between abortion for convenience and saving the mother’s PHYSICAL life (I don’t buy the “mental health” branch of this caveat).

        I even know of a case where a bishop all but demanded that a woman have an abortion. She had four kids under seven at home, and this pregnancy, which had resulted in a healthy fetus, had another abnormality that would be fatal to mom if the pregnacy continued past 25 weeks. [Sidebar, this was 40 years ago, and a fetus that young did not have ANY chance of survival in the NICU of 1971]

        She was willing to risk it, but was essentially told that her life —in and of itself—-, not to mention the role she had as a mother already—superceded the life of this one child. The abortion procedure was performed with as much dignity as possible, and the child was baptized before the cord was cut~and given a funeral mass.

        A bad choice had to be made, and clearly the zealots who can see no gray, ever, would have prefered the death of mother AND child to make a point.

        HArdly on line with “I’m pregnant again and can’t afford another one right now.”

    • I agree with what you say about abortion, Sheepcat. And likewise, I am not sure how the issue will play out. Remember, it took a Civil War to finally dismantle the institution of slavery and then we had 100 painful years of Reconstruction until the Civil Rights Act. I do think, however, we can double our efforts to provide Christlike love and life-affirming service in a world where abortion is legal. We can work to find ways to reduce the number of abortions, offer compassionate care and services to women, challenge men to be more loving and responsible, promote adoption services, and so on. I even think we should try to find common ground with pro-choice organizations to see where we can make abortion less of a need in our land. I’m a firm believer in ground-level action. It seems to me that when issues become politicized and we start wearing T-shirts and carrying signs, then we have started building our bunkers and there is little hope than anything but conflict will ensue.

      • Jack Heron says

        Finding common ground with pro-choice groups would be a very good thing to do. People who are pro-choice don’t actually like the fact of abortion (despite the caricatures of some of the less reasonable pro-life campaigners). Mostly they are deeply concerned about the welfare of the mother and the devastating effects of unwanted pregnancies – and they would like to reduce the numbers of abortions if it could be done so without infringing on what they see as a woman’s free choice. These are things we all care about, whether we are in favour of legal abortion or not.

        • Jack, it is indeed all too sadly the truth that extremists on both sides of the question are the ones making the most noise.

          For the pro-choice side, the Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, president and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, and her 2007 speech of encouragement for those working in abortion provision at an Alabama clinic (as quoted here; the actual text of the speech seems to have been scrubbed from websites due to the furore it provoked):

          “When a woman finds herself pregnant due to violence and chooses an abortion it is the violence that is the tragedy; the abortion is a blessing.

          When a woman finds that the fetus she is carrying has anomalies incompatible with life, that it will not live and that she requires an abortion – often a late-term abortion – to protect her life, her health, or her fertility, it is the shattering of her hopes and dreams for that pregnancy that is the tragedy; the abortion is a blessing.

          When a woman wants a child but can’t afford one because she hasn’t the education necessary for a sustainable job, or access to health care, or day care, or adequate food, it is the abysmal priorities of our nation, the lack of social supports, the absence of justice that are the tragedies; the abortion is a blessing.

          And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion – there is not a tragedy in sight – only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.

          These are the two things I want you, please, to remember – abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Let me hear you say it: abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.

          I want to thank all of you who protect this blessing – who do this work every day: the health care providers, doctors, nurses, technicians, receptionists, who put your lives on the line to care for others (you are heroes – in my eyes, you are saints); the escorts and the activists; the lobbyists and the clinic defenders; all of you. You’re engaged in holy work.”

          It’s important that those on the pro-life side are compassionate to the situation of all those involved, and do engage in giving aid and support to women who choose to continue their pregnancies so that both mother and child (whether she keeps her child or gives it up for adoption or foster care) can truly be helped in the spirit of being for life and not just against abortion “rights”.

      • Finding common ground is a useful starting point (Paul in Rome). There is a point, however, where walking together on common ground becomes crossing into enemy territory. I cringe at words like “unwanted pregnancies,” Jack Heron. Are these children or not? We focus far too much time on the very, very rare “life of the mother” exception. Abortion today is for convenience. Except for the inconvenient child.

        Yes, Chaplain Mike, there are times when action is required. I love your suggestions for Christlike love. I think, however, that both extreme love and use of the law are required to address current issues. Christlike love protects the people and institutions Jesus protected, while loving and serving those with whom we disagree, and while still being clear about where we stand (in our works and even in our laws, if need be).

