I spent a few days before Christmas watching the recently released Ken Burn's documentary series Prohibition. It is, as most Ken Burns' productions, a great success. This three-part series, lasting over five-plus hours, relates the story of American idealism, folly and unintended consequences.
In 1920, after literally a century of crusades and agitation, we passed the 18th Amendment which outlawed the manufacturing and sale of alcohol. For thirteen years we then battled to apply a law that had no chance of doing what its proponents had hoped for, namely saving families and ending vice. And who do we have to thank for this foolish amendment? Mostly well-intentioned moralists who were crusading and zealous Christians! These Christians may have had good motives but their actions were rooted in a terrible misuse of Scripture and a total misunderstanding of the role of government in terms of personal freedoms.
This series tells the amazing stories of small-time whiskey-jobbers, big-time bootleggers, and brutal gangsters; e.g. think Al Capone and Chicago in the late 1920s. From politicians to preachers America became a land of massive hypocrisy. Some studies actually show that drinking and drunkenness increased as a result of prohibition. One thing we know for sure; the number of lobbyists increased, as did wide-spread graft in government and the police departments. Catholics and Protestants (at least some Protestants like the Methodists and Baptists) became even further divided over prohibition. The debate was as much about small-town values vs. city-values as it was about drinking or not drinking. And there was a strand of anti-immigration xenophobia in this that ran deeply through the American divide much as it runs through our politics today.
What is the proper role of government? We still debate this question as fiercely as ever. On the Left and the Right we think we know the answer, and thus give simplistic answers routinely. But history reveals how little we truly understand the question or the answer(s). And no issue shows this quite like prohibition.
In 1933, less than a year after FDR became president, the state of Utah became the deciding vote that was needed to repeal the only amendment to the U. S. Constitution that was ever rejected. (I found that intriguing given the deep roots of Mormonism in Utah!) Few would deny that prohibition was a complete and total disaster. In the throes of a Great Depression repeal became a no-brainer when the revenue from alcohol was desperately needed and as many as one in four Americans was out of work and the repeal created jobs. "The Noble Experiment" came to an ignominious end. But what did we learn from its failure? I wonder, I seriously wonder.
Personally this series made me question a number of the ways that conservative Christians still try to bring about a better moral environment through passing governmental laws against "sin." What made prohibition a total failure and Civil Rights a moral necessity? If you cannot answer that one with a fair degree of clarity then you had best rethink your zeal for making laws to stop or check sin in society. I can still hear, from my childhood, Christian people telling me that passing Civil Rights laws would not work since we could not change people's hearts through legislation! Their piety might be admirable but their grasp of law and freedom was positively awful. These same people were the folks who promoted prohibition! History makes us come face-to-face with some genuinely moral ironies in our American story. It would be extremely useful for modern Christian conservatives, and liberals, to see this excellent series.