- The Day George Bush Stopped Drinking: Why Abstinence Matters to the Religious Right
On the day that George W. Bush completely stopped drinking alcohol (back in 1986, on his fortieth birthday, in case you are wondering) he embraced an idea that has held strong sway in America for almost two hundred years: total abstinence. No moderation, no middle ground. Jessica Warner traces the origins, development, and manifestations of this 'all or nothing' idea in this lively and compelling book.
What makes Warner's work unique is that she traces not a movement (temperance, abolition, twelve-step programs, vegetarianism, True Love Waits, etc.), but rather the uniquely American idea that undergirded all these movements and many more. The idea of abstinence - that one should refuse to participate at all in a particular activity - is one that Warner notes has been persistently ignored by intellectual historians. One reason abstinence has garnered so little respect or recognition is because it has been generally seen as the reactionary mindset of conservatives who want to impose their own morality on society by taking away the leisure-time activities of others. But Warner highlights the fact that this idea has spawned - and continues to spawn - diverse movements that cover the religious and theological spectrum and has been embraced by figures as diverse as Susan B. Anthony, Malcolm X, Lorenzo Dow, and Ellen White. The religious right, she points out, 'does not have a monopoly on abstinence.'
Warner first explores the logic underlying abstinence, which demands that people forgo the option of moderation and instead go straight to total rejection of a particular activity. Abstainers are driven both by the conviction that partaking of a vice - even in moderation - places them on a dangerous slippery slope and by the hope that by going without one pleasure they create a void that will be filled with a higher and better pleasure (whether in this world or the next). Warner contends that while the logic of such thinking may be questionable, its lasting impact on American culture should not be ignored or underestimated. Before examining the most obvious manifestation of the abstinence principle in American history - the temperance/prohibition movement - Warner explores the theological roots of abstinence, locating them primarily in the idea of Christian perfectionism introduced to America by John Wesley and later expanded upon by folks like Lorenzo Dow, Charles Finney, and [End Page 374] Asa Mahan during the Second Great Awakening. America provided a uniquely rich breeding ground for the idea of abstinence, as it tied in to the Jacksonian populism that elevated disdain of elites and of higher learning to a virtue. Distrustful of clerical elites and theological education, American evangelicals increasingly focused on the personal relationship between the individual believer and God. In order to perfect this relationship, one has to 'always be on one's best behaviour' and constantly display great virtue. Abstinence appeared to be the most surefire way of achieving this lofty goal.
The Day George Bush Stopped Drinking is a must-read for anyone studying the multitude of reform movements that incorporated the principle of abstinence, or for anyone interested in understanding the uniqueness of American evangelicalism both past and present. In her study of evangelicalism, Warner moves beyond traditional definitions of the movement and identifies something else that helps set American evangelicalism apart from traditional Protestantism: an ethos built upon Wesleyan perfectionism that both embraces the logic of total abstinence from all sin and that holds everyone to the same high moral standard. Her chapter comparing British and American temperance efforts makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of why the concept of abstinence found widespread acceptance in America yet floundered on the other side of the Atlantic. Warner highlights the presence in England (and absence in America) of a legitimate challenge and alternative to the principle of abstinence. In Jacksonian America, even those who didn't abstain themselves nevertheless balked at the kind of erudite condescension heaped upon abstainers by the 'chattering classes' in England.
If any criticism of Warner's...