COVID-19 is a killer, both directly and indirectly. During the pandemic, Grossman, E.R.; Benjamin-Neelon, S.E.; Sonnenschein, conducted a survey where “60% reported increased drinking […] compared to pre-COVID-19.”
Texas allowed Margarita deliveries early on, and I heard similar reports throughout the pandemic but didn’t think much of it. My nonchalance is based on my cultural heritage. Growing up in Germany, beer is ubiquitous. The legal drinking age for beer and wine is 16. And I always thought that was a great idea because the legal age for driving is 18. That means you have two years of learning how to handle yourself around alcoholic beverages before you’re allowed to drive. That sounded safe and made sense in my head.
Since so many of our churches host meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, I wanted to put my theory to the test. As a healthcare chaplain, my assessments and interventions are research-based and the numbers clearly proved me wrong:
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 14.5 million people in the U.S. have an Alcohol Use Disorder. That equals 4.4% of the population. For Germany the number is 6.7 million but equals 8% of their much smaller population. Germany has twice as many alcohol abusers than the U.S.!
From the known dynamics of addiction that shouldn’t come as a surprise: early exposure and easy access increase the risk for problematic drinking.
Now, here is another assumption I was wrong about: I always thought people chase the forbidden fruit, meaning I assumed that churchgoers whose church forbids drinking, were more likely to overdo it. Well, turns out that’s not as clear-cut as I thought. Koenig, L. B., Haber, J. R., & Jacob, T. show that for people with no family history of alcoholism, their religious affiliation does not influence their risk of becoming alcoholics themselves. But, people with a family history of alcoholism can reduce their risk by affiliating with a church that discourages drinking.
We mainliners have more problem drinking in our ranks than evangelicals. And since our liberal attitudes don’t discourage drinking, that means we have a generational problem where alcoholism is passed through the generations. Especially without the burden of moral shaming, the local church has the chance to be a supportive factor for its people.
• Spiritual Practice: We can empower our people by offering help in stressful times by providing them with spiritual tools and exercises to cope with stress instead of numbing themselves with drinking.
• Religious Education: We can explain clearly why we offer grape juice for communion. We want to stay faithful to the “fruit of the vine” but also make it accessible to recovering alcoholics.
• Community Building: We can invite people to share their recovery journeys. You know you have recovering alcoholics in your congregation. Their testimony may save someone’s life.
On a national level, the United Church of Christ has policies in place that state you cannot work at the national office with a blood alcohol of .04% or higher (see page number 48). The minister’s code admonishes to refrain from the abuse of alcohol. Those measures are all good and well on a practical level. But the UCC is strongest when it reaches the level of advocacy. And here, the challenge remains open: How do we promote systemic change on all levels of the church that reduces our contribution to alcohol abuse? Shaming is not the answer, neither is permissiveness.