By Mark Tooley @markdtooley
An official with United Methodism’s Capitol Hill lobby office has pronounced he was “devastated” by last week’s defeat of gun control measures in the U.S. Senate. He angrily declared: “Shame on the Senate for not acting to end gun violence.”
“END” gun violence? Would any of the proposals for expanding background checks or banning “assault” weapons have “ended” gun violence? Would even a complete ban on all gun ownership? No. The debate is whether legal limits on gun ownership would perhaps significantly reduce gun violence.
Maybe reduction rather than “end” is what this United Methodist lobbyist actually meant. But it revealingly is not what he said. His expansive hope follows in a century long tradition of Methodist political perfectionism, starting with the Methodist crusade for Prohibition, which assumes God’s Kingdom can be established through state action.
End nuclear weapons. End poverty. End violence. End war. If only we exert ourselves sufficiently through politics, human evils can be banished. Or so we have been told for many decades by Methodist activists ostensibly speaking for the church. At least the original Prohibitionists were actually widely supported by church members. The statist and utopian political crusades of recent decades are largely unknown to most church members, most of whom would disapprove if informed.
United Methodist official political stances, covered in a 1000 page Book of Resolutions, assert countless political stances in the church’s name, each supposing that legislation can eradicate some targeted evil. Dating back decades, the church officially supports banning all handgun ownership for example. Policy makers don’t typically strongly heed the United Methodist lobby because they understandably are skeptical they represent many church members. But church members should be distressed by this ineffective public witness by our church.
Various gun control measures may or may not reduce some gun violence. But none of them will ever “end” gun violence. Nor will laws ever “end” poisonings, stabbings, bludgeonings by blunt objects or countless other ways to murder. Hopefully all people of good will work to strengthen a society disposed against murderous violence. And the state has a divinely ordained duty to punish the murderous. But laws will never intrinsically change human nature, which is bent towards evil, and can only be restrained and redeemed by God’s grace, operating through countless earthly and supernatural mediations.
Methodism has never really had an articulated theory of the state or a public theology. Instead, it has over two centuries of busy activism, some of it effective, most of it not. Much of modern U.S. evangelicaldom is now replicating this deeply flawed pattern, asserting that Christian political witness entails lobbying for unending new laws and restrictions that will fundamentally alter human nature.
Who are the great thinkers in Methodism or U.S. evangelicaldom today who are developing a more effective and faithful public theology that recognizes the limits of politics in this fallen world under God’s sovereignty?