Secularization, Modernization, or Population Change: Explaining the Decline of Prohibition in the United States


  • The authors will share all data and coding for replication purposes. The authors wish to thank our colleague David Doherty and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions regarding this article.

Direct all correspondence to John Frendreis, Department of Political Science, Loyola University Chicago, 1032 W. Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL 60660 〈〉.



While previous cross-sectional research has suggested a relationship between the prohibition of alcohol sales and the presence of distinctive patterns of religious adherence, the relationship between policy adoption and social change is best evaluated through longitudinal analysis. We assess the extent to which a policy decision by a county to shift away from or toward a policy of prohibition is related to underlying changes in the composition of the countywide population.


Multinomial logistic regression analyses are used to describe the relationship between county-level demographic and cultural variables and changes in a county's prohibition policy status from dry to wet and wet to dry between 1970 and 2008.


The results demonstrate that certain kinds of social change are associated with changes in a county's public policy with respect to prohibition. By far, the strongest factor explaining shifts from dry status to wet status is an increase in a county's religious diversity. Conversely, there is also a relationship between a county's religious character and movement from wet status to dry status, specifically, the strongest factor associated with movement from wet status to dry status is an increasing rate of Evangelical adherence in the county.


There is a relationship between the religious character of a county and the preference for this particular policy option. While religious change is most important in explaining public policy on prohibition, changes in the religious milieu are one element of a broader process of modernization and other social change that involves such demographic variables as income, education, and urbanization.