On the Church and Society
April 17, 2007
The United States' 14-year experiment known as Prohibition, in effect from 1920 to 1933, did not work out too well. A new book titled Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City by Michael A. Lerner provides an interesting reminder of the consequences of this sweeping fit of social engineering.
Lerner called it "the most ambitious attempt to legislate morality and personal behavior in the history of the modern United States." Using the power of government, special interests sought to alter the behavior of tens of millions of individuals.
The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned "the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors." The results included a loss in respect for the law, increased hostility towards law enforcement authorities, flourishing crime (of the violent and non-violent varieties) and political corruption, more drinking problems and alcoholism, wasted tax dollars, divergence of the police from fighting substantive crimes, and the expansion of organized crime. Oops.
Among the interests pushing for Prohibition were some with Christian roots. The Methodist Board of Temperance and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) played prominent roles in pushing and defending Prohibition in the political arena, according to Lerner. Interestingly, the WCTU originally had focused on voluntarism to reduce alcohol use, but it eventually fell in line with the idea of government action, and in the end, was opposing the repeal of Prohibition.
Lerner also pointed out that Catholics and Jews found themselves under attack from various Protestant groups during Prohibition over the issue of sacramental wine. Indeed, it was not too difficult to detect anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments at work among those pushing Prohibition.
The obvious question is: Why did some Christians support Prohibition?
The Bible does not ban the consumption of alcohol. Most certainly, it warns against over-indulgence. For example, Jesus instructs: "But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life ... " (Luke 21:34) Also, Paul writes: "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery ... " (Ephesians 5:18)
The focus of these and other biblical warnings is on drunkenness. But they do not dictate a ban on alcohol altogether. Indeed, there is that little matter of Jesus' first miracle at the wedding at Cana: "Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, 'Fill the jars with water.' And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, 'Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.' So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, 'Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.' This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him." (John 2:6-11)
Despite what Holy Scripture and history tell us, though, the anti-alcohol, or even prohibitionist, impulse can still be found lurking in some Christian circles.
For example, the United Methodist Church continues to advocate abstinence. An Assemblies of God position paper on alcohol urges "all believers to avoid the Satanic tool of alcohol which destroys lives, damns souls, and blights society."
Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention issued the following declaration: "Resolved, that the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, June 13-14, 2006, express our total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming of alcoholic beverages; and ... we urge Southern Baptists to take an active role in supporting legislation that is intended to curb alcohol use in our communities and nation."
Given the miracle at Cana, Christians arguing for complete abstinence or the use of the law to cut back on alcohol would seem to be playing "holier than thou" with Jesus Christ himself.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, is the editor and publisher of the "On the Church & Society Report." This column is from the latest issue of the "On the Church & Society Report," which also features "Is Greed Good?" "President Bush and Parochial Schools," and "California and Physician-Assisted Suicide." To receive a free four-issue trial of "On the Church & Society Report," send an e-mail request to ChurchandSociety@aol.com.