One hundred and three years ago, the United States adopted a ban upon the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” (18th Amendment). One year later, appropriate legislation implementing the ban (National Prohibition Act/Volstead Act) went into effect, thereby “drying” localities, which persists to the present in about 200 counties and an estimated 500 municipalities in eight states.
Prohibition was, by intent, a determination to enforce a moral credo upon the nation. In current political parlance, pundits might ascribe it to a culture war issue. However one views prohibition, moral contests for the soul of the nation began with colonization, in particular those who immigrated to this new world to practice their religions freely without interference by government.
Parliamentary laws and royal decrees too often expressed the theology of a majority or ruling family emanating from a relationship with a particular religion. Despite colonial sentiment and practices to the contrary, the US Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Sustaining that principle has proven to be slippery on many occasions.
Notwithstanding the First Amendment barrier, efforts to imbue religion, mostly Christianity, into founding values remains an objective for some. Non-moral or secular values receive little support as universal principles. Most recently, Justice Sonia Sotomayor cautioned her colleagues that the challenges to abortion rights are seeded in theology. A few weeks ago, two radical right-wing personalities – Michael Flynn and Marjorie Taylor Greene – advocated a single religion for the nation which did not include “Judeo.”
When Thomas Jefferson proposed his freedom of religion statute for Virginia, he explicitly offered that it “meant to comprehend within the mangle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammeden, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” John Adams was unequivocal: The government of the United State is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.
Yet, the political gospel according to many is that the United States is a Judeo-Christian country without a speck of evidence or recognition of the views of authors of the Constitution. Worse, that advocacy ignores the very threat and dangers to freedom the earliest settlers sought to escape by immigrating.
The Prohibition experiment ended in 1933 in the wake of organized criminal enterprises and the Great Recession. At the same time, it failed as a measure to enforce a moral or theological code for the country. The governance value is not one between morality and immorality but between personal freedom and personal choice.
Secular values are not immoral or amoral. For the most part, secular values derive from a communal sense of the dignity of humanity and desire to share the common weal. That standard should be good enough for everyone.