God, Liquor and the Gospel of Ken Burns

10/17/2011 09:44 am ET | Updated Dec 17, 2011

In the mid-1800s, there were two issues that radical, Bible-thumping Christians were railing about, two practices which they said "would lead the nation into ruin." Those two issues were: alcohol and slavery. If the moral zealots of that era had been more considerate of the way average people thought, we probably could have completely avoided the whole debacle of prohibition. And yet, without their efforts, many of us would still own slaves.

As such, I would like to propose a simple but perhaps unsettling thesis: Even when we lament their zeal, our society needs the kinds of unpopular people who are extremely outspoken about public morality.

Were it not for the concerted and (let's admit it, John Brown) radical efforts of many 19th century moral zealots, much of our country's most shameful historical chapters would stretch right up to the present. Evil usually finds an advocate in all of us, and those willing to risk everything to rebuke us (if not always correctly) deserve our serious attention.

Ken Burns' fantastic and gripping new documentary on Prohibition (recently aired on PBS) has fuelled the conversation at our family dinner table ever since its debut. The story's complexity is (ironically) sobering. Burns paints a very vivid picture of the lives of those involved, and he never fails to give enough dirt on both sides to make you pause to think about the era in a new light.

Yet, I question a few of the (at least implicit) suggestions the documentary makes:

  1. Don't try to control human activities that are notoriously hard to regulate (child sex trafficking, anyone?)
  2. The only motivations for reining in human license come from religious extremism (consider Frederick Douglas, who, according to Burns, thought solving the alcohol problem would largely solve America's slavery problem)
  3. America is the only nation which gets so worked up about things like drunkenness (cf. Russia, 1914-1925)

Prohibition is so fascinating because of the perennial dilemmas and conflicting worldviews involved in its genesis and later repeal. Was there ever, in fact, justification for some kind of "prohibition"? If so, how might it have looked if carried out more properly? Independent of any great answers to such questions, important conclusions present themselves about the complexities inherent in any moral reform.

At present, as at all times, legislation is rooted in conflicting views of morality. All legislation is in fact "legislated morality." It brings human nature squarely into the center of the debate, and no person or piece of legislation is therefore free from the challenges of appearing to have subjective moral rationale. James Madison, the chief architect of our constitution, famously said:

What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. ... [Thus] in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed.

How will we remember events like prohibition: as pithy, hypocrisy-filled, hyper-religious excess, or as well-intentioned, family-centric crusades to save society from its drunken stupor? I have no doubt there will be plenty of occasions to consider the true merits of the former option. As such, I humbly submit that, in trying to understand history on its own terms, the latter deserves our consideration as well.

Every nation, like every person, sins. And every nation falls short of where its potential might have carried it. The scary development in our midst now is not that we have become too hard on ourselves, but that we have become unwilling to be corrected. Whatever your thoughts on Prohibition, I think it's quite possible that what we need now, some hundred years later, is not more pubs, but more prophets.