Survey Q: How does the Christian faith inform your message about alcohol?
Participant: “We don’t really have a message about alcohol, aside from ‘don’t do it’.”
When I worked in public policy, I once spoke at a governor’s conference in North Dakota. After my talk, I struck up a conversation with the Lt. Governor. She made a comment I have never forgotten. She said that one of the policy issues on which she wished there was more emphasis was alcohol abuse. Having served on the parole board, she found alcohol abuse often associated with the crimes for which the inmates were imprisoned. Statistics bear out her observation. Depending upon the country and the source, estimates are that one-third to one-half of violent crime is committed under the influence of alcohol.1
College students also face another pressing alcohol problem. Consider this table taken from a survey of mortality rates at 157 four-year colleges:
Alcohol-related injuries were the second highest cause of death among college students, with only suicide outpacing it.
Unfortunately, based on my research, leaders in Christian higher education give little attention to theologically-informed conversations about alcohol stewardship. A century ago, our Protestant forbearers in North America spent a lot of time thinking, writing, and arguing about alcohol (some may suggest too much). Today Christian educators appear to have simply dropped the conversation. The result is that we miss a prime opportunity to teach theological thinking and living to our students about one of the most misused gifts known to humans.
On what basis do I make the claim that Christian educators do not address alcohol? In the first part of this series, I will support my claim based on two empirical findings related to student conduct codes and interviews with student affairs staff; In my second post tomorrow, I will provide imaginative ways to correct the problem.
I discovered the first empirical finding this past Spring semester when a class I taught spent time going through the student conduct codes of every university with some empirical marker of Christian identity (546 institutions). We examined all of the student conduct codes to evaluate the moral reasoning they used. I was particularly interested to see if Christian institutions copied the unfortunate trend in secular institutions of using these codes as simple legal documents instead of educational documents.2
Sadly, what we found about alcohol amazed me. A total of 59% simply cited state or university authority to justify their view. Only 8% (39) of Christian institutions provided any Christian reasoning to justify their stance. Furthermore, of those 39 institutions, the reasoning was hardly a model of Christian ethics. Eight simply listed a Christian or denominational identity (e.g., “As a Christian University supported by the [state/region] Baptist Convention, [the institution] takes the position of abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages both on and off campus”).
Another four simply made general lifestyle arguments such as,
“[The institution] realizes the heightened dangers in some social settings off campus and thus discourages students from attending establishments such as dance clubs, bars, and private parties where the principal purpose is known to be the sale and/or consumption of alcoholic beverages. The history of activities associated with these establishments (such as alcohol abuse, underage drinking, and drunkenness) is counter to our Christian values and lifestyle.”
Seventeen did make a biblical argument that usually involved citing a biblical rule (e.g., “While [the institution] doesn’t believe that moderate, legal consumption of alcohol is a sin, the Bible is very clear that the excessive use and abuse of alcohol is sinful (Ephesians 5:18, 1 Corinthians 6:10).” Another dozen mentioned the need for its consumption to be guided by virtues such as self-control or temperance.
What was missing from virtually every code, except around a dozen, was any attempt to help students think theologically and ethically about alcohol in ways that drew upon multiple theological and ethical categories. This fact is astounding for Christian educational institutions that supposedly are teaching students how to think Christianly.
One might argue that conduct codes do not represent the ethos and conversations on campus. I agree with that point, so I’ll present my second source of evidence: the testimony of student affairs workers at Christian institutions. When I along with a group of co-authors undertook a mixed-methods study of student life staff nationwide for a book on Christian student affairs, we asked in both interviews and a quantitative survey how their Christian faith informs their message about alcohol. We expected these answers to contain some substance. We were wrong.
It appears that a significant percentage of Christian universities do not even integrate anything distinctively Christian with their alcohol message. One-third of our participants gave responses such as:
- “It doesn’t.”
- “I’m not sure.”
- “Not sure. The expectation for students is clear but the rationale is not. Neither the expectation nor the rationale for faculty and staff members is clear.”
- “I don’t talk about my relationship with alcohol, because it is too touchy of a subject on my campus.”
- “. . . it does not actively inform the message we present.”
- “I don’t even know what the policy is . . . I just know you can’t drink.”
Amazingly, student affairs leaders recognized a clear lack of Christian input or discussion on one of the key co-curricular and disciplinary issues facing students.
