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Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol
Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol
Iain Gately
Avery, 2009
560 pp., $22.00

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Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Daniel Okrent
Scribner, 2011
480 pp., $19.00

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Brett McCracken


Wet v. Dry

"We should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated."

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Looming large in the narrative are women: Christian women like "Mother" Eliza Thompson, who preached outside saloons in Ohio; Carrie Nation, who took a hatchet to barrooms and became a national celebrity; and Mary Hunt, whose "Scientific Temperance Instruction" aimed to teach the nation's schoolchildren scientifically dubious "facts" about the scary effects of alcohol (the majority of beer drinkers die of dropsy, alcohol burns off the skin as it passes down the throat, and so on). The female agitators of temperance paved the way for the suffrage movement (Susan B. Anthony and others got their start speaking out against alcohol), which would prove to be a powerful political ally in the fight for Prohibition.

Okrent masterfully weaves together the complex web of politics, religion, and personalities pivotal to getting the nation to the Volstead Act and the beginning of Prohibition on January 16, 1920. It was a curious blend of moral crusading (superstar evangelist Billy Sunday was an influential "dry" advocate), WWI-era nativism (anti-German sentiments made it easier to demonize beer companies with names like Pabst, Schlitz, Busch), and shrewd political maneuvering. The leader of the ASL, Wayne B. Wheeler, is the book's most significant player—the architect of Prohibition, perhaps the greatest example of a single-issue American reform movement that actually got what it wanted.

Well, sort of. Prohibition did outlaw alcohol and reduce American consumption a bit in the short run, but its unintended consequences would be the far more significant legacy: bootlegging, organized crime, Al Capone, J. Edgar Hoover, Elliot Ness, speakeasies, moonshine, the birth of Las Vegas, the rise of the at-home cocktail party, and a jaded political climate of bribery, blackmail, and official corruption. The 1920s are not known for Wayne Wheeler's political savvy and legislative achievement, after all; they're known for The Great Gatsby, Atlantic City, the Charleston, and a flow of liquor at parties that never seemed to run dry.

There were many problems with Prohibition, but perhaps the biggest drawback was its "all or nothing" approach, which left no room for the dignity and freedom of the individual conscience. It was a case of the government intruding on a very private sphere of personal life—what we drink for pleasure—and expecting the populace to happily oblige in a cold-turkey abandonment of an age-old social custom. Instead of working for reform and regulation in some sort of reasonable way, Prohibition was a nuance-free attempt to legislate morality on an unwieldy, impossible-to-enforce scale. Prohibition was like the overly legalistic, punishing parents who don't trust their kids to behave unless every potential vice or temptation is removed from them. It was doomed to fail.

Alcohol does little harm when enjoyed in moderation. It can be a wonderful thing. But like most good things, it can become a bad thing—for individuals, for societies—when consumed recklessly and in excess. Thus it has been contested, fought, lamented and legislated against for much of its history, by almost as many as have enjoyed its pleasures.

Gately and Okrent both come down on the wet side of the debate and at times reveal a bias against the drys (especially the Carrie Nation-type moral zealot), but neither author spends too much time discussing the area in the middle. Neither gives much attention to moderation as an important aspect of alcohol consumption, which seems a significant omission (although perhaps not germane to their documentary rather than evaluative narrative concerns).

Amid ongoing debates within Christianity about the appropriateness of alcohol—"Young, Restless Reformed" craft brew fans have revived the discussion of late—it seems to me the question of moderation has to be central. Preaching in 1539, Martin Luther said, "If you are tired and downhearted, take a drink; but this does not mean being a pig and doing nothing but gorging and swilling …. You should be moderate and sober; this means that we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated."

Prohibition attitudes of "not even a sip" abstinence are not wrong; they just can't be imposed on everyone. People are going to drink, and many will do so moderately, enjoying the exhilaration Luther speaks of without getting drunk. Instead of fighting to stop drinking altogether, perhaps the better campaign is to address how we drink. God created humans with the ability to exercise self-control, restraint, and moderation, after all, just as he gave us the ability to enjoy the pleasures of food and drink.

Brett McCracken is managing editor of Biola University's Biola Magazine and is the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker). His new book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Liberty & License, will be published by Baker in August.

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