Saturday, April 28, 2018

Why Dry Counties Do Not Work (And Have Never Worked)

Or, put another way, why there should at least be a vote on whether Buna should sell beer and other alcohol products

It can be one of the most interesting questions when settling in Texas.  Do you live in a dry county or a wet county?  Or is the county moist?  Do you live in a wet city in a dry county?  Does your city allow private club sales of alcoholic beverages?  Or does it allow the agricultural exemption for locally grown beer or wine products?

I had not planned to get into this issue, but after reading about statements made from people harassing those with the petitions, I thought I would weigh in.

The wet/dry issue is a holdover from prohibition and its repeal that has long outlived its purpose.  It does not actually accomplish the primary purposes that I believe most people would identify: 1) to reduce drunkenness and 2) to reduce DUIs.  Rather, it would seem to be only something that gives the appearance of propriety, if not the actual existence.

To me, this distinction should be done away with for a number of reasons:

1)  "Dry" counties are ineffectual
Anytime you have an activity that is prohibited in one area but not prohibited in another, the prohibition does not actually put an end to the activity in the desired area, but rather just shifts it over to the area of lesser restriction.  This is the same reason many location specific gun control measures are ineffective.

We all know this to be true.  It's why there are liquor stores literally at the county line in every direction.  Alcohol consumption in Buna (or previously in Wills Point) has not been decreased by the dry county label, the purchase has only been shifted to the neighboring counties.  There is a slight argument regarding service of alcoholic beverages at restaurants in town, but the reality of the situation is that there are very few locations in town that would serve alcohol on tap even if they were permitted to do so. 

You also find dry counties create additional related problems.  Dry counties have higher DWI fatality rates, stemming from individuals driving further under the influence (i.e. from the wet county where they can get their drink to their home in the dry county).  In Texas, a fatality statistic was nearly 3 times as high in dry counties versus wet counties.  Dry counties also appear to have higher rates of meth usage and other illegal drugs.

Opponents will often fear a rise in crime with the sale of alcohol, but that has not been observed.  Most often, the increase that people see from going wet is a tax revenue increase, not a rise in crime.

2) They are most often based on a potentially Constitutionally problematic basis
Dry counties are dry because the sale of alcoholic beverages is largely opposed on religious grounds, and to be specific, opposed on Protestant Christian religious grounds.  They are a hold over from a temperance movement born and bred in the Christian faith, led by preachers like Lyman Beecher and Christian leaders like Catherine Booth.  To put it mildly, it could be viewed as the imposition of a Christian doctrine on the general American population.  The individual county/municipality approach lessens broader Constitutional impact, but it does not lessen the concern of favoritism to a specific religion in those individual counties, especially given the broad swath of counties that are impacted across the south in particular (the Bible belt).

Let's frame the issue in a different manner.  Suppose the difference was between halal and non-halal counties instead of dry and wet counties.   So in Buna, you would only be able to buy, sell, and serve halal meats, to get non-halal products, you would need to travel across the county line.  In particular, if you want any pork product, like bacon, you would need to cross the county line.  How long do you imagine this distinction would last.  We could use kosher and non-kosher, but the problem is the same.

Yes, there are non-religious reasons for dry counties and some oppose the move to a wet county for non-religious reasons.  I understand that people oppose the change because of past/family history, because of the appearance of liquor stores, because of prohibitionism that has nothing to do with religion.  But if you look at the largest portion of opposition, it is on religious grounds.  To quote the overheard harassment of the petition workers yesterday, Buna is a "Baptist town." "Beer drinkers outta here."

We live in a society where it is not acceptable to push religious restrictions on those that do not practice the faith.  Or even among members who disagree with how the religion should be practiced.  And this is especially true when it is the majority belonging to one religion and the minority not practicing.  We are especially careful in those situations.  We should be treading lightly on these matters.  Here there should at least be a popular vote.

