Chashab has written a blog entry
about the newly emerging openness toward alcohol amongst American Christians. Here's my response:
Alcohol in one form or another has existed for thousands of years, mostly in the form of either beer or wine. Because the alcoholic content of both of those beverages is so low, it takes GREAT DEAL of either to achieve all out drunkenness. So, in ancient times, only those who consumed in mass quantities ever achieved drunkenness. Such people were rare and so hardly any religious leaders of any persuasion (Jewish, Christian, etc) were at all concerned about the consumption of alcohol by their congregation members. Jesus certainly drank wine. And the Bible only prohibits outright drunkenness (which, as I stated, was rare). In Europe in particular, the drinking of alcohol was deemed safer than the drinking of water, which was usually contaminated by raw sewage. Tiny children who were only just weaned from their mother's milk were immediately upgraded to wine and beer by the age of 2. Even the Mayflower Pilgrims were daily drinkers of beer. However, in the late 1600's, a new form of alcoholic beverage emerged which was a super-concentrated formula: gin.
Gin was neither a wine nor a beer. It was a spirit. And that was the problem.
Here's some background. Wine is achieved via slow fermentation over years. Beer is achieved via brewing. But a spirit is achieved via distillation. (In my home state of Massachusetts, there are actually three separate licenses: a beer license, AND a wine license, AND a liquor license. Some stores/restaurants will have beer and wine, but it's a lot harder to get the third. And the state wants to keep the RATIO of all three types of licenses tilted so that the liquor licenses are always rarer than beer and wine.) Distilling wasn't new, but advanced and carefully controlled methods of distilling suddenly were. The new stills were very efficient and capable of achieving a purity of spirit never before seen.
The distillation method is the alcohol-equivalent of free-basing. The concentration of alcohol that results from distillation is medically disabling and potentially lethal. The ability to get utterly plastered and falling down drunk from even a small amount of a distilled spirit is almost effortless. Public drunkenness became an overnight problem, especially in London. Such never-before-seen degrees of drunkenness led to the sudden proliferation of life-destroying social problems such as: loss of employment, spousal abuse, child abuse and neglect, public brawling, and even injury and death from the clumsiness of drunken people in such severe states of incapacitation that serious and fatal accidents would happen, either to themselves, or those around them. And, with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, non-stop states of drunkenness became particularly dangerous when people were operating upon, or in the vicinity of, large machinery.
The response of the church was at first to preach against drinking too much. But when things only got worse, the next step was to call for an absolute abstinence from ALL alcohol.
Meanwhile, the Christian Women's Temperance Union was formed by the abused wives of chronically drunk men. These women insisted that when their husbands were sober, they were NOT violent. But when under the influence of strong drink, they became demons. If only their husbands would stop drinking.
The CWTU called for a boycott of ALL alcohol. And then, eventually, refraining from all alcohol inadvertently became a mark of being a Christian. And then, eventually, a REQUIREMENT of being a Christian. The Bible does NOT prohibit drinking. But the Prohibition Movement took certain scriptures, applied specific meanings to them, and brazenly (even sincerely) insisted that the Bible did indeed say ALL drinking was evil. Jesus, they said, never drank wine, just grape juice. And the New Testament call for believers to drink of the "new wine" were references to freshly squeezed grapes that did not yet have time to ferment. On a theological level, this was all quite absurd. On a historical level, it was groundless. But on a social level, it was the only weapon in their arsenal against this horrible scourge upon society. This was convenient scripture-twisting with a noble cause in mind.
When soda pop was invented in the 1800's, many people perceived it --with its bubbling essence--was surely a close cousin of alcohol (and considering that the original formula for Coca-Cola had REAL cocaine in it, they weren't too far off the mark in perceiving it had mind-altering capabilities). While there was no alcoholic content in soda, it was still viewed as suspect by Christian leaders, and so the sale of soda on Sundays was prohibited. Prior to that restriction, ice cream sodas were very popular. But because soda was not to be sold on a Sunday, this led to soda fountain owners to get creative. The "ice cream sundae" was invented as a Sunday-appropriate alternative to the ice cream soda.
Some Christians even began to resist coffee and tea, insisting that ANY substance which alters the mind must surely be ungodly. But it has been noted by historians that the rise in coffee and tea consumption was of extreme importance to the success of the Industrial Revolution. Caffeine actually enhances alertness and so rather than sleepy people walking around factories in a mild stupor all day long, we had suddenly caffeine-buzzing employees diligently getting their jobs done. It's no wonder that to this day most companies from both the white collar and blue collar ends of the employment spectrum consider the building of a fully equipped coffee room to be mandatory, and will even include cases and cases of free coffee, sugar, creamer, and filters for their employees in their annual budgets.
The law called Prohibition, aka "The Noble Experiment," a hallmark of the 1920's, was the CWTU's crowning achievement. And also a total disaster. It did NOT cause people to stop drinking. It only gave rise to a super-refined, extremely efficient and newly lucrative form of organized crime in the cities. "Bathtub Gin" was their specialty, and "speak-easy's" were their outlets. Prohibition also prompted moonshine production out in the countryside (it was called moonshine because it was secretly distilled at night, under the moonlight).
I have given you this HUGE history lesson to explain that it was only after the destructive advent of distilled spirits in the 1700's that Christians began to shun ALL forms of alcohol. And for good reason, not out of silly snobbery. But, well-intended people and their well-intended movements can sometimes get out of hand.
Today, the social ills of alcohol are nowhere near what they once were, but admittedly still exist. But these lower instances of public and chronic drunkenness are NOT due to our becoming better people (we're not, we're still ugly, weak sinners). The only thing that reigned it all in was social awareness, social taboos, and the criminalization of public drunkenness, most especially when it comes to drunk driving (can you say"vehicular homicide" and "suspended driver's license"?).
As for your observation about Christians lightening up over alcohol, I agree. Some churches have adopted a monthly wine tasting fellowship as part of their yuppie and singles outreaches. But the potential for alcohol addiction is still very real. Some people can handle alcohol and some can't. Some people don't even like alcohol and some become addicts with the very first drop that touches their lips. So being mindful of not wanting to cause your brother to stumble is always wise.