“The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution”

by Walter Olson on July 17, 2014

George Leef reviews a new book by John Compton, political scientist at Chapman University, on how evangelical anti-vice campaigns against gambling, liquor and other social ills helped undermine the Constitution’s curbs on centralized power, paving the way for later Progressive gains.

The tension between moral reformers who insisted on a virtually unlimited view of the “police powers” of government (i.e., to regulate in ways intended to protect the health and morals of the citizenry) and the Constitution’s framers, who feared the results of allowing factions to use government power for their ends, was crucial in shaping constitutional law during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The book shows that by the time the New Deal’s aggressive expansions of federal power came before the Supreme Court, its earlier decisions in favor of approving legislation against liquor and lotteries had so undermined the defenses of property rights, contract, and federalism that it was nearly inevitable that the Court would cave in.

For example, when the Court decided the 1934 case of Blaisdell v. Savings and Loan, gutting the former understanding of the impairment of contracts clause, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes cited an earlier decision on interstate shipment of lottery tickets which had acquiesced in a new extension of the police power, on the grounds that a previously sacrosanct constitutional barrier could be “qualified” when a state needed to “safeguard the interests of its people.” [Forbes]

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Veritas 07.17.14 at 11:40 pm

Sorry but the Carrie Nations were far more progressive than religious. Its hard to see how you could confuse them as being primarily religious.

2 Walter Olson 07.18.14 at 12:19 am

Most standard histories agree with this PBS account that the temperance movement, which evolved into the Prohibition movement, was “rooted in America’s Protestant churches”: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/roots-of-prohibition/

While Methodists and Baptists led the charge, the mainline-Protestant umbrella Federal Council of Churches, later National Council of Churches, also backed Prohibition:

https://prohibition.osu.edu/american-prohibition-1920/federal-council-churches

The most durable Prohibitionist organization was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. And so on, and so on.

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