Christian History Home > 2004 > The Prohibition of Gay Marriage
The Prohibition of Gay Marriage
We can learn from the defeat of American Christian activism's greatest legislative victory.
Though the U.S. Senate defeated the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) on Wednesday, this battle is far from over. Some traditional, pro-family groups remain sure that gay marriage is a watershed contest, and they retain powerful allies in the White House and Congress. On the other side, gay-rights supporters have shown a remarkable ability to advance their agenda rapidly. No matter the fate of this particular legislation, they will continue to agitate for society's blessing.
Thus far, however, the FMA debate has lacked historical perspective. Discussion about the likelihood of the amendment's passage, not to mention the implications of its success, has been largely missing while partisans spin the political consequences. But one period from American history illustrates both the promise of Christian politicking and peril of legislating morality—Prohibition.
Law's Unintended Consequences
America's founding fathers deliberately crafted the Constitution to make amending it difficult. Overwhelming public support is needed to meet the requirements of two-thirds votes in both houses of Congress and approval from three-fourths of the nation's state legislatures. It is no coincidence, then, that spectacular events are often needed to launch the amendment process. The first 10 amendments—our Bill of Rights—were ratified to ensure the Constitution's very existence. Indeed, not until the Civil War could the Constitution be amended to grant non-whites the right to live free, attain equal protection under the law, and vote.
So consider the widespread popularity of Prohibition. No dramatic event was needed to ban the manufacture or sale of any drink containing more than .05 percent alcohol. Sure, World War I helped incite Americans against German beer. But for the most part, Prohibition was the fruit of activist labor, which was often motivated by Christian faith.
During America's religious awakenings, Christian leaders frequently targeted drunkenness. Especially during the Second Great Awakening of the mid-19th century, the zeal for holiness and even human perfectibility precluded the use of alcohol. However, when religious fervency waned, so too the early Prohibition movements faded. The devastation and disillusionment of the Civil War stalled much of the momentum gained by the early Prohibitionist crusaders.
Frances Willard and her Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) helped lead the movement's resurgence. In 1874, the WCTU joined forces with the Prohibition Party, formed only five years earlier. Together they transformed marginal zeal into a popular movement that ultimately passed the 18th amendment to the Constitution.
Willard exemplifies the combination of Christian faith and reforming passion that characterized alcohol's opponents. Carrie Nation garnered the sensational headlines, shouting, "Smash! Smash! For Jesus' name, smash!" as she laid waste to saloons with her hatchet. But Willard led the movement, bridging Prohibition to that era's other major reform effort—women's suffrage. In fact, the two missions had much in common. Since the WCTU was the biggest and most active women's movement of the time, suffrage owed much of its activist experience to Prohibitionists within the ranks.
For Willard, Prohibition was the most pressing women's issue. At the time, drinking was a gendered activity. Saloons provided a refuge for men to escape the home and indulge in vice. The only women to be seen in most saloons offered their bodies for money. When the men returned home, often drunk, they were prone to beating and berating their wives.
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