Modern Crusaders

Ten thousand people were gathered for the funeral for "John Barleycorn"—the nickname given to alcohol. Prohibition had just been enacted in Norfolk, Virginia, and a casket was hauled into a church service led by colorful evangelist Billy Sunday. The pallbearers were followed by a man dressed up as a sorrowful devil. "Good-by, John," Sunday said. "The reign of tears is over. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses. Men will walk upright now, [and] hell will be forever rent." Unfortunately, "John Barleycorn" refused to die—and Christians learned a tough lesson about the limitations of political action. Yes, Prohibition did have many social benefits. Alcohol-related crime plummeted. Industrial safety improved as per capita drinking dropped, especially among working people. In fact, not until 1990 did per capita consumption of alcohol again reach pre-Prohibition levels. But Prohibition led to harmful effects as well, including widespread disrespect for the law. Prohibition ushered in speakeasies, bootlegging, and organized crime—activities that contributed to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Few people really understand why Prohibition failed to live up to its expectations. The answer is that the Eighteenth Amendment represents the characteristic weakness of Christian social reform in America: It was patterned after nineteenth-century revivalism. Christian political action was strong on emotional fervor but weak on intellectual understanding. During the Second Great Awakening, preachers like Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher established revival as the main means of expanding the church and reforming society. They believed that new converts should immediately begin to work for social reform, waging battles against social evils like slavery, poverty, and liquor. As Mark Noll points out in One Nation Under God?, these early reformers were fueled by incredible enthusiasm and moral energy. But they failed to develop a theoretical understanding of the differences between private and public life, between Christian discipleship and government policy. As a result, prohibitionists framed the complex issue of alcohol use in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms: In their view, all drinking was evil, even in moderation. They oversold Prohibition as a social fix-all. And they failed to understand that anytime you seek to change the law, you have to change public attitudes as well. Christians have an obligation to bring transcendent moral values into the public square. But translating moral principles into lasting social change is another matter. Yes, we have to work for legislative solutions to social evils. But we have to work just as hard to make a convincing apologetic, to make a reasonable and understandable transition from our private convictions to public policies. We need to make logical arguments so citizens understand why the laws we’re working to pass are desirable for society—not just "because the Bible says so." After all, there’s not much point in passing laws if people aren’t motivated to obey them. That’s the mistake that Billy Sunday and his followers made 76 years ago—why they failed in their attempt to bury "John Barleycorn." It was because citizens were not given a convincing reason to obey a Prohibition that allowed for no exceptions. And the reformers forgot that no mere political action will ever usher in the kingdom of God on earth.


Chuck Colson



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