I’ve been putting off writing and posting this, but Sanctus’ post on the Southern Baptists debating this issue has forced my hand, if you please. So it’s time for this blog to broach a subject that not so long ago wouldn’t merit discussion in Evangelical circles.
Should Christians drink? (I obviously mean alcoholic beverages.)
In broaching this subject, I start with two important statements of fact.
The first is that there is no way we can say that the Bible has an outright prohibition of the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Evangelicals will quote at length passages that warn against the dangers of consumption in excess, but there’s no absolute prohibition. If it were that obvious, then why did it take eighteen centuries to find it? If you absolutely, positively need a religion that does have one in its scriptures, you need to consider Islam. (And, with the nature of the Qur’an, there’s some uncertainty about that, too.)
The second is related to the first: they actually had alcoholic beverages in New Testament times. All of the torturous “proofs” to demonstrate otherwise are just that: torturous. Evangelicals should use their Bible study time for better pursuits, but in this case they have not.
So that leads us to the obvious dumb question: how did we get to this state where, in Evangelical Christianity at least, drinking is considered right up there in the sinfulness scale with same sex civil marriage? There are three things to consider, one that antedates the nineteenth century when this first came up in the United States, and the other two factors that started then and continue to the present time. (And let’s be clear about something else: this is largely an American initiative.) The one thing that all three have in common is that they are rooted in the Celtic/Scots-Irish culture that has dominated American Evangelical Christianity for so many years.
The first is the development of distilled spirits. All of the alcoholic beverages that existed in Old and New Testament times were fermented spirits (wine and beer.) Distilled spirits, first developed in Scotland during the Middle Ages, change the whole dynamic of drinking because their alcohol content is higher. That’s a fact that non-drinkers never consider, but it’s an important one. It’s possible to become an alcoholic on wine and beer, but it’s much easier to do so with distilled spirits. (And the wine beloved of winos has supplemental alcohol which makes it a de facto distilled spirit.)
It’s not an accident that the most famous New Testament verse on the subject, “Do not continue to drink water only, but take a little wine on account of the weakness of your stomach, and your frequent ailments,” (1 Timothy 5:23) doesn’t include an exhortation to Timothy to use gin, vermouth, rum, scotch or—God forbid—vodka for this purpose. (I had a Russian business associate assure me that this worked for vodka, but the one time he tried this when I was around, it didn’t work.)
The development of distilled spirits leads us to the next consideration—binge drinking on the frontier. That frontier, in the early days of our Republic, was the Appalachian Mountains, then and now largely populated by the Scots-Irish with a healthy dose of Native American heritage (and they have their own issues with alcohol as well.) If there’s one thing you can say about the Scots-Irish, it’s that when they do something, they go all out. Whether it’s drinking, religion, or seceding from the Union, there’s no halfway with these people. Binge drinking is destructive of self and others, and a form of Christianity which preached against it was doing many people a big favour.
In all fairness, the Scots-Irish don’t have a corner on binge drinking. To the East we have the Poles and aforementioned Russians whose binge drinking practices put the Celts to shame. A culture that cultivates binge drinking results in a harvest of alcoholics and the damage that goes with it, and for such cultures abstinence from alcohol is frequently the only effective choice. It should also be said that damage control from alcohol consumption is easier at higher income levels, which explains in part the division between Southern churches that do permit drinking (Episcopalians, Methodists) and those that don’t (Baptists, Pentecostals.) (That damage control disparity also applies to drug use and sexual misadventure as well.)
The socio-economic considerations lead us to the next point: another reason to promote abstinence is because drinking, even without the sin taxes we impose, is expensive. Money that goes into alcohol can be diverted to support the family or the church. Charles Finney, in Revivals of Religion, specifically brings this up about tobacco and the offering, and the same argument can be made vis-à-vis gambling, another traditional bête noire amongst Evangelicals.
There’s no doubt that a culture where abstinence from alcohol is promoted for an extended period of time will induce changes, and the South certainly has experienced those. The quest for an alcohol-free church and society has reduced much of the blotto drinking that characterised Celtic culture in the British Isles. Today Southern states, for all of their shortcomings, boast of some of the lowest drunk driving rates in the country. And it’s a lot easier to look at college students and tell them they shouldn’t drink or do so in moderation when it’s not sold on campus, as is the case with many Southern state universities.
However, as Sanctus points out, there are dissenting voices, even amongst conservative Evangelicals on this subject. But most of these new proponents are what used to be called “wine bibbers,” and most of them are college educated. If wine bibbers were the only drinkers, total abstinence from alcohol would never have become an issue in the first place. There are good reasons for the current custom, rooted in a culture that is now, for better or worse, the core culture of American Evangelicalism.
As is the case with the tithe, Evangelicals are uncomfortable being dogmatic about an idea that isn’t directly commanded in Scripture, even if the benefits of the idea are demonstrable. But until such time as the cultural core of Evangelical Christianity shifts away from the sons and daughters of the extremities of Albion, and we can revisit this issue in a different setting, we’re better off keeping the liquor cabinet empty.