October 2, 2011

Object Lesson

I watched the first installment of the new Ken Burns movie, Prohibition, on PBS tonight. I have always thought that prohibition was one of the most disastrous mistakes America ever made (prior to the “election” of George W. Bush, at any rate). I could never quite understand how the Eighteenth Amendment came to be. The first installment of Prohibition clarified the matter.

Source: Anti-Saloon League Museum
Assuming that the latest Ken Burns documentary is fairly representing history, prohibition was all about the naïve hope that an extreme measure would solve some very real and serious problems of society. At the same time the dry lobby was viewing prohibition as a panacea, the rest of the citizenry was assuming that prohibition would not be all that bad. Both sides, of course, were tragically wrong.

Isn’t this the same dynamic we see vis-à-vis the Anglican Covenant? The divisions we see in the Anglican Communion are indeed both real and serious, and many believe, naïvely, I think, that the Covenant will magically resolve those divisions. Others, who are not true believers in the power of the Covenant, are willing to give it a try. How bad could it be, after all?

Too few people thought through, in a level-headed fashion, what the effect of the extreme measure that was prohibition was likely to be. Likewise, proponents of the Anglican Covenant have not made a realistic evaluation of the probable fruits of its widespread adoption.

The effects of prohibition were largely predictable, but it was adopted because hardly anyone made either the civil-liberties argument for the right to drink or the argument that banning alcohol was unlikely to extinguish the demand for it. Likewise, the argument that Anglican churches should be self-governing seems to have become politically incorrect, and a surprising number of people seem to hold to the magical thinking that the adoption of the Covenant will somehow—we never get a clear explanation of how—resolve the differences among Communion churches.

Hardly anyone today argues that prohibition was anything other than a colossal mistake. There is an object lesson for the Anglican Communion here.

Postscript: According to Prohibition nearly all Protestant churches supported prohibition, particularly the Methodists and the Baptists. Notable exceptions were the Episcopalians and the Lutherans.


  1. Will we make the same mistake? Good Lord we are making it! The problem is that with an historian in the seat of Canterbury, we learn nothing from history!


  2. Episcopalians for prohibition? Heresy!

  3. Keen observation, Lionel. I would say that a “Dry America” is as good an oxymoron as “Anglican Covenant” (at least as regards the proposed covenant).

    Geoff Hurd


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