By John Mark Reynolds
College presidents are not always wrong. Here is one they get right: Americans should rethink our polices toward alcohol and young adults.
Eighteen year old adults should have the legal choice to drink in this culture.
College faculty and administrators know that thousands of college students abuse alcohol, but that thousands more do not. They understand that making an act criminal and restricting the liberty of citizens to act as they wish, even to act badly, requires very powerful reasons. Traditional Christians should agree with this legal modesty based on centuries of experimentation with different levels of restrictions on bad or unwise behavior.
Why Small Government?
Small government is best. Fallen men cannot survive with no government. Anarchy is bad, but totalitarianism is worse. Even a hug from big government can hurt and absolute power can corrupt the best of men.
Most traditional Christians believe, even if they sometimes forget, that God has given each human being liberty. God let Adam disobey him. If a God who could have stopped men from making bad choices does not always do so, then it must be better so! In this age, God has often given men the freedom to defy Him openly. Of course in the end, every deed will be judged and justice done, but not yet. Christians should not rush to give the state powers that God is not using Himself at this time.
It is obviously dangerous when one group of fallen men forces another group of fallen men to do what the first group believes to be right. Using force to make a man conform threatens precious God given liberty.
Of course, liberty is precious, but not priceless. It is not the only good, though it is very good. Sometimes in the complicated and messed up world we live in this side of Paradise, some other good, like the survival of the community, forces a Christian to agree that men must be made to act as they should by force of law.
This decision is, however, a grave one.
Alcohol Not Worth Bigger Government
The social gains from banning all adults of a certain age from drinking are not worth the cost to liberty. Alcohol use is not a sin for most Christians. For most Christians moderate drinking is a harmless pleasure. Of course, like many pleasures it tempts some to overindulge and alcoholism is very serious. The abuse of alcohol is bad and many adults are prone to this fault.
It might be unwise for many adults to drink, but surely few should wish the state to begin banning all unwise actions. Most of us who have our share (or more!) of folly would scarcely be able to move under such a regime!
This true even for the minority of traditional Christians that think the consumption of alcohol is immoral. Even if true, this would only prove that drinking is the sort of act that it might be good to ban it not that it should be. Long experience shows that laws often do as much harm as good. Sadly, Evangelicals supported an experiment in constitutional alcohol prohibition in the last century. It was a notable failure.
Law and Morality
Nothing moral should be illegal, but not everything that is immoral should be criminal.
Every time the state removes a choice from citizens, it risks making children of them. A republic depends on people who can make moral decisions for themselves. If we cannot, the state will not long survive no matter what laws are made. The power given to the state in order to enforce laws is also dangerous. The more laws, the greater the police power of the state. Any good done must be weighed against this grave potential threat to liberty.
Conservative Christians, who have been martyred in the millions by abusive state power in the last century, have no reason to trust expansive state power. In very grave situations, such as abortion which takes an innocent human life, we support increasing legal restrictions on bad choices, but it does not follow that we should support every such restriction.
Alcohol Abuse Is Bad, But the Alcohol Law Is Not Wise
I am not naive about the harm alcohol abuse can cause on a college campus. For some people the temptation to abuse liquor is overwhelming. Once addicted, the alcoholic is in trouble and nobody who works with students takes that lightly. It always makes me sick to see the stupid decisions made under the influence and the years wasted by those who cannot control their drinking. For many, a life of abstinence from all alcohol is the best choice.
At eighteen, an American is an adult and the law is not the best way to prevent unwise drinking by adults. Too often it turns a pastoral problem into a legal one. There is little evidence that it does much to prevent the binge drinking all too common amongst young adults. There is some evidence that by forcing this choice underground, it creates a culture that encourages abuse.
It is illegal for all Americans to drink and drive and this will continue. It is illegal to serve drinks to minors and this should and will continue. Mothers should continue to be against drunk driving and minors drinking, but eighteen year old Americans are adults. If we have decided eighteen year old Americans are adults, then we should give them adult liberty.
As many have pointed out, at eighteen an American can die for his country and vote in an election, but is not deemed responsible enough to make his own decisions about the use of alcohol.
While young adults are apt to make bad choices with serious implications for the rest of us, such as driving under the influence, the best way to deal with this situation is not through police power. I see no evidence that there are any behavioral gains that could not be achieved through education. Driving drunk will remain illegal, but allowing college age drinking to come out from underground may actually help spot bad drivers in some cases.
This is unreasonable.
Parents, Students, and Universities Can Still Choose To Be Alcohol Free
Adults do not have a right to drink, but adults should be allowed to do so if they wish. Just because I think a choice should be legal does not mean a person should act on that choice!
I have a son who will turn eighteen in October. He is a fine young man and will vote this fall for the first time. What compelling interest keeps him from making his own choices about alcohol? Of course in some ways he is making them already and did so in the most obvious way in his choice of a school.
There will always be places, like my own university, that choose to be “dry” (alcohol free). The beauty of a free society is that such choices are possible. I enjoy working in a school where every university social event is not centered around alcohol. Thousands of students also appreciate having this choice and will continue to make it if the laws are changed. Such schools will continue to provide a dry option for parents and students who wish it.
Just because it becomes legal to drink, it does not mean private universities will have to change their policies. My son chose to attend a “dry” school and abide by the rules. The vast majority of our students like having an educational home that is alcohol free.
Evangelicals who wish should continue to support those options, but vote to treat our young adults as adults when it comes to choices about alcohol.
(I will have good friends who disagree with me on this issue and I will keep listening to their arguments. This is my view and necessarily that of my school or my co-workers.)
By John Mark Reynolds