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Sober-ish: Why New Generations Are Drinking Less

Sober-ish: Why New Generations Are Drinking Less

When Amber (not her real name) was a kid, there was no alcohol in her home. Her father, a megachurch pastor, was proud of having never had so much as a sip, and wanted the same for her and her siblings. Unbeknownst to him, that didn’t pan out. Though she attended a conservative Christian college where drinking was prohibited, her friends started sneaking beers into dorms and, eventually, stealthily partying off campus. 

“It wasn’t very crazy by your average college student standards,” she says. “But as conservative Christian kids, we felt like complete degenerates.” 

She continued to drink in the years following her graduation. Although she says she has drank to excess “plenty” of times, she was never particularly troubled by her relationship with alcohol. She was like most people she knew. A few glasses of wine here and there after work, maybe a little more on the weekends with friends or Netflix. It didn’t feel at odds with her faith and it wasn’t like she was getting drunk. 

But at some point in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, something clicked. 

“I was taking out the glass recycling and I was almost embarrassed,” she says. “Like, we drank all this?” 

She decided to make some changes. 

She’s not alone. 

Younger generations of Christians who came of age at the Moral Majority’s peak largely rejected the abstinence of their parents, with many Christians incorporating beer, wine and cocktails into their lifestyle without feeling any sort of compromise with their faith. Statistically, that isn’t likely to change any time soon. But what might change is the terms of that relationship, with younger Christians joining a broader movement that seeks to be more mindful of their alcohol consumption. They’re not going cold turkey, but they’re drinking less than they used to. And in doing so, they might be getting a little closer to understanding real biblical teaching around alcohol. 

The Prohibition Party

American Christianity’s relationship with alcohol has always been complicated. In Colonial America, alcohol was a regular part of most people’s diet, since clean water was hard to come by and milk was valuable. But by the 1820s, a broader temperance movement had begun to take hold, with Protestant Ministers urging more moderation in the consumption of hard spirits. The Second Great Awakening had sparked belief in a utopian society, and many Christians considered the eradication of drunkenness a key part of the vision. Groups like Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists took the idea even further, explicitly tying spiritual obedience to physical health, and that included temperance, if not total abstinence. 

During the period leading up to the Civil War, the temperance movement started to overlap with other social causes like the abolition of slavery and women’s sufferage. Advocates started pushing for not only moral reform, but legal action prohibiting the sale of alcohol as well. The movement towards Prohibition had begun and would culminate in 1920, when Congress passed the 18th Amendment, banning the sale of alcohol. 

It’s easy now to look back on Prohibition as the actions of uptight Puritans who simply didn’t want anyone to have any fun but, at the time, “drinking” was very different than we think of it today. Scholars estimate that by the 1890s, Americans were drinking  three times as much alcohol as they were during the 2010s. Alcoholism had become a real epidemic, and was closely tied to domestic violence. Women who were married to alcoholics had little legal recourse and, even if they did manage to secure a divorce for reasons of abuse, they rarely retained custody of their children. Because of this, the push for Prohibition was almost entirely led by women, many of whom felt like they were fighting for their lives. No less an icon than Susan B. Anthony took up the cause. 

Prohibition would be repealed in 1933 with the passing of the 21st Amendment. While employers and educators were able to point to some positive outcomes, those were overshadowed by the economic toll Prohibition took during the Great Depression, costing thousands of jobs and giving rise to illegal bootlegging. 

Alcohol would return to the U.S. But Prohibition’s impact continues to shape the way Americans — and Christians in America in particular — think about drinking today. Many members of the Moral Majority picked up where the Prohibition left off, frowning on drinking. Billy Graham urged Christians to avoid alcohol altogether. So did Jerry Falwell Sr. — publicly, at least. However, the future generations of Christians have come to think of alcohol differently. 

