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Lumping together the recently attempted Arizona religious freedom law with new criminal laws against homosexuality in Nigeria and Uganda, the United Methodist Church’s Capitol Hill lobby lamented that “legislation that denies the human rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender is being deliberated and enacted in states of the United States and countries around the world.”

This United Methodist General Board of Church and Society further declared that “such legislative actions that discriminate, abuse and commit violence against persons on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or expression violate human rights and should be condemned.” And they insisted that “religious and cultural traditions do not excuse any form of discrimination, abuse and violence.” Their statement commended the United Methodist bishop of Arizona, who had denounced the now vetoed law as “discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.”

The Arizona law, vetoed by its governor, of course made no mention of sexual orientation and only reiterated that “state action shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” expanding the stipulated protected from “a religious assembly or institution” to “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly, or institution, estate, trust, foundation, or other legal entity.” And new laws in Nigeria and Uganda are unrelated to religious liberty, instead expanding already existing criminal penalties for homosexual behavior.

The United Methodist statement’s primary objective was to discredit religious liberty in the United States as a defense against the current Kulturkampf on traditional mores. Some liberal-leaning Evangelicals have similarly disparaged religious liberty protections, denouncing them as codified bigotry. Of course, another major flashpoint for religious liberty is Obamacare’s HHS mandate compelling employers to subsidize contraceptives and abortifacients. The United Methodist lobby has publicly endorsed the mandate and dismissed faith-based objections, such as by the Sisters of Laredo, a charitable order of nuns currently litigating against the mandate.

Once universal assumptions about religious liberty in America are fraying. As Evangelical author Eric Metaxas recently told the National Religious Broadcasters, “Americans are so spoiled, we’ve had so much religious freedom, we don’t know what it is to miss it,” adding, “We take holy gifts for granted.” He warned against romanticizing persecution, suggesting “Mr. Hipster Evangelical” can visit North Korea if he truly wants it.

Liberal Evangelicals and United Methodists are perhaps ambivalent to indifferent about religious liberty because they have forgotten their own history. Early Methodists, as precursors of modern Evangelicalism, were often despised and persecuted. John Wesley as an evangelist demanded his rights as a British subject to organize and preach an unpopular Gospel that challenged a morally permissive culture. The democratizing ethos created by the Wesleyan revivals helped create a stronger ethic of religious freedom in both Britain and America.

The laws of Eighteenth Century Britain theoretically offered relatively free rein to Protestant evangelization. But the cultural reality was often very different. Wesley was a priest in the established Church of England, and most of his followers were communicants in that church. Yet their spiritual zeal, moral threat to liquor and gambling interests, and empowering of common people aroused tremendous hostility, some of it violent. Gentry and clergy who resented the Methodists often fomented the riots. Methodist preaching houses were torn apart by mobs, congregations assailed with clubs, livestock set loose on outdoor audiences, and Methodist preachers pelted with rocks. Sometimes Methodists were themselves jailed, charged for disturbing the peace, while their assailants went free.

A Methodist baker in the 1740s was threatened by a mob who for days stoned him and threatened to destroy his house. He appealed for protection from the mayor, who replied: “It is your own fault for entertaining those preachers.” The baker remarked: “This is fine usage under a Protestant government; if I had a priest saying mass in my house, it would not be touched.” Unmoved, the mayor retorted: “The priests are tolerated, but you are not.” Sometimes Methodists were offered contracts of protection if they pledged no more to host preachers. And sometimes the mob attacks against them were reported in newspapers as Methodist riots. There were occasional outright murders and sexual assaults.

It was Wesley’s policy “always to look a mob in the face.” One admirer recounts of the evangelist: “An indescribable dignity in his bearing, a light in his eyes, and a spiritual influence pervading his whole personality often overawed and captured the very leaders of the riots.” Another offers similar praise: “When encountering the ruffianism of mobs and of magistrates, he showed a firmness as well as a guileless skill, which, if the martyr’s praise might admit of such an adjunct, was graced with the dignity and courtesy of the gentleman.”

On one particularly harrowing evening Wesley was taken captive by several mobs, who escorted him to the homes of indifferent magistrates, where the mob cited disruptive Methodists who “sing Psalms all day, nay, and make folks rise at five in the morning.” The magistrates refused to intervene, leaving Wesley hostage, repeatedly pummeled, spouting blood from his mouth, amid cries of “Hang him!” He afterwards claimed he felt no pain. Later the same magistrates tried to press charges against him for disturbing the peace.

Wesley cited mobs as the “many-headed beast,” investing them with spiritual implications and seeing them as predictable earthly resistance to the Gospel. “Such is the general method of God’s Providence, where all approve, few profit,” he said. Although riots were morally validating and offered opportunity for courageous Christian witness, including occasional conversions of the unruly, Wesley still demanded protection of the law. In 1748 he was attacked by a club-wielding mob instigated by an Anglican clergy promising ale to rioters. Afterward Wesley appealed to the local constable, tartly calling the riot “imputable” to the constable’s neglect if not complicity. His apprehension by the mob had been an “assault upon the king’s highway, contrary to his peace and crown.” Although the constable had directly witnessed much of the mob’s attack, he had stood aside, despite his “talking of law and justice.”

“Suppose we were dissenters . . . ; suppose we were Turks or Jews; still are we not to have the benefit of the law of our country,” Wesley implored. “Proceed against us by law, if you can or dare, but not by lawless violence. . . . This is flat rebellion both against God and the king.”

Late in life, Wesley denounced religious persecution: “Let there be as ‘boundless a freedom in religion’ as any man can conceive.” But he, like John Locke, denied such tolerance could be extended to Roman Catholics who could not give allegiance to their Protestant regime, under the worrisome Catholic principle, as he conceived it, “No faith is to be kept faith with heretics.”

Early Methodists in America often themselves faced hostile, sometimes violent crowds. American Methodism pledged loyalty to the United States, and its adherents largely aligned with Jeffersonian disestablishment of state supported churches, their movement thriving under the legal protection of religious liberty, even amid some cultural hostility.

Here are some Wesleyan lessons for today’s Christians facing cultural hostility and increasing legal infringements on religious freedom. Resistance to vigorous proclamation of the Gospel is present in every age. Persecution, even low scale, and often abetted even by religious institutions, is opportunity for witness. But persecution should not be sought, or glorified. Wesley, like St. Paul, appealed to the law and magistrates for protection, insisting on his rights as an Englishman.

The early Wesleyan revivals, although not political, were democratizing and liberty enhancing in their ultimate social impact, benefitting persons of all faiths and no faith. Christians of today, in contending for full religious liberty, even on the edges, serve not just themselves but the conscience rights of everyone.

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.

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