Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 4]

The northern Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals told its 1920 General Conference, meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, that national prohibition was the “greatest victory ever won by the temperance forces”.  The Board hoped the Eighteenth Amendment would shape a “sober people” for a growing, progressive, and Christian nation”.  The Board boasted of itself as a “militant Christian power in the war against alcohol” and promised unceasing labor until liquor was “banished from the face of the earth.”  [Journal of the Twenty-Eighth Delegated General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (May 1 – May 27, 1920), pgs. 662-666].

The Board told the General Conference of its work against racetrack gambling; protecting the Sabbath from “commercialization, or by the profanation of shows and sports”; inveighed against cigarettes and addictive drugs; opposed the “beastliness” of prizefighting; and urged congressional oversight of the “moral character” of motion pictures, which have “possibilities for good” but were frequently “vulgar”.  The Board warned against prostitution and venereal disease and reminded the church of its duty to teach the “necessity of a chaste life, the sanctity of marriage, the evil of unscriptural divorce, and the single standard of morality for both sexes.”  [Ibid., pgs. 671-673]. The Board often worried about parochial schools and their supposed threat to Protestant-dominated public schools.  [The Voice, Clarence True Wilson Papers, United Methodist Archives Center, Drew University (1921), pg. 1].  Nothing political in these efforts!!!

The northern bishops in their episcopal address to the 1920 General Conference, declared “we shall rejoice with great joy” over Prohibition’s ratification.  They boasted that “no branch” of Christianity had been more “determined, more relentless than our own” in pushing Prohibition.  They implored Methodists to “destroy the liquor business on the round earth.”  [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1920), pgs. 163-166].

The church’s involvement in politics did not stop at prohibition.  They turned now to the tobacco industry.  In 1920 the Board of Temperance decried the increase of smoking by women, citing especially the impact upon pregnant and nursing women, as well as their children.  The Board said that tobacco was even more dangerous for women than men.  It implored women to “refrain” for “the country’s welfare, no matter what strict justice may declare their right and privilege to be.”  [“See Nation Menaced by Smoking Women”, New York Times (6 February 1920), pg. 13].  When the Board of Temperance bought a lot to build its headquarters across from the US Capitol…I guess they did that with no intent of becoming involved with politics…a cigarette advertising billboard was ‘grandfathered’ into the contract.  Critics blasted the Board for hypocrisy, but Clarence Wilson promised the advertisement would come down as soon as legally permissible.  [“Cigarette Post on Methodist Sign”, Washington Post (22 February 1920), pg.25].

The next target for the non-political Methodists was the 1920 Temperance Board demand that the US State Department prevent US tourists from traveling to Tijuana, Mexico, for immoral purposes.  They called the border town a “city of vice, booze and gambling, run by Americans and supported by Americans”.  I guess the Methodists didn’t worry about offending.  US Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby rebuffed the Methodists, replying that his department”does not wish to constitute itself a censor of morals.”  [“Not Mexican Moral Censor”, Washington Post (7 September 1920), pg. 6].

Southern Methodism was somewhat slower than the northern church to endorse Prohibition specifically.  But at their 1922 General Conference, the southern bishops rejoiced over Prohibition’s national ratification and believed it would endure in the US Constitution “through all time.”  They anticipated a “purification of politics” despite Prohibition’s “many violations”.  They thanked pro-Prohibition congressman.  [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1922), pgs. 357-358].  The southern General Conference authorized its Commission on Temperance and Social Service to open a small Washington, DC, office.  [Journal of the Twentieth General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1926), 383].