        • Dean, I am not opposed to exploring legal avenues with regard to abortion. In my opinion, however, the place to begin (that’s an important word in what I’m saying here) is to recognize that we live in an imperfect, fallen world and one aspect of that world is that abortion is legal. Now, given that reality, if we believe that life is sacred, the unborn should be protected, and our communities be made healthier and holier places, how should we then proceed? What kinds of words and actions will enable us to make the most progress, save the most lives, and help the most people? And when we come to an impasse and find we absolutely cannot agree with our neighbors, how then do we act? What do we say? How do we treat them? And if we think we should go further, let’s say following the example of those in the Civil Rights movement who marched and practiced forms of non-violent protest, are we really willing to do those things and pay the consequences?

      • What many people forgot when it comes to abortion is that people make the decision out of fear. If its made illegal that it will be driven underground and it will still continue. In many wasy abortion is damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Because you have those who hate the prospect of abortion who even if the person doesn’t go forward will still condemn the person having sex out of wedlock. With some fundgelicals you just cannot win. PERIOD!! During prohibiiton alcoholism and alcohol poisoining soared. From what I recall about prohibition in US history some of the highest alcoholism rates happened during this time. But why do some people think that the legilsation will work?

        • Another reason many women have abortion is simply cost. A large portion of the women who have abortions already have children. In many of these cases, they are simply doing a difficult calculus and determining that they do not want to deprive their current children of the resources that would need to go to a new child.

          • True, but not a justification for abortion.

            (Please see my longish post from this morning about a Bishop pushing a young Catholic mother TO HAVE an abortion).

            Adoption is always a viable alternative for the other 98.2 % of unplanned pregnancies…especially NOW with the infertility rates soaring in this country.

          • Pattie… agreed… abortion should not be construed as birth control – there is always adoption (where there are many folks out there ready to provide a loving stable home).

          • If they changed the law to pay women for their time and risk in pregnancy as part of adoption, I would imagine the abortion rate would go down. Right now, a woman in this situation, risks losing her livelihood (even though its illegal to discriminate against pregnant women, places do; and some pregnancies are more difficult than others) for no gain to herself or her other children. If she got a reasonable rate of return, she might decide its in her interest to give the child up for adoption.

          • “pay women for their time and risk in pregnancy as part of adoption” … ideally not a bad idea – realistically you just gave someone a reason to have a revenue source – what I am saying here is that the idea has a good chance of being used for the wrong reason…..

          • back of the envelope calculations:

            250 days average gestation of human child

            less 30 days most women do not know they are pregnant

            220 days * 24 hours per day = 5280 hours

            5280 hours * IL min wage of 8.25 = $43,560

            You could discount it for mothers who don’t maintain drug & alcohol free lifestyles. which would be a further incentive to have a healthy infant.

            Medical fees are usually already paid by the adopter or a charity.

            Even if some women chose to do that as a career, I don’t really see a problem. There is certainly more demand for infants than infants available right now. The only objection I could see is that it has a creepy vibe of poor women giving birth to rich people’s babies.

        • Actually, Eagle, alcoholism and cirrhosis rates dropped dramatically during prohibition.

      • Great points. If Roe v. Wade were reversed, the issue would simply to return to the states. While I consider myself pro-life, I do not believe that women who have abortions should be prosecuted, but rather forgiven. To me the pain many women feel after having an abortion is punishment enough.

        Roe v. Wade was more an example of over-expansive federal power trampling on state’s rights, rather than a court trying to legislate social policy. Similarly, the Civil War was not really about slavery but about state’s rights. If we acknowledge state’s rights and constitutional government, we can avoid war, just like back then.

        • Especially since the “test subject” never did get that abortion and is an active Pro-Life speaker.

          She said that she never wanted to be the spearhead of a legal challenge, but that it was the only way she thought she could get a legal abortion…..and it was the “price” she had to pay.

          (Google “Norma McGreavy”)

      • The “gains” from the War of Agression By the Northern States Against the Southern States were certainly not worth 500,000 casualties and 100 years of Reconstruction.

        Emerging economic conditions would have rendered salvery obsolete within 50-75 years of 1860.

        The North was on the loosing end of the stick with the South exercising “free trade” with Europe.

        The Federal Government effectively repudiated the 10th Amendment. A significant proportion of our economic problems today is reflected in this reality.

        And, on a different note in a different key…

        The 30something year old “War On Drugs” has perpetrated more evil upon American citizen (and on the citizens of neighboring countries) which are only hinted at by our experience with Prohibition.

        When will Christians learn that Paul was right!? “The law KILLS…” …and keeps killing.


