Prohibition and Christianity


If one were to trot over to the Un-Asked Questions page of this blog they would find a list of what I personally am reading currently. At the moment there resides on that list an older book by the great John Erskine: Prohibition and Christianity. I’m not too far in but already the book has charmed the socks off of me. Erskine, ever the teacher and logician, pushes one to think. Even though his topic is out of date much of what he says can easily be applied to current events. I would like to meander through a random few things that I have been kicking around. If for no other reason than I enjoy a good think out loud.

If You Give a Prohibitionist a Cookie

“When a prohibitionist tells us that prohibition is here, we know that he is not content with what is here. When he says it is here to stay, we know he hopes a condition very different will arrive to take its place. Some of us believe that the condition he hopes for can not come under the laws he has got enacted, and wonder how ling it will be before he will re-examine the prohibition law, not as a concession to us but in the interest of his own cause” pg.33

I could readily think of several ways in which this play has been successfully run recently. What is interesting to me was that Erskine called the play while it was happening in slow motion for him, and ultimately it was defeated. In our day the play moves so quickly we barely see it happening. Everything from, “fifteen days to flatten the curve” which becomes, “The one year anniversary of fifteen days to flatten to curve.” To, “these protests are mostly peaceful” which has recently become, “Acts of material liberation should not be filmed.” 

Unleavened Bread

Erskine spends a goodly proportion of his time to the standard argument that Jesus made good wine, and required wine in the sacrament of communion. And that it was not grape juice because Jesus was not stupid. I paraphrase. And then, in one line as he wraps up the first chapter, as part of a poetic wrap up, he refers to the unleavened bread. And suddenly the inconstancy of the grape juice argument became even more glaring. No one at that point in history debated that the bread must be unleavened. It went completely unnoticed how, in regards to one element, the literal translation was never even questioned. But for some reason when it comes to the other, suddenly, we know better than Jesus.

As just an odd aside, I find myself being increasingly driven to the position that wine alone should be used. I have, since my youth just rolled with, they are both fruit of the vine… blah, blah, blah. And in later years assumed those pushing wine alone were making something of a mountain out of a mole hill. I am moving more towards being willing to make an Appalachian out of a mole here, but not the Pyrenees, at least not yet. The big issue personally is absurdly taste. I don’t like wine. Which is ridiculous because I love whiskey and beer both of which have a higher threshold to acquire a taste for. But I really like grape juice. Always have, and that little shot on Sunday always just throws me back to my childhood.

Government Rule Lingers Nastily

A lingering hold over from prohibition is the three-tier system; which I hate with a passion. I hate it like John Cleese hates commies* For the un initiated the three-tier system is the antiquated federally required method of alcohol delivery. It is what stands between the consumer in availability, lower prices, and convenience. With the exception of very small amounts (think a brewers taproom or a distillers tasting room) all alcohol must go from the importer/producer to a distributer, then to the retailer, at that point you can acquire it. I’ll let you guess who gets financial kickbacks at every step along the way. What you find on the shelves at your store is limited by what the local distributor feels like carrying. And if they don’t feel like letting something you want in, tough, they get to decide. And you better not even think of trying to find that bottle from the producer yourself online, that’s illegal. 

As Erskine describes prohibition he covers how it was a government experiment to control the governed in a specific and extreme way. He focus on how it completely removed the christian virtue of temperance (which is essentially self-control) and replaced it with the islamic idea. Or as Lewis has said, “It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotalers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion.” Ultimately the government, by giving a blanket command, refused the populace the ability to think through a particular issue. The results were disastrous, alcoholism became an even bigger problem than the prohibitionist ever lied or exaggerated it was, men’s emotional health and friendships are to this day still on life support, crime skyrocketed due to mafia running liquor and laying the groundwork for the drug trade today, and we still have to put up with the stupid three-tier system!

What I think should be considered from the parable of prohibition is what will be the terrible effects of our current government mandated rules? We are not trusted to weigh risks on, our lives, our health, or our faces. It was never questioned if the government should be allowed to ruin livelihoods in prohibition, and it was not questioned a year ago now. What will be the COVID equivalent of the three-tier system that future generations will still be stuck with, and nobody questions, not now, and not then.

Dead Faith

“Indeed, more than one of us is compelled to believe that the endorsement of prohibition by professed Christians would be impossible if their faith were still warm in the heart or clear in the head, and that it has come now only because that faith is dead. It departed so quietly that we did not miss it until, happening to contradict it, we felt no discomfort.” pg.15

Prohibition was just the trend of it’s day. The appeal was exactly those things Erskine railed against, the ease of legalism. Discernment and wisdom take time, it is not soundbite worthy, there is room for error, there is risk. But at the end of the day it kills faith. It erects a new stricter god in the place of the one true God. Today we have new gods arriving in our churches with similar absolutes and demands for total obedience, all promising to bring us to paradise. Wether it goes by the slogan “Love is love,” “Critical Race Theory,” or, “believe the science.” Each one tells you where to sit down and shut up, let the new high priests do the work, you just obey. It is a cancer that kills faith. It aborts sanctification. Again I am concerned what the fallout from foolish legalisms will look like in our pews years later.


Erskine begins his book talking of a conversation he had with a Presbyterian friend on the subject. And despite how well Erskine argued the friend would just trot out the standard talking points. Throughout Erskine finds himself frustrated with this kind of response. Ultimately he ends in the same place he started, alone with his reason and not too hopeful. Looking back on his discouragement I am reminded of something John Piper said when he took over Bethlehem Church and was met with legalistic resistance. “I will out live you, and I will out rejoice you.” No false God can stand to see Christians who rejoice in Christ, and even if a few of us are getting up in years, Christ and his church will outlive every useless wind of doctrine that blows through. What is required is a living faith.


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