Joe L. Coker, Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement
. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. x + 333pp. ISBN: 978-0-8131-2471-1. Reviewed by Barton E. Price, for the Journal of Southern Religion
In the nearly one hundred years between the birth of temperance as a powerful reform movement and its fulfillment in the 18th Amendment, evangelicals were instrumental in curtailing the traffic and consumption of alcohol. Historians have concentrated on temperance in northern states. Paul Johnson focused on the movement as a means of maintaining distinctions between social classes. Yet in the South, things looked rather different. Southern evangelicals were motivated by other factors, and hoped for the betterment of the South. So argues Joe Coker in his insightful, seminal work, Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause
According to Coker, southern white evangelicals promoted temperance and prohibition as a means of preserving the moral uprightness of southern culture. Moreover, evangelicals wanted to redefine the cult of honor in the New South. That redefinition revolved around racial and gender ideologies. Southern white evangelical men believed that alcohol was the root of racial violence, especially sexual violence by black men on white women. Prohibitionists elevated the gentility of white women while portraying black men as drunken beasts who preyed on chaste, defenseless southern belles.
Coker has arranged the book in two distinct parts. The first two chapters trace the history of the temperance movement in both the North and South. The narrative is one of conflict between the spiritual and political interests of evangelicals. The second section of the book is a collection of thematic chapters, incorporating issues related to the church, race, gender, and honor. Scholars interested in race and gender in the New South will find chapters four, five, and six particularly interesting. Others, especially those who focus on religion and politics in the post-Reconstruction era, will enjoy chapters two and three. There Coker describes the disintegration of the Democratic bloc over the prohibition platform, and chronicles the rise of the Populist Party and its appeal to prohibitionists. Chapter three is unique in its discussion of the internal debate among evangelicals on the proper relationship of church and state. Looking at the Presbyterian argument of the spirituality of the church, Coker describes how evangelicals were reluctant to engage in social issues like prohibition through political channels. The reader should pay close attention to the first two chapters, and keep in mind the changes taking place between 1880 and 1915. Coker wisely revisits these points in the narrative during his thematic chapters in order to track the development of the temperance movement and the shifts in ideologies in the four decades leading up to national prohibition.
Coker limits the scope of his study in three ways. The first is geographical: he concentrates on Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. The second is chronological: Coker presents evangelical activity from 1880 to 1915. Third, he narrows his study to several influential denominations: Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian. Despite these limitations, Coker's book has a litany of quotes and examples from denominational records, denominational newspapers, and sermons. Such an exhaustive body of evidence confirms the pervasive sentiment among evangelicals in the New South. The reader can conclude that similar ideologies existed in other areas of the South.
Yet Coker's book is about more than prohibition in the South. It is about evangelical ascendancy in the post-Civil War era. Prohibition serves as the medium by which Coker tells this story. For example, Coker notes that "prohibition offers a window into the process of the declining white attitude toward and rhetoric about blacks between 1880 and 1915, with a particular focus on the declining racial attitudes of white evangelical Christians" (171-72). The religion of the Lost Cause provided a means for evangelicals to exert their cultural authority. The Lost Cause operates as a subtext to Coker's argument. However, he is not interested in identifying the doctrines of the South's civil religion, as Charles Reagan Wilson has done so successfully. Instead, Coker inherits the academic tradition of studying the Lost Cause, but uses it as the prism for interpreting prohibitionist zeal. The author begins by explaining that evangelicals were outsiders to the southern cult of honor in the antebellum years, but through the religion of the Lost Cause they redefined honor with prohibition (183-93). As evangelicals increasingly became the caretakers of southern culture, they laid claim to cultural and political authority. This story seems to be the one that Coker is really telling. The conservative evangelical activity in politics that we so commonly associate with the Religious Right today has its roots in evangelical prohibitionism of the New South period.
Scholars of various disciplines will appreciate this important book. As historians continue to explore the intersections of evangelicalism, civil religion, and politics in the South, they gain greater insight. Joe Coker has aptly written a history that combines these elements in a lucid and cogent manner.
|Barton E. Price
| Doctoral Student
|Florida State University