The March Towards Mindfulness

A Pew Study found that 51 percent of American Protestants and 60 percent of American Catholics drink alcohol. White Mainline Protestants (66 percent) are more likely than White Evangelicals (45 percent) and Black Protestants (48 percent) to drink but, for the most part, Christians who abstain do so by choice, not because they think drinking is a sin. Only about 16 percent of Protestant Christians see drinking in moderation as morally wrong.

But drinking in excess is another matter. Binge drinking is rare for most American Christians. The Pew study defined binge drinking as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in a single sitting. Only 15 percent of Protestants and 17 percent of Catholics binge drink. 

That study was published in 2015 — a long time ago in pandemic  years. In February of 2021, the American Psychological Association found that one in four adults reported drinking more to cope with stress during the pandemic. Researchers are only beginning to understand how COVID might have transformed the way Americans drink, but it’s clear something is afoot. 

In September of 2021, Numerator analyzed data from Insights and TruView and found that both Millennials and members of Gen Z who are over 21 are less likely to purchase alcohol than older generations. About four in 10 of both groups are “mindful” of how much they drink, while three in 10 are “actively limiting their intake.” And the trend appears to be towards more moderation. Berenberg found that Gen Z is drinking around 20 percent less per capita than Millennials were drinking at their age. 

Researchers are just starting to understand why this might be. Some of it can be attributed to the rise of “mindfulness” — a greater focus on self care has led to less interest in getting wasted. There’s also the simple fact that Gen Z lives in a less stable economy, and alcohol costs more for them than it did for older generations at their age. Both Gen Z and Millennials lag far behind older generations did at their age in terms of disposable wealth, and drinking gets expensive. This hasn’t led to a mass rejection of drinking. But it has made drinking more of an indulgence: an occasional treat instead of a normal part of socializing and unwinding. 

In other words, yes, younger generations drink. But they are drinking mindfully. 

Generation One and Done

Mindful drinking can look like a lot of different things. 

For many younger generations, it means the return of a phrase some of their parents used: “social drinking.” Members of Gen Z are more likely to drink as a way to socialize with friends than to relax or unwind at home. Social drinkers may not keep alcohol in the house, preferring to only buy a drink when out at a bar or a restaurant. 

Others are choosing different ways to unwind at home. States that legalized marijuana saw a 12 percent decrease in alcohol sales compared to states where weed remains illegal. It may be that some would simply rather get high than get buzzed. 

And still more haven’t drawn up any strict lines around when they do and don’t drink — they just know they’re paying attention to when and why they drink. 

Jesus’ very first public miracle involved turning water into wine at a wedding. You probably know the broad strokes, but the details are interesting. When Jesus’ mother Mary hears that the wedding party is out of wine, she asks her son to get involved, and he does, albeit reluctantly. “My hour has not yet come,” he tells her in John 2. 

But he relents, and asks the servants to pour water into large, ceremonial jars. When they pour the water back out, it’s been transformed, to the shock of the host. “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink,” he marvels. “But you have saved the best till now.”

This reveals a few things about the party. First, the host had a refined palette. If you’ve ever been around a wine snob friend, you know the type. Sure, it can be a little bourgeois, but it also reveals a certain level of sophistication. This host wasn’t just crushing wine out of the box. He wasn’t partying. He was savoring it. 

And, maybe more importantly, so was Jesus. We’ll never know the mechanics of this miracle, but it’s clear that, for the Son of God, any old wine simply wouldn’t do — even if the evening’s plan called for the wine to be a little downgraded for some of the sloppier guests. Jesus cared about what the guests were going to drink. He didn’t want people to go without wine — not while there was still a party to be had — but he wanted it to be special too. He wanted people to enjoy their drinks. 

We can’t create new, better wine at a party. But maybe there is something to  learn from the kind of wine Jesus served. It was something that could only be appreciated by people who were paying attention to what they were drinking — people who hadn’t drank so much that they wouldn’t miss the quality. 

It’s a testament to mindfulness. 

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