Historian Jason Lantzer has defied the odds. He's authored a doctoral thesis that is readable, academically sound and pertinent to current events.
Lantzer tells the story of Edward Shumaker, the most politically influential church pastor in Indiana history. Shumaker was a crusader against alcohol abuse, peaking in influence from World War I to the mid-1920s.
His influence ended after Indiana Attorney General Arthur Gilliom put him in prison for the crime of criticizing the attorney general and members of the state's top court.
Shumaker's life is interesting in itself, with a mix of crusading, political infighting with Republicans and Democrats, and First Amendment issues. But Lantzer sets the story in a larger context of the Progressive Movement of the 20th century, and he brings it up to date in seeing links between the temperance movement of nearly a century ago and today's meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Lantzer also defies the conventional wisdom that Prohibition was a failure in his book, "Prohibition Is Here to Stay," coming soon from Notre Dame Press.
The temperance movement was successful in combating alcohol abuse that left women and children in desperate poverty when wage-earning men spent their pay on the bottle.
Through county option votes, citizens could curb alcohol abuse on a democratic basis. Voters in each county could decide whether to allow liquor sales. Men sobered up, and crime went down.
What failed was Prohibition, the political attempt to impose the temperance movement on the whole nation, including cities where there was no consensus to go dry.
Yet, Lantzer shows that Prohibition was not the work of fanatics. It was part of a larger progressive movement that also gave women the vote.
For his part, Shumaker took the Anti-Saloon League and made it a vehicle to crusade against alcohol abuse. He also became a major power broker who could swing an election to either party, with some similarities to modern religious right organizations that have swayed state and national politics in recent years.
Shumaker's influence attracted the resentment of elected political officials, including Gilliom, who had ambitions for higher office. Gilliom, upset because Shumaker contributed to his defeat in the 1929 U.S. Senate primary, prosecuted the pastor for contemptuous comments about public officials.
Sentenced to the Putnamville state farm prison, Shumaker found a ministry with men who had been imprisoned for breaking Prohibition laws. But he lost 39 pounds in prison and did not live long after his release in 1929.
Lantzer concludes his story with a description of a contemporary Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. "They knew the pitfalls of drink and addiction and the pain it caused to both the user and the user's family and friends, and they tried to stop it once and for all," he sums up. AA meetings, he adds, are part of that dry tradition. "Dry culture, still alive, is trying to save America one soul at a time."
(Russell B. Pulliam, journalist, book author, associate editor and columnist at The Indianapolis Star, is a syndicated columnist, whose columns focus on topics ranging from politics to social issues to family life. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)