        • Tom, the fact that slavery would have been obsolete at some point wouldn’t be much comfort to the slaves who were suffering under it. The war may have been over states rights, but slavery was at the heart of who had what rights and there would not have been a war without it.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          …War of Agression By the Northern States Against the Southern States…

          I can guess which side of Mason-Dixon Tom hails from…

          • I’m about 35 miles south of the Mason-Dixon ;o)

            @ Suzanne;

            I’m not saying that slavery was good or desirable. I wish that slavery had never occured in the New World. What I am saying is that the fall-out from the war between the states was/is much greather than the gains. 500,000 lives lost is not to be sneezed at. Economic realities were at least (more so in the opinions of many historians) as weighty as the slavery issue. Slavery was the wedge issue just as WMD’s were the necessary rationalization for the invasion of Iraq. Abolition of slavery was the single minded issue of the “religious right” of that time just as Prohibition was with the religiously correct of that day.

            Lincoln’s prime purpose was to “preserve the union”. He wrote in a letter to Frederick Douglas that if preserving the union meant that slave holders retained their slaves, then he would do that. If preserving the union meant that some slaves would be freed but not all, then he would do that. And, if it meant the abolition of slavery, then that he would do.

            “Fanaticism is always a sign of repressed doubt.”


  12. I very much appreciate your work here Monk. You may or may not have read Carl Medearis’ latest, “Speaking of Jesus: The art of not-evangelism” He has some great points about not getting distracted with much of the culture wars and defending of “Christianity”. He has some very creative and provocative things to think about on how just simply pointing back to Jesus on so many things can be a way of avoiding so much defensiveness and the like. I really enjoyed it. You might check out my review at http://www.readingtheology.com


  13. Alcoholism has historically always been a problem for society, anyone who states there was a better time is either delusional or badly misinformed. How much damage has been done historically by people who are trying to force their morality or belief system onto others. Communism, Socialism, Morality, Faith, Religion, all can be dangerous when left in the hands of zealots.

    Look at what the different faiths have done in the name of morality, or protecting a theological position. History is full of examples of innocent people paying the ultimate price because one group has forced their belief on another.

    Prohibition is no different, I remember my Grandmother having a fit because my brother and I used to sneak a beer when moving furniture. Instead of educating us, we got the evils of alcohol lecture. Which caused us to sneak more beers, it took my mom years to figure out how her Christian Brothers sweet wine would disappear from the refrigerator (I can still taste those illicit little sips) 🙂

    You can’t legislate morality, it never works, and there is this little annoying thing that God gave us called ‘Free Will’. Adam and Eve could have stayed in the garden as long as they liked, but they chose to take a different path. God didn’t close that door, he let them decide and deal with the consequences, even giving them a stern warning of what would happen.

    THAT should be our model…


    • Plus I always find it amusing how those who legislate morality tend not to practice what they preech. Scandal after scandal juts shows that point well.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        One dynamic energizing that is “loss of face” if it becomes known. You experienced that with “accountability” during your time in-country in Fundagelicalism. Actually outing yourself is dangerous, so you keep it quiet and play the expected role. Preaching against your own secret sin is a form of self-medication; you’re trying to treat yourself without anyone finding out and end up going solo with no support. And having to present a false front for your own survival trains you in lying and sneaking. Remember when Rush Limbaugh was the War on Drugs’ Number-One Fan while he was fighting a secret Oxycontin addiction?

  14. If Prohibition of alcohol was such a disaster, then what are we to say about the War on Drugs? Should we legalize pot? Reacreational as well as medicinal? What about cocaine? Meth?

    I recall seeing some town trying to get a law on the books banning bestiality. (They didn’t have one before, perhaps because it was thought not to be a problem.) No politician could be seen supporting sex with animals, but…how is that worse than killing them and eating their meat? What is law for, anyway?

    Where I live, adultery is illegal.

    • Whoops,Flatrocker (above) already made this point.

    • Blake go to Youtube and look up UCBComedy and look at the video Beastiality Porn (No Gay Stuff) It’s Onion style humor.

      • Thanks, I’ll check it out!

        I forgot to mention Arizona’s attempt to ban dildoes, on the rather dubious grounds that they might be used to molest children. (The governor vetoed it.)

  15. This world and everything in it isn’t progressing…it’s coming to an end. No amount of laws will stop this enthropic phenomenon from taking us further and further down.

    But should we stop battling and give up? No. We do what we deem prudent to do. Sometimes it’s the right thing…other times, not so much.

    But we know where it’s all headed.

    Thanks be to God for Christ Jesus who will one Day usher in a New Creation. A much, much better one.

  16. Chaplin Mike… Good post! I’d gladly support you taking off more time if needed!! I’m happy to have you back!!

  17. I heard something on NPR just today that Chaplain Mike and others may find interesting. Congress last year greatly loosened the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine convicts, who in most cases are inner city blacks whom the feds throw in prison for long periods merely for possessing an “illegal” substance. A mockery of civil rights, if you ask me.

