Most Americans don't realize the hold that Temperance still has on us. There remain many dry counties in the U.S. (particularly in the South) and blue laws honeycomb state statutes. By the criterion of drinking less than once monthly, a majority of Americans are teetotalers.
In nineteenth century America, Temperance lectures, groups, literature, art, music, etc. pervaded the country. It was impossible not to be constantly aware of the Temperance message - alcohol was evil. In fact, Temperance proponents claimed that all drinkers were unknowingly headed down the garden path to excess, addiction, and ultimate ruination and death - much as we currently view drug users.
Prohibition took the wind out of the organized Temperance movement. On the eve of national Prohibition in 1919, evangelist Billy Sunday spoke before a live audience of ten thousand people and a radio audience of millions:
Of course, the Rev. Sunday's high hopes were not realized - crime and alcohol poisonings actually increased during this period, and hell was not rent.
Alcoholics Anonymous appeared in 1935, shortly after Prohibition was repealed. AA developed a crucial marketing advantage over Temperance - it claimed that the progression to damnation due to drinking characterized only a small group of alcoholics, and not all drinkers. Nonetheless, the AA meeting is a replica of Temperance meetings organized for former drunkards who bewailed their former sins, turned themselves over to a Higher Power, and sought to make amends to God and man.
Temperance is also apparent in the standard American drug education program, where a former drinker or drug user or some other "expert" describes the inevitable slide into perdition due to drug use or drinking. Obviously, if the speakers were moderate drinkers or occasional drug users (or former drug users who simply "matured out" without any negative life consequences), the whole point of the lecture - that substances are inherently evil - would be lost.
Temperance preachers - er, I mean motivational speakers - either detail their own sordid pasts or else describe some young person whose life was ruined by alcohol and drugs. Their favorite examples are top students, class presidents, and exceptional athletes. If they reflected that nearly all serious drug abusers have many simultaneous risk factors and problems - school and emotional issues, run-ins with the law, disrupted home lives - listeners might miss how devilish drugs and alcohol are.
I just returned from a gambling conference where I listened to a prominent gambling researcher describe a young man - an athlete and class president - who ended up in prison. I realized I was at a Temperance sermon! Following the talk, I asked two questions: "Don't most young problem gamblers, like young substance abusers, have a host of problems?" The speaker admitted the same held for problem gamblers. He also admitted he didn't personally know the young man in question, but had only heard about him from a third party!
I then asked, "What percentage of all youthful gamblers experience such problems?" The speaker answered: "I don't know." In fact, his data showed that three-quarters of seventh graders had had gambling experiences. Yet, despite their broad exposure to gambling, another speaker noted that only one percent of young people reckoned that gambling was a risk for them (the number one risk issue the teens reported was a negative body image).
The researcher then proudly displayed a video he had produced. A parental couple sits contentedly reading their newspapers in the kitchen. Cut to their late adolescent son in another room in front of a computer screen playing cards. The young man suddenly jumps up and smashes the computer with a baseball bat, trying to exorcise his gambling demons. Only then do his oblivious parents awaken to the evils of youth gambling. The scary message to parents: Gambling, straight from hell!
Anybody know where I can catch a good Temperance sermon this weekend - now that Billy Sunday is no longer with us?
Follow Stanton on Twitter