Puritanism Run Mad
Lord Curzon, British Foreign Minister in the 1920s, described American alcohol Prohibition as “…Puritanism run mad.” That same description also fits drug Prohibition.
Few realize the fundamentality religious foundation that has run through the various American Prohibition movements since the earliest part of the nineteenth century and that continues even today.
While revolutionary America was more secular than it has been at any time before the present, shortly after 1800 the Second Great Awakening swept across the country with revivalist fervor. By the 1840s, this religious movement had become the dominant part of the cultural scene. While the new Great Awakening had roots in the earlier Puritanism of New England, it developed new thinking that led to the new evangelical denominations of American Protestantism and, after the Civil War, it engendered two offspring: the Social Gospel movement and Fundamentalism. All of these branches of American Protestantism contributed to Prohibition.
New England Puritanism held to a gloomy Calvinistic theology that held a person’s fate was preordained even before birth and that nothing the individual did could change that fate. Their concern, then, was that the church be a pure embodiment of God’s laws laid down in the bible and that the church enforce those laws on the government and community as a whole: make it a city on the hill. Those who did not obey the church’s command, like Anne Hutchinson or the fictional Hester Primm, would be punished, not for sin or criminality, but for non-conformity.
While the nineteenth century Awakeners retained a sense of that need for compelled social conformity based on church doctrine, their personal theology had changed. Rejecting strict preordination, they believed that each person through his own efforts could obtain salvation. This effort toward sanctification required strict sobriety so that the mind could remain focused on spiritual and moral matters. They, therefore, became the leaders of the temperance movement, forerunner of alcohol Prohibition.
After the Civil war, these evangelical Awakeners gave rise to two new protestant movements. Their concerns with personal improvement gave rise to the Social Gospel movement, in which churches became concerned with improving the social and medical lives of other people, still a major concern in the so-called mainstream denominations. On the other hand, the old Puritan ideal of strict application of God’s law and the need for social conformity led to the groups later called Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists insisted on a literal and strict application of biblical truths to all aspects of life. They first gained widespread public notice by their opposition to evolutionary sciences, which still continues, and later have led the opposition to abortion and the recognition of civil rights for homosexuals.
The interests of these two groups came together with their support for alcohol Prohibition. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Prohibition forces were led by two groups, both religiously based. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was rooted in the mainstream protestant denominations and drew most of its principles from the social gospel movement. The Anti-saloon League was more in tune with the early puritans and the fundamentalists with its emphasis on governmental action to force social conformity with moral standards. The two groups working side by side were able to force a political majority that brought about alcohol Prohibition by constitutional amendment.
When narcotics regulation started with the Harrison Act, it was an attempt to regulate and manage what was seen as a medical problem. A decade later, when Alcohol Prohibition was being vigorously enforced and when then-current medical knowledge was unable to “cure” addicts, were the drug laws changed to a Prohibition model with the passage of the two heroin acts. Harry Anslinger, soon to become head of the Bureau of Narcotics for decades, had started in the Prohibition Bureau.
As alcohol Prohibition fell apart in the early 1930s, the profession Prohibitionists, particularly those of the Anti-saloon League switched their allegiance (and their speaking fees) to prohibiting drugs. With the help of Anslinger they were able to convert the medical effort (that had not been very successful) to mitigate drug use into a new moral crusade to remove an evil from the world.
By the 1980s, they had an ally in the White House who finished turning Nixon’s politically-based War on Drugs into an absolutist Puritanical crusade to reshape the world. The Nixon-Carter emphasis on treatment and harm reduction turned into “Just say ‘No’”.
The religious roots of Prohibition today reveal themselves primarily in two aspects of the crusading War on Drugs. The first is to demonize the drugs themselves as pure agents of evil, but just as parts of the natural world to be dealt with rationally. The second is the all-or-nothing insistence on absolute victory over this evil instead of dealing with normal human behavior.
If this brief sketch is correct, what lessons can a drug law reformer draw from it? The first is to quit trying to persuade these neopuritans by facts or logical argument. True believers may undergo conversion experiences, but they are not susceptible to rational argument. The second is to realize that their ignoring fact makes them open, not just to rebuttal, but to discrediting when those facts are clearly presented to honest audiences.
Puritanism is easier to overcome than an opponent working from facts selected by bias, but reformers need to take the initiative and expose them for what they are.