Friday, November 30, 2018

New Mission Area: The New Temperance

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Five weeks ago, I raised the question of what features of the world and its various contexts in the 21st century might constitute new areas of mission, in the same way that features of the world 50, 100, or 150 years ago led to areas of mission work that we now consider central: education, poverty relief, healthcare, etc.

This week, I suggest a fifth new area of mission work that would be a revival of an older area of mission work: temperance.

 Already, readers from different geographical areas will have responded differently to this post. Many in Africa and the Philippines will ask, "Isn't this something the church still preaches and promotes?" Many in the United States and Europe will ask, "Why is he suggesting the revival of some out-dated, moralistic crusade?" I mainly want to address the US context here.

As someone who has studied the history of Methodist involvement with the temperance movement, I will readily admit that there were certainly problems with that movement. Much of it was motivated by, or at least drew upon, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-working class prejudices. There was a tendency for the movement to be moralistic and self-righteous.

Yet, the movement had its points as well. In the eighteenth century, a fifth of US adults were essentially functional alcoholics. You don't need to think that we should ban the sale of all alcohol to recognize that as a problem. Moreover, temperance reformers were also often concerned with alcohol use's correlation with domestic violence, the economic impact on women and children of money being diverted to alcohol use, and the economic exploitation of the poor through alcohol sales. More than just kill-joys, nineteenth century temperance reformers saw temperance as a means of both aiding individual alcoholics and of ameliorating social injustices.

Temperance's great achievement and apotheosis was the passage of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution establishing Prohibition as the law of the land. While the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol didn't last (it was repealed by the 21st Amendment), it did produce a marked decrease in the amount of alcohol Americans consumed, even after drinking was re-legalized.

But Americans are now back up to pre-Prohibition levels of drinking, drinking much more than in recent decades. The amount of binge drinking and alcoholism is up too. The gender dynamics of drinking have changed, too, with women making up much of the increase, raising their drinking to on par with men.

I will admit than even as a good United Methodist, I still enjoy a bottle of beer or a glass of wine. I've even brewed my own beer. I drink in moderation, but I do drink.

But still, I wonder: at what point in the craft beer revolution, wine as "mommy juice" trend, upswing in craft distilled spirits, boom of wine of the month clubs will Americans start to recognize that perhaps we've gone too far? At what point will we decide that the impacts on our health, our relationships, our work are more than we've bargained for?

And when we come to that point, what will the church do about it?


  1. Our focus is too narrow if it is just alcohol or abstinence. The opioid crisis and rising levels of suicide suggest something more fundamental is at work in US culture. I would suggest that our culture has no way of assigning meaning to controlling indulgence or experiencing suffering. The fundamental promise of contemporary US culture is that unending comfort and pleasure as the primary purpose of human living. God in American Christianity is a lifestyle concierge whose task is to give us what we want. The missiological challenge is inviting people through Christ and his Body into a story in which self-control and suffering have meaning, a story fundamentally at odds with our culture and its civil religion.

    1. I like your analysis. I think the problem is especially acute because we have an economic system that depends upon people being unable to control indulgence. I think that linkage illustrates just how fundamentally at odds with American society (culturally and economically) the story of Christ can be.