PBS' 'Prohibition' and the complexity of sin

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

Caryn Dahlstrand Rivadeneira
October 12, 2011

Great post, Bethany. I'm fascinated that some of the earliest feminists were women of the Christian temperance movement. These women wanted alcohol banned for the reason you state: "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."

It wasn't simply because drinking was "sin" and because these women were prudish but because the rampant alcohol abuse was so bad for women and children (and the men, of course). This was yet another area in which they fought for the rights of women (the right not to be beat up by your drunk husband). 

Until I read your post, I had thought this particular fight was not victorious... Nice reporting.

Jeff Munroe
October 12, 2011

I thought the most telling line in the series was the comment that in Prohibition Christians managed to pass a law that would have landed Jesus in jail.  What is the sin that Prohibition was trying to prohibit?  There is a difference between having a drink and drunkenness. That difference doesn't seem very complex.  The Prohibitionists over-reached and, Barry Hankins's comments notwithstanding, there is no way Prohibition was a success.

October 12, 2011

What caught my attention was the story of Al Smith, the Democratic candidate in 1928, vilified by opponents for his being Catholic as much as for his "Wet" stance.  According to family lore, my father and his younger brother, both just tots at the time, were taught by their father to say loudly "Vote for Al Smith!" as he wheeled them in a wagon through their Detroit area neighborhood. Grandpa was a Mormon of sorts, by heritage more than by practice; Grandma was a Baptist of sorts, who threw in her lot with Fosdick over the fundamentalists. Both were tee-totalers. Both also were teachers; both also were compassionate and generous people who abhorred the political and social extremism of the times.

Brandon Inabinet
October 12, 2011

Bethany, smart post as always. Marilynn Robinson just visited and talked about the failure, and perhaps misinterpretation of folks like John Calvin, when we talk about 'total depravity' that seems to resent humanity or focuses our interest only on the negative (she encourages reading Institutes to show that even Calvin was amazed by the capacities of humans) . Her major argument is that we ought to marvel (as Christians too) at the beauty & intelligence of the universe (and humans as exceptional to that universe) in a way that is not toxic to our own understanding (and treatment) of humanity. Basically, if we're all just waiting and hoping for the Apocalypse to come and make us undepraved, we are in a bad place, and one that doesn't respect the idea that smart policy or good science (she also takes aim at Dawkins and "psuedo-science" that restricts humanity to its evolutionary heritage) can improve the human condition . . . as you seem to be saying here.

October 12, 2011

Perhaps prohibition had to happen. According to the prophets, Israel went through periods that were characterized by widespread alcohol abuse. The sin is drinking to drunkeness habitually. Ultimately the answer is spiritual. Humans have a need for bliss, a need for joy. But we are designed to find that joy in relationship with the Spirit of joy, the Holy Spirit. So, perhaps when a significant percentage of society is given over to alcohol abuse, the temporary cure is to close the bar. However, I would find it hard to take seriously a Biblical argument for prohibition when the first miracle of Jesus was to create 150 gallons of fine wine which were given to the party after they had “drunken freely” of cheaper wine. Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 14 that they could spend their tithe on “wine or strong drink”. But I agree with Bethany that we should strive to find reasonable solutions that protect the victims from violence and indigence, provide reasonable disincentives to abusing alcohol without trying to legislate away sin. I wonder how much spiritual revival, the untold story, figured in to the success of those attempts to limit alcohol abuse? One of the few earthly foods we read about being served in heaven is fine wine.

October 12, 2011

Thanks for commenting Brandon! You are correct to note that I am heavily influenced by Calvin's perspective. How lucky to have Marilynn Robinson visit your campus!

October 12, 2011

Rick, I think you're onto something here and I encourage you to watch the first part of the series if you haven't already, because the spiritual/religious aspect is included and leads to further insights and questions I didn't address here.

October 14, 2011

Burns's film did give an epilogue nod to Alcoholics Anonymous, as the quiet, gentle, counterpart to Prohibition; I wish he would have said more.  AA in the long run proved more effective, by focusing on changing the heart and spirit for good, than by merely passing prohibitive laws.

October 14, 2011

I have not seen the documentary (though I would like to) but you make a good point.
While it is clear that intervention was necessary to prevent such rampant alcoholism and its violent & immoral repercussions, do you think that government was the body that had the right to do so? Though many Christians consider it important to aid those who have strayed from the path, it is important to remember that the separation of Church and State is what gives us the freedom to practise our religion as we choose; it is what the first settlers in the US fled from.But rather than try to achieve a more righteous society through man-made law, might it have been more effective to help those who suffered from alcoholism using the word of the Lord, not the word of the Gov't?I think you put it very well: "Perhaps the Prohibitionists just tried to do work that only Christ can do: bring new life to one that was dead to sin."

July 26, 2017

I think Prohibition is a classic case of Christians majoring in the minors. All the Volstead act did was make a lot of bad men very rich. The churches of the time should have been fighting things like the Jim Crow laws instead.

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