Prohibition and Apocalyptic Politics

Temperance Parade 1919

Temperance Parade, 1919.

Last Sunday I watched some of the Ken Burns’ documentary about the history of Prohibition ( It’s another top-notch production like his series on the Civil War.  What especially interested me was the portion dealing with the leaders of the Temperance Movement.  The documentary claims that Prohibition in some form might have succeeded if the leaders of the Temperance Movement had been willing to compromise on some points.  Instead, they adopted an uncompromising stance and as a result not only saw the end of Prohibition but also contributed to the rise of organized crime in America.

The documentary illustrated the inflexibility of the Temperance leaders, as well as the harsh rhetoric that they used for their cause.  This rhetoric was aimed not only at those urging an end to Prohibition, but also against Catholics, immigrants, and urban-dwellers.  The Temperance Movement, in other words, saw the fight not only as a battle against liquor but also against everything that seemed to be responsible for America’s moral decline.  It was, in other words, a crusade on behalf of rural, conservative America against urban, changing America.

(This point was reinforced for me when, around Christmastime, I was watching the Wizard of Oz [1939] with my granddaughter, Juliette.  One of the big themes of this film is that, although the city [Oz] seems to be a utopia, home is really rural [Dorothy’s farm in Kansas].  Here’s the there’s-no-place-like-home scene:  The Wizard of Oz is in one sense a parable about the struggle of rural America to assert its importance in the face of growing urbanization.)

This episode of Burns’ documentary about Prohibition makes it clear that little has changed in American politics: We still have a highly conservative, rural Evangelical voice that is inflexible in its politics and fearful of urbanites, immigrants, and everything else that is different from traditional rural culture.  This voice is governed by apocalyptic anxiety about big government and cultural decadence and it is no surprise that Donald Trump is making inroads into this portion of American society.  Its apocalyptic theology makes it easy for it to see politics and culture as a battle of good vs. evil, of truth vs. error, of right vs. wrong.

That is why one of the challenges facing American Christianity today is coming to terms with Christianity’s apocalyptic heritage–its centrality to the Christian message and also its capacity for distortion and misuse.