Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 5]

Not to avoid politics in the church, Clarence True Wilson continued his condemnation of any politician who showed the slightest tendency to support anti-Prohibition.  It got so bad that in 1926, a New York Congressman denounced Wilson on the floor of the US House of Representatives for telling a “lie” and a “deliberate, dastardly canard” for claiming rum interests had controlled Congress.  [“‘Drys’ Are Assailed in House Debate”, New York Times (25 March 1926), pg. 4].  The New York Times…imagine that…even editorialized against Wilson’s Board in 1926 for trying to “mass the millions of voters in the Methodist church and use them directly as a dominating power in American politics”, which should be condemned by “right thinking Americans”, hoping “public men” may “think, and vote as they believe, without fear of ecclesiastical punishment or tyranny.”  [Churches and Politics”, New York Times (18 October 1926), pg.20].  Undeterred, Wilson told the 1926 Baltimore Annual Conference “The church will take the aggressive against the traffic of liquor instead of remaining defensive.”  [“Urges Prison Term Be Given Those Who Buy Rum First Time”, Washington Post (16 April 1926), pg. 4].  If only the church had taken such a stand against abortion, I can only wonder how many millions of human babies could have been saved?

Wilson went on to claim that American prosperity in the 1920’s, as compared to Europe’s debt and economic tumult, owed to American Prohibition and European expenditures on liquor. He warned against any US forgiveness of Europe’s war debts so long as Europe expended billions of dollars on liquor.  The money was owed to American citizens and “shall not be spent on the boulevards of Paris or in the beer gardens of European provinces”, he insisted.  [“Oppose Debt Cuts as Europe Drinks”, New York Times (30 July 1926), pg. 19].

In 1926, the southern bishops warned their General Conference that “open defiance” of Prohibition was an “incitement to anarchy.”  They urged “speedy” prosecution of offenders, who should be “branded as criminals.”  [Journal of the Twentieth General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1926), pg. 322].  Bishop Cannon during the General Conference urged that the federal government “compel obedience to the law even by those who in high social life have publicly declared that they will have intoxicants ‘Constitution or no Constitution.'”  [Ibid., pg. 91].

At the northern General Conference in 1928, the bishops’ episcopal address lamented continued resistance to Prohibition, whose “immature” opponents were condemning the law rather than the law breakers.  They urged all “morality-loving men and women” to support the “great crusade”.  The General Conference pledged regarding Prohibition: “We will not be stampeded; we will not retract; we will not cease to speak by tongue and pen and vote; we will not turn back; we have enlisted for the duration of the conflict, which will end only in the complete extermination of the beverage alcohol habit and traffic.”  [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1928), pgs. 185-187].

Methodist temperance activists were alarmed by the 1928 nomination of anti-Prohibitionist New York Governor Al Smith as Democrat nominee for president.  His Catholicism and ties to New York City’s often corrupt Tammany Hall political machine compounded the worries.  Bishop James Cannon helped found the Conference of Anti-Smith Democrats.  [“Anti-Smith Sheets Deluge Virginia”, New York Times (19 September 1928), pg. 2].  Pro-Smith Democrats alleged that Cannon’s group collaborated with the Ku Klux Klan and the Republican Party, charges that were denied,  [“Bishop Cannon’s Anti-Smith Group is Linked to Klan”, Baltimore Sun (13 October 1926), pg. 2].  Other southern bishops were more wary than Cannon of direct political involvement.  Bishop Warren Candler asked a Georgia congressman to urge Smith away from trying to repeal the 18th Amendment and his futile deliverances that are damaging the good cause for which it stands.  Candler claimed that, even though he was a Democrat, he quietly avoided voting for or against Smith and did not vote for three other presidential candidates.  He did not favor dividing the Democrat Party or politicizing the church. He further complained: “It used to be ‘believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shall be saved’, but now ‘believe in Prohibition and surely thou shall be saved.'” [Mark K. Bauman, Warren Akin Candler: The Conservative as Idealist (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1981), pgs. 175-176].  He went on to explain why he would not “fight” either Al Smith or Herbert Hoover: “I cannot agree to thrust the church into party politics. This I conceive would be a calamity to both church and state and would serve no good cause well.”  [Alfred M. Pierce, Giant Against the Sky: The Life of Bishop Warren Akin Candler (New York – Nashville: Abinfdon-Copkesbury Press, 1948), pg. 217].

However, Cannon’s group was successful in persuading Virginia and other southern states to vote Republican in 1928 for the first time since Reconstruction, electing Herbert Hoover as President.  Cannon went on, though, to say that pro-Smith forces and not his group had injected religion into the presidential campaign.  He did say that regardless of the injection of religion, “A great victory was won for Prohibition…one of the most epochal, outstanding applications of Christ’s teaching of human brotherhood to the social life of a great nation.”  [“Bishop Cannon Gets Award as 100 Percent US Christian”, Baltimore Sun (9 February 1929), pg. 1].

President Hoover, however, did not always please his Methodist temperance supporters.  Bishop Cannon and a member of the northern Methodism’s Temperance Board was part of a “Lord’s Day Alliance” that visited Hoover at the White House in 1929 to urge that businesses close in Washington, DC, on the Sabbath.  Hoover declined to commit.  [“Blue Sabbath Fight Carried Up to Hoover”, Washington Post (11 July 1929), pg.1].  Bishop Cannon, Clarence Wilson and other Methodist temperance advocates were soon enmeshed in a battle to sustain Prohibition which was never enforced fully to their expectation.

The continuing story of the Methodists involvement in politics next week as they continue to try to influence politicians in their fight for Prohibition.

– Bob Munsey


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