PBS' 'Prohibition' and the complexity of sin

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

The new Ken Burns series "Prohibition" aired recently on PBS. (If you missed it, it’s streaming on a number of services and PBS' website.) I was excited to watch it, especially because I had done some reading on the history of the 1920s as part of my dissertation research. I annoyed my husband by offering factoids before the documentary got to them, but the series also made me think, in both a historical and contemporary context, about the complexity of sin.

The most surprising thing to me was this statement from historian Barry Hankins: “If the goal was to significantly reduce drinking and reduce the influence of the saloon in American culture, then Prohibition was a success.” Before my research, I had been working with received knowledge that the prohibition law was a total failure. It didn't prevent people from drinking and it fed organized crime. While both of those claims are true - and the crime problem might be enough to still consider Prohibition a net bad - what I did not know is that Prohibition, along with the temperance movement that led to its institution, did change the culture of alcohol in the United States for the better.

The first episode of "Prohibition" ably illustrates the serious drinking problem American had in the late 19th century. Men spent all their money at the saloon and came home not only with no money to support their family, but also drunk and violent. The evils of drink that Prohibitionists decried were real.

I think when we talk about the failure of Prohibition, we are acknowledging the failure of an all-or-nothing approach. The PBS series said that access to alcohol (especially for those underage) was reduced when Prohibition was repealed and legal regulation put in place. An incremental approach, it turns out, did more to help the problem of national alcoholism than trying to eradicate it completely.

In "Uncommon Decency,"Richard Mouw argues that Christian engagement in public life must be modest rather than an all-or-nothing approach. We should neither expect our efforts to bring God's peace immediately, nor give up in despair. "Our calling is not to bring the kingdom of God in its fullness," Mouw writes, "it is to witness to the power and presence of that kingdom in ways that are made available to us."

Prohibition may have been based, in part, on an erroneous belief that it is possible to rid society entirely of a sin. My understanding of total depravity leads me to believe that this is an unrealistic goal. However, that does not mean we should give up trying to create systems that help people make better, more righteous choices, or that we should stop pursuing righteousness corporately in addition to doing it individually.

The Gospel of grace means our failures are inevitable and also forgiven, but also that we should continue to strive toward righteousness and pursue justice for others. I think Prohibition was an attempt in both of these areas: to help excessive drinkers to pursue righteousness and to protect the victims of their violence and indigence. Perhaps the Prohibitionists just tried to do work that only Christ can do: bring new life to one that was dead to sin.

(Photo courtesy of PBS.)

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