The end of Prohibition

Few people noticed several weeks ago that the 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition had come and gone. For the grandparents of many Americans alive today, it was the biggest news since this country entered the first world war. Many Catholics collectively sighed in relief.

Since 1919, the U.S. Constitution had outlawed the manufacture, sale, or transport of “intoxicating liquors” in this country. For 15 years, Prohibition was as emotional an issue in the United States as civil rights was to be in the 1960s and as abortion-on-demand has been since 1973. And Catholics then were very exercised about it, as their grandchildren are today about the right to life.

This is the background. While some mainline Protestants, principally Episcopalians, long so powerful in forming the American culture, and Lutherans, increasingly present in America with the coming of so many German immigrants, had no objection to strong drink, Fundamentalist Protestants were uncompromisingly against it. Since colonial days, Fundamentalist Protestantism had significantly affected American popular opinion and public policy. All well and good, except very much also a part of Fundamentalist Protestantism, and indeed very often a part of mainline Protestantism as well, was a deep and dark anti-Catholicism.

At first, individual states, usually with large Fundamentalist Protestant populations, forbade liquor. By the time of the First World War, demands were rampant for a nationwide ban on alcoholic drink. Advocates for such a ban argued that it should be written into the federal Constitution. This was achieved in 1919 when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution took effect.

What is the Catholic angle in this history? It was much more than the inability of Catholic football fans to enjoy a beer as they listened on the radio to Notre Dame take on Army some November afternoon. Inside and out, Prohibition had a disturbingly harsh anti-Catholic overtone about it. American Catholics who just wanted to be Catholics saw it as a threat. At the same time, throughout much of the country, the Ku Klux Klan was becoming an increasingly bold political force, and it was stridently anti-Catholic.

Future President Harry S. Truman refused to join the Klan in Independence, Mo., for example, when he was told that membership meant he could never hire a Catholic or a Jew in his business. Many other Protestant Americans, however, had no reluctance in humiliating and restricting Catholics. State legislatures passed “convent inspection” laws empowering local sheriffs to invade convents “to rescue” entrapped nuns. Measures were proposed to deny nuns the right to wear religious habits in public. Efforts were afoot to shut down Catholic schools — by legislative act.

Always remember, the issue was broader than Prohibition. New York Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, a practicing Catholic, sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1924 and won it in 1928. He opposed Prohibition on the grounds that it was unenforceable, but also because it represented the assertion of a given denominational agenda over the entire population. Obliquely, he stood for the rights of Catholics to live in America as their consciences dictated.

After Prohibition, among Catholics, the philosophy of live and let live, in politics at least, did not die. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, whose father had been intimately involved in setting Catholic political strategy in the 1920s, took this thinking as his own. Many Catholic politicians follow the same philosophy today, especially regarding abortion and same-sex marriage.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.