With more money from the southern church, the northern Board of Temperance in 1922 began constructing the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, across the street from the US Capitol and the eventual US Supreme Court building.  It would be a handsome five-story building of Italian Renaissance style with a limestone veneer, housing the temperance agency and serving as the “center of Methodist interests” in the nation’s capital. [“Work Started on New Methodist Home Here”, Washington Post (18 November 1922), pg.10].  Quite a project for a church that believes politics does not belong in the church! I can’t help but wonder if apportionments taken from each church helped pay for this ‘palace’? Bishop William Fraser McDowell, president of the Board of Temperance, pronounced that “God himself kept those lots vacant…” [“Political Notes: A Bishop’s House”, TIME (19 August 1929)].  Methodist temperance activists were deeply political in their defense of Prohibition.  They even got involved in the reelection efforts of congressmen who championed Prohibition.  [The Voice, Clarence True Wilson Papers, United Methodist Archives Center, Drew University (March 1921), pg. 3].

Not to let the Methodist crusade for morality end with Prohibition, Clarence True Wilson turned his sights on the people of a nation…or at least of a future nation.  In his remarks to the 1924 northern General Conference, he blamed the “filth” of motion pictures and the theater on Jewish “degenerates”, “all of one race but of no religion, who have corrupted everything their filthy hands have touched for 2000 years.”  He went on “No nation that has let them control its finances has not had to vomit them up, sometimes with bitter persecutions, to get the poison out of their system”.  He faulted German Jews for their “controlling interest in our liquor traffic.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1924), pg.1499].  With this he could have been a speech writer for Hitler…and he was on the Methodist payroll.  His southern Prohibitionist counterpart, Bishop Cannon, saw things just a bit differently.  He would later work with the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe from Nazism.  [“Russia’s Aid Sought for Jews in Hungary”, New York Times (17 May 1944)].  Today he would probably be under investigation for collusion with the Russians.  Bishop Cannon denounced US denial of a Jewish refugee ship as “Our Nation’s Shame.”  [Hohner, Prohibition and Politics, pg.293].  Most on board returned to Europe and Hitler’s death camps.

The northern bishops, in their episcopal address to the 1924 General Conference affirmed Prohibition as a “great success”.  They believed that the Prohibition amendment had no more chance of repeal than the resumption of human slavery.  The bishops intoned there was “no worse Bolshevism” than to defy the Constitution.  “The criminal rum runner must be given no quarter”, they demanded.  They anticipated a day when global Methodism could celebrate the “overthrow in their land and in all lands of that selfish, merciless, brutal diabolism…the legalized traffic in rum”.  [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1924), pgs. 184-186].  Thus out came the fast trucks and cars…and machine guns.  Bishop Cannon, speaking to his northern brethren, assured them that his loyalty was to Prohibition and not to his own Democratic Party.  If Democrats faltered  on Prohibition and Republicans supported it, he promised that the Democratic solid South would be solid “against liquor lawlessness”.  [Hohner, Prohibition and Politics, pg.207].

Speaking to the 1925 New Jersey Annual Conference, Clarence Wilson blasted away at New Jersey’s anti-Prohibition US senators as “traitors to the nation and betrayers of the people who trusted them”.  [Fame of Volstead Linked to Lincoln’s”, New York Times (7 March 1925), pg.6].  Critics of Clarence Wilson and his Board of Temperance often fired back.  One US Senator from Maryland assailed the Board in a speech on the Senate floor: “If there is any Vatican prejudicing the freedom of our political life it is not the ancient Vatican at Rome, but the browbeating ‘Vatican’ which the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals of the Methodist Episcopal Church has erected just across from the United States Senate Office Building randomly a few paces away from the front steps of our National Capitol…if there are any Peter’s pence collected in the United States for political purposes it is not those that are collected for the support of the Papal See, but those that are collected by the Anti-Saloon League for the promotion of its political aims”.  [“Methodist Board Assailed by Bruce”, New York Times (8 December 1926), pg. 19].

The Church’s ever evolving involvement did not stop with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment but went on to fighting for enforcement and resisting efforts for appeal.  The Church’s involvement in politics was in no way superficial and was being paid for by apportionments collected from each Methodist church.  More to follow.

– Bob Munsey

Why is it greed to want to keep what I earn and yet not greed to take money from someone else?

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