A Hundred Miles of Dry: Religion and the Persistence of Prohibition in the U.S. States

This is a review of A Hundred Miles of Dry: Religion and the Persistence of Prohibition in the U.S. States (2010) by John Frendreis and Raymond Tatalovich. State Politics and Policy Quarterly 10 (fall): 302-319. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Lips that touch liquor shall not touch ours. Word.

America’s experiment with Prohibition was a failure. After 13 years of corruption, speakeasies, and an empowered mafia, the United States repealed Prohibition in 1933. With the federal ban on alcohol removed, authority over alcohol shifted to the states. Not a single state chose to continue to experiment. However, many counties did.

Today, there remain 262 “dry” counties that ban hard liquor. (We’ll ignore beer.) Another 374 “moist” counties ban liquor in all but a few designated towns.

Unsurprisingly, the same forces that motivated Progressives and temperance activists a century ago still motivate these county-level efforts at Prohibition. In their recent article in SPPQ, Frendreis and Tatalovich look at the historical literature and find that the original Prohibition movement was likely supported by Evangelical Christians over the objections of Catholics, with Mainline Protestants waffling in the middle. Other groups that supported nationwide Prohibition probably included the size of the Black Protestant population (blacks tend to be liberal on economic issues but conservative on moral ones), rural voters, middle-class voters, and so on.

So, what happens if we use those same variables to try to predict modern patterns of county-level Prohibition? County-level Prohibition happens where there are lots of Evangelical Protestants. It does not happen where there are lots of Catholics. That’s the main conclusion. And there’s some weak evidence that county-level prohibition happens where there are more black protestants.

Comments and criticisms

An interesting article overall. One thing they did well was pay attention to the different types of religions groups in America: Evangelical protestants, mainline protestants, Catholics, black protestants, and so on. The same issue in SPPQ included another article about the Christian Right that lacked this level of nuance.

Some measurement issues weaken the article. Most problematic, the authors were unable to measure the number of black protestants in each county, so instead they measured the number of blacks. While I applaud them for considering the role of black protestants as moral conservatives (remember Prop 8 in California?), this measurement scheme is unfortunate.

Likewise, the authors have a curious way of measuring class conflict. They argue that middle-class Americans sought to impose Prohibition on the lavish upper-class and the slavish lower-class. They operationalize this theory by measuring each county’s average per capita income. I fail to see the connection between the theory and the measurement here. Seems that something like a Gini coefficient would make more sense.

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