    I forget what the story is about in relation to the present day, but I hope as budget deficits continue to widen that legislators will repeal the modern day prohibition against marijuana, and begin to release nonviolent drug offenders, who tend to be overwhelmingly black, poor and inner city. Proclaim liberty to the captives, preaching good news to the poor: that’s what Christians should be talking about.

    The law on loosening sentences was primarily supported by Democrats, but one notable Republican who supported it: my man Ron Paul.

    • And how will you feel when the poor, black, inner-city victims of sentencing guidelines move across the street from you after their release?

      • Welcome them as fellow citizens who have the right to possess any substance and not be thrown in jail for it. Civilized countries that respect the rule of law don’t make it a crime to possess something. Countries lurching into a 1984-style police state do.

        Putting those inner city folks in jail isn’t helping them, just like it didn’t help anybody to throw drinkers in jail during the Prohibition era. The problem hasn’t gotten better; it’s gotten worse.

        • well, it depends on the area. In a lot of places, you have police with an uncommon amount of common sense. This results in folks only being charged with possession when they are otherwise also involved in other criminality that can’t necessarily be proven as easily as the possession charges. Very few people these days in metropolitan Chicago are charged with possession unless they possess an awful lot of it (dealing) or they are otherwise menaces to the community. Those just caught with small amounts tend to be “station-adjusted”, warned and sent on their ways if they cooperate with the authorities. Among other things, it’s awful expensive to keep non-violent folks in jail just for possession.

      • There’s talk about a methodone clinic coming to my town. I’m for it. Our town has heroin addicts, so why should we feel so superior that we get to export them for treatment to some other town’s clinic? It is my understanding, that methodone users tend to be less inclined to criminal behavior than heroin addicts. Nevertheless you should hear the NIMBY folks howling.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says


          • That and of course, “OMG, THEY’RE GOING TO KILL US AND OUR CHILDREN IN OUR BEDS!”

            Sigh. There are times when a cave in the middle of nowhere seems like a good alternative to not-so-civil society.

  18. I think in some ways the issue is bigger than just the Christian right culture war. In general, laws passed as the result of a moral/religious crusade, or those past as a result of the similar dynamic that occurs when there is some more general public moral outrage about a specific event/issue, have more than their fair share of unintended consequences. In California one can look at the “three strikes” sentencing laws as a pretty good example of this. Also, to some extent, the extreme application of anti-drug laws combined with a lack of treatment options, which has some valid parallels to prohibition.

    The moral crusade can work OK when dealing with issues that are almost completely black and white (e.g. anti-slavery and anti-human trafficking). When it tackles issues that have grey areas or moral nuance as they intersect with human life in the real world, it usually ends up causing a lot of suffering.

    • I agree. Furthermore, when one goes to the extreme of passing a Constitutional amendment for an issue like alcohol abuse, it’s like killing an ant with a bunker buster bomb.

    • John…having having grown up in California I remember the battle over Prop 184. It originated from a murder that took place in the Tower District in Fresno. I remember listening to the radio show where the father of the victim talked about wanting to change things and get repeat offenders off the street.

      Here’s the history of it…


  19. Another point made by Ken Burns is how prohibition introduced the concept of the wedge issue, which defined a politician based upon his/her position on one issue. It seems to be a key weapon in the cultural war to this day.

  20. Dr. Rosenbladt stated that legalism results in antinomianism. It seems that prohibition is a perfect example of this.

  21. I think prohibition is bad for society. I think our heavenly father gave us the free will to make choices about how we honor or dishonor our temple. I think you should freely come to your own conclusions about what you put in your own temple. I feel like Prohibition, as described above, brings in a new set of issues that may be worse than original problem.

    • Johnny Appleseed plays a part in all of this. One reason he spread apple trees around and why people wanted them was every small town had at least one apple orchard. And the purpose was to make cider. As others have noted it would store well without going bad like water could. And hard cider eliminated most of the germ issues that could come up with water.

      Most apples prior to the later 1800s were not very nice to eat. Which is another reason for the cider. It was in the later 1800s that some variations were found that grew into fruit that people would WANT to eat more than drink. The red delicious being one of or the first and most famous.

      But as kids I doubt any of us were told about cider when we heard of JA.

      • Messed that up. It was not supposed to be a reply to Devotional Dave.

      • And guess what religion he belonged to? (Hint: Spencer called it a “cult.”)

        • Richard Hershberger says

          As I recall, he was Swedenborgian (aka “The New Church”). I don’t know that I would use the word “cult”, at least not in the pejorative sense. But they are definitely well outside the Christian mainstream.

          Anyone who finds himself in Philly’s northern suburbs with an afternoon to kill could do a lot worse than to visit the Swedenborgian cathedral in Bryn Athen. It is really an impressive piece of authentic Gothic architecture. They give a very nice tour, and don’t try to convert you.