One student affairs leader summarized the core problem, “We have a really hard time on our campus explaining all the time the ‘why’ behind things. We have a ‘no alcohol’ policy for our students. Why do we think that that is a healthy good practice for these four years of your life? Where does that come from? Where does it not come from? So, things like that.” For the most part, a significant percentage of Christian campuses do not place alcohol education within a Christian story when they educate students and perhaps do not even engage in significant theologically-oriented alcohol education.
Some campuses have even stayed away from even using a direct theological rationale when talking to students. One student life leader noted, “We have articulated in our handbook that our decision about alcohol has nothing to do with God’s judgment of alcohol, that it seems clear to us that consuming alcohol in responsible ways is fine, but we’ve chosen to maintain an educational community free of alcohol for a variety of reasons. You can point to millions of research articles supporting that.”
If Christian appeals were made by staff, they focused on one of four things:
1.“The Bible says . . . obey your leaders and laws.” (Rom. 13)
2.“A prohibition of drunkenness based on Eph. 5:18.”
3.“Excessive drinking does not reflect care for a person’s body as a temple.” (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
4.Appeals to consider those with a weaker conscience:
- a.“We place the betterment of the community above our own wants, desires, and legal rights.” (1 Cor. 8, 10)
b.“We preach sobriety and that being a part of a Christian community, sometimes we need to sacrifice our preferences.”
c.”Whether a Christian chooses to drink or not should be decided between them and their conscience, and if drinking in the presence of a fellow Christian causes them to stumble, the Christian who feels free to drink should abstain for the sake of the other.” (1 Cor. 8, 10; Rom. 14)
All these scriptural responses are important parts of a biblical perspective, but when appealed to in isolation, some important elements are clearly missing.
Unfortunately, there are several weaknesses if these fragments serve as the foundation. First, participants tended to focus on biblical rules instead of biblical wisdom. Not one person mentioned anything from Proverbs. Second, as can be seen from these answers, most of the theological contributions tended to focus on the negative aspect of alcohol. Among participants, there was little positive to say about alcohol besides two participants who noted: “Jesus also demonstrated that there are occasions where imbibing is appropriate” (e.g., wedding feasts, the Last Supper) and “Jesus drank alcohol. His first miracle involved turning water into wine . . . and into really good wine at that.”
The same was true of student conduct codes. Only two institutions started by saying anything good about alcohol, and—perhaps not surprisingly—they were Catholic institutions (e.g., “The temperate use of alcoholic beverages is in no way opposed to Christian maturity and can be a good in the service of leisure”). That’s fine, but since Catholic university first-year students have a worse binge drinking problem than even secular universities, it seems they need even better and more serious alcohol formation.3
Overall, the picture of alcohol education on Christian campuses we found was that it was largely absent, simplistic, non-theological, or rules-based. No wonder an old survey of CCCU students a group of us performed found that 36% had a more liberal position on alcohol use than their institution. Perhaps the American Christian church is still recovering from the legacy of Prohibition, but we found the level of theological reflection and engagement with this issue disturbing. Tomorrow, I’m going to offer two simple frameworks that would help student affairs staff in particular, but also faculty, engage in theologically-informed alcohol education.
Editor’s Note: For additional insight about how to help students have conversations regarding stewardship of one’s body, see our recent edited volume, Stewarding Our Bodies: A Vision for Christian Student Affairs.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/03/28/mark-kleiman-on-why-we-need-to-solve-our-alcohol-problem-to-solve-our-crime-problem/?wprss=rss_ezra-klein See also for example: US https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/10report/chap01c.pdf; Canada: https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/research/005008-rib-19-13-en.shtml; United Kingdom: https://fullfact.org/crime/whats-link-between-alcohol-and-violent-crime/
- Peter F. Lake, Beyond Discipline: Managing the Modern Higher Education Environment (Bradenton, FL: Hierophant Enterprises, Inc., 2009); Peter F. Lake, “Student Discipline: The Case Against Legalistic Approaches,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 2009, https://www.chronicle.com/article/student-discipline-the-case-against-legalistic-approaches/; Janice E. Martin and Steven M. Janosik, “The Use of Legal Terminology in Student Conduct Codes: A Content Analysis,” Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice 42, no. 1 (2004): 36–50, https://doi.org/10.2202/1949-6605.1413; James M. Lancaster, “Conduct Systems Designed to Promote Moral Learning,” in Facilitating the Moral Growth of College Students: New Directions for Student Services, Number 139, eds. Debora L. Liddell and Diane L. Cooper (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 51–61.
- Melanie M. Morey and John J. Piderit, S.J., Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 160.