3) The religious grounds for opposition can be based on some interesting interpretations of the Bible
There is no specific prohibition against the consumption of alcohol in the Bible.  Rather, the Bible is ambivalent towards alcohol considering it both a blessing from God that can bring merriment (Genesis 14:18, Psalms 104:15, Proverbs 31:6-7, Ecclesiastes 10:19) and potential danger that can be unwisely and sinfully abused (Genesis 9:21, Proverbs 31:5, Isaiah 5:11, Isaiah 28:7).  Jesus' first miracle was to convert water into the good wine (John 2:10) and His last supper included wine as a symbol for His blood (Matthew 26:27-28).  Paul even includes an instruction to drink wine to Timothy for health issues (1 Timothy 5:23).  The issue then in the Bible is one of moderation.

There are two divergent arguments on this that come up from abstentionists or prohibitionists.  First, the argument is raised that wine or beer in the Bible was either not referring to a fermented drink (and therefore not one that could cause drunkenness) or was referring to one that was not near as strong.  Most scholarly interpretation precludes these views.  Wine is generally recognized to refer to a fermented drink.

"There is nothing known in the East of anything called 'wine' which is unfermented. ... The wine used by the Jews in Palestine - people most conservative in their religious customs - at Passover, is of the ordinary kind."  Hastings, James. "Wine." Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Volume 2. p. 824

"The wine of the Bible was a manufactured article.  It was not the juice of the grape as it exists in the fruit, but that juice submitted to such a process of fermentation as secured its preservation and gave it the qualities ascribed to it in Scripture."  Hodge, Charles.  "The Lord's Supper." Systematic Theology. pp. 3:616.

Further, historically, the Hebrews made their wine stronger, not weaker.

"It is remarkable that whereas the Greeks and Latins by mixed wine always understood wine diluted and lowered with water, the Hebrews on the contrary generally mean by it wine made stronger and more inebriating by the addition of higher and more powerful ingredients, such as honey, spices, defrutum, (or wine inspissated by boiling it down to two-thirds or one-half of the quantity,) myrrh, mandragora, opiates, and other strong drugs." Clarke, commentary on Isaiah 1:22.

Second, the argument comes to the passage in Romans regarding not being a stumbling block to the "weaker brother." (Romans 14:13).  And while that is a part of the passage in Romans, it is not provided in the whole context.  The entire chapter focuses on the availability and exercise of choice in liberties in the Christian faith.  The specific example provided is regarding the eating of previously unclean foods.  Paul calls us as Christians first not judge others for their exercise of liberty ("Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him." Romans 14:3), to second use caution in our exercise of liberty to not put our liberty above another brother's growth ("Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.  Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.  It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble." 14:20-21), and finally, to exercise our liberty with the conviction of faith ("But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith.  For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." 14:23).  Removing the second bullet from this context and making it the sole focus can rob the individual of the exercise of his liberty in an appropriate way in faith.

Again, lets change the example away from alcohol.  Suppose what another brother stumbles with is gluttony (a topic we really do not like to touch in the church).  A strict focus on the second bullet would have every believer unable to ever eat a doughnut for fear of causing another to stumble, as opposed to allowing the believer to eat a doughnut in the privacy of his home, but not flaunting it in front of those who may have it as an issue.  The issue, as always, in the scripture is with motivation - an issue of the heart.  Why that doughnut at that moment.  Why that drink at that moment.  This is capped by Paul's warning about proceeding in faith at the end.  If you are worrying about whether something is the right thing to do or not, it's safest not to.  Put another way, if you are not convinced enough in faith that you are proceeding in accordance with what God has allowed you to do, then your should not do it.


As you can imagine from above, I am for moderation.  That alcohol is rightly used in the Eucharist and can be for making the heart merry, but also has real dangers requiring it to be used wisely and in moderation.  To side with Martin Luther in that " we must not ... reject [or] condemn anything because it is abused."

I write this not to shame anyone for opposing the change of the county to a wet county, rather just to challenge the perceived status quo.  I do not want you to necessarily change your opinions on the issue, but I do want to you to think about why you hold them. Like all of my blogs, they are ultimately to hopefully lead to continued conversation, not to shut it down.  Ideally, the issue should be brought to the community for an up-down vote without intimidation or coercion.  And the will of the people should stand.

But harassing those that are raising the petition for change?  No way.

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