The virtues of drink
Religion & Liberty Online

The virtues of drink

Some caricatures of Puritans depict them as strict, severe, and stolid. H.L. Mencken’s famous definition of a Puritan is an example of this: “A Puritan is someone who is desperately afraid that, somewhere, someone might be having a good time.”

This stereotype carries over into various areas of life that are often considered “fun,” including the drinking of alcoholic beverages. Indeed, Christians have historically been at the forefront of efforts at prohibition of various drugs, most notably perhaps in the case of The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The United Methodist Church notably opposes alcohol use, stating, “We affirm our long-standing conviction and recommendation that abstinence from alcoholic beverages is a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love.” Baptists are so famous for their traditional teetotalling that “the Baptist minister” has become a figure appearing in jokes and humorous stories.


The position in favor of complete abstinence from alcohol is far from ubiquitous in Christian circles, however. This issue, as most others, receives a variety of responses from faithful Christians. Martin Luther’s love for beer has been variously exploited slanderously by opponents and celebrated by his followers. My own denomination takes a middle-ground position on the issue, “Though abstinence from alcohol is a morally creditable choice, those who, in their freedom in Christ, choose to use alcohol moderately are not to be condemned.”

Christians of course agree on the impropriety of drunkenness, following the biblical injunctions, but seem to split over whether there is any legitimate popular use of alcohol in moderation. Certainly some of the Christian opposition to alcohol stems from the linkage of drunkenness with pagan practices. In this sense, alcohol use is understood as characteristic of sinful behavior.

An interesting editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal argues that there are empirical data that suggest otherwise, at least in our contemporary situation. Arthur C. Brooks, an associate professor of public administration at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, in “Drink More, Earn More (& Give More),” writes,

moderate drinkers tend to be more charitable than nondrinkers. For example, 54% of nondrinkers contribute to charity each year, giving away an average of $1,100. In contrast, 62% of those who take one to two drinks per day have an average annual giving level of $1,200. The alcohol effect has diminishing returns, however: Just 40% of people drinking five or more drinks per day are donors, and they give only $230 per year on average. (So once you get past two or three, you have to stop claiming you’re “doing it for a good cause.”)

He sums up the matter this way, “Compare two people who are the same in terms of income, education and even religion, but where one drinks moderately and the other doesn’t: The drinker will give between $50 and $100 more to charity each year.”

The interesting counter-example to Brooks’ analysis is the case of religious giving. He states, “The only exception to the pattern of ‘charity drinking’ is the case of giving to religious organizations, which sees a negative impact from alcohol use. For all other types of donations — to the poor, hospitals, schools, the arts, international aid, etc. — drinking pushes giving up.”

The invalidity of distinguishing “religious organizations” from those that help the poor, run hospitals and schools, and engage in international aid work is apparent. But what Brooks probably means is that giving to churches and other houses of worship declines in such cases. If this is true, it is no doubt related to the aforementioned Christian ambivalence on the issue of alcohol use.

And speaking of the influence of alcohol on various social activities and mores, this week’s The Splendid Table features an interview with Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in Six Glasses.

Standage finds that tracking the most popular drinks throughout history provides an alternate perspective that matches up fairly well with other important political and intellectual developments. We are currently in the late age of cola, which followed the ages of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, and tea. Standage says you can “see history through the bottom of a glass.”

Brooks ends his WSJ commentary with some good advice: “As summer broils you, pour yourself a cool drink and raise your glass to your favorite charity. But stop at two and don’t forget to write the check.”


Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.