Just eight years ago, Mercer University was debating its future with the conservative Georgia Baptist Convention.
Now, starting with next weekends football tailgating, the college wont ban alcohol on campus outright -- just items like kegs and beer funnels.
In recent years, Middle Georgias stretch of the Bible Belt has gotten distinctly thirstier. Sunday alcohol sales, both by the drink and in packages, are widespread. A Warner Robins shop is selling jugs of fresh beer, a Macon duo is brewing beer and whiskey is being distilled in Milledgeville. The Macon Beer Fest is now an annual event and returns Saturday, just a couple months before the alcohol-heavy Macon Octoberfest returns.
These changes have happened with little organized opposition from religious groups.
David P. Gushee, director of Mercers Center for Theology and Public Life, said numbers of teetotalers are declining, and alcohol use among most Christians under 30 is not a big issue, he said. Gushee said similar red-line prohibitions have long since been abandoned, such as laws against gambling. Now nearly every state has a lottery, and nearly no one fights activities on the Sabbath.
And while some Christians may see alcohol consumption as a sin, Gushee says Christians may be becoming less willing to prohibit others from imbibing.
It is gradually becoming clear to more and more Christians that just because we believe X, whatever it may be, does not necessarily mean that should be the law. ... Freedom must be respected, Gushee said.
Cliff Treend said he arrived in Georgia in 1998, when the Atlanta Falcons had a strong season. When they got to the Super Bowl, he tried to find a place to watch the game with chicken wings and beer, and couldnt find one.
Just two years ago, Sunday alcohol sales were prohibited in Warner Robins. Now, Treend works as a beertender at the citys Lazy Dog Growlers, where customers can buy 32-ounce or 64-ounce jugs and bottles of fresh beer, with dozens of varieties on tap. Tasting is allowed, but the store legally cant serve pints of beer or sell home-brewed beer.
Treend guessed the culture is evolving and that states are more willing to seek tax revenues from alcohol sales.
Lazy Dog Growlers owner, Jeff Kressin, said consumption of beer goes back thousands of years and is part of most cultures. While Middle Georgias in the Bible Belt, he said, Bible people like to drink beer, too.
Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards -- who is also a lawyer and Baptist minister -- said views have evolved. A self-described teetotaler who often steps into his preaching voice when he talks about the dangers of demon rum, Edwards said he doesnt need to deny others the ability to have a drink.
I think a lot of folk in the religious community are as hypocritical on alcohol as we are on a lot of things, said Edwards, pastor of Mount Moriah Baptist Church. My view has always been (that) people can offer to sell alcohol all they want to, and if people dont buy it, theres no market for it. Theres a huge market for it.
Edwards said economic pressures also drive communities to compete for alcohol sales, and hotels, restaurants and tourism-related industries all can benefit from the availability of alcohol.
In the culture we have now, its a live-and-let-live issue that was previously lumped under the heading of vice, Edwards said. Everyone realizes now that vice has its rewards in terms of making sure that governments can pay the bills, he said. If you didnt have a lot of the so-called sin taxes, a lot of communities would be in big, big trouble.
But Edwards noted that extremes of alcohol consumption that helped launch Prohibition remain. Spouses still get battered, children still get neglected and people drive drunk when alcohol is consumed past moderation, Edwards said. In his law and religious practices, Edwards finds most people who have problems also have problems with alcohol or drugs.
Others hope for lots of alcohol consumption. At the end of Oglethorpe Street, the founders of Macon Beer Co. are installing and even building equipment to begin producing about 1,200 gallons of ale a month. Cory Smith, who grew up in Griffin, went to school in Statesboro, and has lived in Middle Georgia for more than a decade, guesses that revenue was a factor in the rapid change toward tolerance.
It never made sense, said Smith, a former school psychologist.
The Macon Beer Co. brewer, chemical engineer Jeremy Knowles, thinks the craft beer movement made people realize there are better drinks out there that once were exceptionally hard to get. He speaks wistfully of the stalled House Bill 314, which could allow the brewery to sell containers of beer from a planned tasting area. They also plan a beer garden behind the building.
Knowles and Smith plan to have their first big production run ready for the Macon Octoberfest. One of the beers is called Macon History. The other will be known as Macon Progress.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.