There's an old joke that Jews don't recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants don't recognize the pope as the leader of the Christian faith, and Baptists don't recognize each other at the liquor store.
I thought about that tidbit of religious humor this week as I came across news reports on a study related to Baptists, bootleggers and beer:
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist brews up this witty take on the controversy:
In Georgia, you can buy apples where they grow apples, and onions where they grow onions. You can buy rugs where they make rugs, and newspapers where they make newspapers.
Sometimes, you can even buy laws where they make laws. But under no circumstances can you buy beer where they make beer.
In the recently ended session of the Legislature, a new generation of craft beer brewers attempted to update one of the most restrictive alcohol sale laws in the nation. They were treated to a drubbing of humiliating proportions.
The best they could do was legislation that permits breweries to offer free beer to visitors who pay to tour the facilities.
The defeat was entirely predictable. In fact, not only did Stephan Gohmann see it coming, the University of Louisville professor of economics wrote a paper on the phenomenon, published days after our General Assembly exited.
Craft breweries in Georgia and the rest of the South, Gohmann posits, have run afoul of the “Baptists and bootleggers” relationship that has defined the politics of alcohol in the region since the days of Prohibition.
“Why Are There So Few Breweries in the South” appeared last week in the academic journal “Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice.”
Columnist Jim Galloway goes on to explain that Southerners have no aversion to beer:
Indeed, for many it is mother’s milk. So what gives?
History, said Gohmann. He has come up with a predictive formula that explains the desert of breweries in the South by measuring, among other things, the predominance of Southern Baptists in a region, and the level of campaign contributions from wholesale dealers in beer, wine and liquor.
That’s the Baptist-bootlegger connection.
The Atlantic boils down the phenomenon this way:
Around the nation, big beer producers contribute to the campaigns of politicians who will support policies that discourage competition from local upstarts—for example, taxes on breweries and laws that prevent breweries from selling their kegs directly to consumers (instead of through a distributor). But what's unique about the South is that there's a voting bloc—the Baptists—whose moral stance against alcohol happens to align with large producers' desires to keep new competitors from getting started in the business. The support of Baptists provides Southern politicians with a reason to hinder brewers that politicians in other regions don't have. As a result, the states with the most Baptists tend to have the fewest breweries.
Later in the piece, The Atlantic provides this additional insight:
In fact, there's even more of a religious pressure for temperance in the South than Gohmann has it. While Baptists take the strongest position against alcohol, Methodists have also publicly advocated for temperance. "Between the two of them, they account for a very large proportion of the population in the South," says Nancy Ammerman, a professor of sociology at Boston University.
(Ammerman notes that these stances are "ironic, since in the really long history of the region, both Baptist and Methodist preachers were often paid in whiskey." And in practice, plenty of modern-day Baptists and Methodists no longer hide their consumption of alcohol. "The old joke was that no two Baptists ever said hello to each other in the liquor store," she says.)
Even though the South doesn't have many breweries, it does have plenty of whiskey distilleries—Kentucky, Gohmann said, is the American capital of whiskey. What do Baptists, Methodists, and their votes have to say about that? "My results are less likely to apply right now because microdistilleries are not capturing that much of the market from the large producers," he says. Without bigger-scale whiskey makers pushing in the same direction, Baptists don't have as much sway over politicians.
It's all extremely fascinating — even for a Church of Christ teetotaler like myself.
But from a journalistic perspective, what's missing? Actual Baptist voices, that's what. None of the stories I read bothered to quote any Baptists.
I'd love to hear from pastors and people in the pews: Do Baptist views on drinking remain the same? Do most Baptists abstain? Do any Baptists join country singer Thomas Rhett in advocating a "Beer With Jesus?"
I can't help but think there's a nice trend story waiting to be told by an enterprising Godbeat pro in the South.