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  • Keeping Sin from Sacred SpacesSouthern Evangelicals and the Socio-Legal Control of Alcohol, 1865–1915
  • Michael Lewis (bio)

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Since the nineteenth century, southerners have attempted to maintain a strict separation of items deemed sinful and spaces deemed pure. Lake baptism, 1935, from the Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress.

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On a recent trip to Pittsburgh, I was struck by the close proximity of churches and nightclubs, a good number within a few feet of each other and, in a few spectacular cases, bars operating out of barely reconstructed houses of worship. Having lived in the South for twenty years and having studied southern ways of was rather jarring. Historically, and still today, southerners have attempted to maintain a strict separation of items deemed sinful and spaces deemed pure. White southerners have also been unusually concerned with separating persons deemed sinful or tempting from "pure" spaces or persons, as the long sad history of laws designed to prohibit intimate cross-racial fraternization well illustrates. While many Americans might view an inebriated churchgoer as an ill person who has inappropriately entered a sacred place, southern evangelicals then and now would characterize the person as a victim of Satan's machinations.

While preventing sin in general is a time-honored preoccupation for many Americans, the nineteenth-century efforts to keep sin from pure spaces reflects a logic more distinctly reflective of southern evangelical sensibilities (primarily Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian variants) and, oddly enough, some of the leading contemporary theories of crime and deviance. Southern evangelical perceptions of the nature of sin reflected a concern with the "geography of temptation" and led to the creation of a whole host of social control measures aimed at limiting liquor's influence, in particular by attempting to remove drink as a source of temptation. The geographic concerns of southerners parallel and pre-date the emphases of "contagion" or "broken windows" theories of crime that argue that exposure to or proximity to norm-violators or to norm-violations (deviants and/or deviance) increases the likelihood of someone engaging in ordinarily prohibited behaviors. In essence, a leading criminological theory and the moral cosmology of southern evangelicals present a rather strange and unexpected convergence on the belief that exposure to deviance/deviants affects a person's moral choices. Both would agree that witnessing sinful or deviant acts firsthand reduces taboos against otherwise prohibited behaviors by jeopardizing any communally held sense of inherent wrongness.

Broken Windows of the Soul

"Broken windows" is a criminological theory rooted in empirical observations that communities with many broken windows (e.g., on houses or cars) often experience a greater level of crime, even when other factors (e.g., the make and model of a car) are held constant. Similarly, the Biblical Recorder's advice to "be careful of the company your children keep" receives support from research on adolescents' propensity to engage in risky or dangerous behaviors. If their closest [End Page 41] friends engage in such behaviors, adolescents are far more likely to try out those activities, although voiced parental disapproval does decrease the likelihood of adolescents engaging in such behaviors. While criminologists and southern evangelicals may disagree on which behaviors ought to be seen as destructive, both perspectives raise the key question: Why does exposure to destructive behavior lead to decreased inhibitions against that behavior? Only the evangelicals provide a definitive answer.1


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While preventing sin in general is a time-honored preoccupation for many Americans, such as the preacher and early-twentieth-century sensation Billy Sunday (here), nineteenth-century efforts to keep sin from pure spaces reflects a logic more distinctly reflective of southern evangelical sensibilities. Photograph from the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.

Similar to the invitation to crime occasioned by broken windows, evangelical southerners have long argued that opportunities and exposures to sin tempt all humans, not just the morally weak or insufficiently vigilant, leaving everyone vulnerable to falling under Satan's seductive spells. Concerned that open temptation—public alcohol consumption, for example—might ensnare otherwise good community members in vice, evangelical southerners sought social-control strategies...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 40-60
Launched on MUSE
2009-05-16
Open Access
No
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