The smoke had barely cleared from the horrible Aurora, Colorado theater shootings when the Capitol Hill-based United Methodist lobby office issued its perfunctory call for gun control.

Citing United Methodism’s official support for a “ban on all handguns,” the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society also took its own metaphorical shots at a favorite nemesis. “Equal to our sadness at this tragic loss of life is our disappointment at Congress’ inability to place public safety above the interests of the National Rifle Assn.,” declared the lobby officials. “Our society can no longer afford to allow the power of the gun lobby in its efforts to ensure ownership without responsibility to keep Congress mute on this pressing public-safety issue.”

Since at least 1972, the United Methodist Church, which then had over 10 million members, has backed the elimination of private handgun ownership, among other gun control measures. Having lost 3 million members in the U.S. since then, the denomination is finding that its political lobbying, which never reflected most of the membership, is now even less heeded.

But the denomination’s faith in laws to eliminate evil dates back a century to an era when Methodism was one of America’s most potent political forces. Daniel Okrent’s 2010 Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, upon which the 2011 PBS series on the history of Prohibition was based, largely credited Methodist and Baptist clergy for leading the successful campaign. Actually it was mostly Methodism, then America’s largest Protestant force, and whose hierarchy made it more conducive to waging a national struggle.

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