God or Country


The history of religious freedom throughout the world reads less like a soulful tale of overcoming intolerance than it does Martyrs’ Mirror, the three-inch-thick 1660 tome that chronicles every visceral detail of the deaths of Christians since 1 A.D. In other words, religious freedom, when found, tends to be very discerning and brief. Even here in the United States where ideas of unfettered faithful practice are essential to the national narrative, some faiths, particularly Islam during the Bush administration, have been singled out for ridicule and persecution, and the Bible is routinely used to undermine individual rights. A country’s tolerance is hard to find—and keep.

Just ask the Hutterites, a pacifist, commune-based Anabaptist sect that has resided in Canada since the early 1900s, and who have been recently declared nonexempt from a law that requires photos be displayed on their driver’s licenses. The Hutterites oppose photos to comply with their reading of the Bible’s second commandment: no graven images or idolatry. The Canadian government, in accordance with its Charter of Rights and Freedoms was fine with this exception for decades, issuing IDs without photos. But in May of 2003, Alberta passed a law that required driver’s license information be added to the province’s new facial recognition data base. This new measure is intended to thwart terrorism and identity theft, crimes the pacifist, technology-immune, Hutterites say they know nothing about.

The Hutterites fought the Alberta law and on July 24th, the law won. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that the sect is no longer exempt from carrying photo driver’s IDs. What’s a group with a long history of packing its commune when forced to choose between God or country to do? Head for the border. Again.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that point [having to leave Alberta], but we are discussing that right now,” Samuel Wurz, a manager of one of the Hutterite colonies, told the World and Globe.

Not all of Canada’s Hutterites refrain from carrying photo IDs. The lawsuit was brought by only two colonies, Three Hills and Wilson, which belong to the most conservative of the three branches of Hutterites, the Dariusleut group. The other two groups, the Lehrerleut and the Schmiedeleut, have allowed their members to be photographed so long as the picture is natural and not posed.

The Anabaptists have been run out of multiple towns since their formation during the Radical Reformation in the Low Countries in the 16th century. The choice governments have given most Anabaptist sects during their five-century history is stark: compromise your religious tenets—a prospect that more often than not has led to modernization of the group and loss of adherence to core beliefs—or get out. From Moravia to Transylvania, Slovakia to the Ukraine, Hutterites traveled through countries and the centuries until reaching North America in 1873. They settled in Montana and what was then the Dakota territories and lived peacefully until WWI when the U.S. government persecuted them for their pacifism. Four Hutterite men were jailed and tortured in Levenworth Military Prison; two died. The Hutterites were on the move again; this time to Canada. Having once dwindled to a mere 100 members, they have grown to number nearly 40,000 today.

Where do the Three Hills and Wilson groups go from here? Here, I give Canada’s persecuted, shutter-shy Hutterites a few possibilities to consider:


You’ve already tried the other two North American countries; maybe the third one will fit just right? As I noted a few months ago in my review of Carlos Reygadas’ movie Silent Light about the Mexican Mennonites, the government to the south has been fairly accommodating of the Anabaptists in their midst. Old Colony Mennonites there tend to maintain close-knit communities of farming families that eschew technology and rely on home craft or community production for their goods and supplies. Although they have acquiesced to Spanish in their schools and have, like the Canadian Hutterites, taken to driving, they are significantly more affluent than their native-born neighbors. One word of warning: The recently decapitated, uncontrollable drug cartels are all too willing to kill Mennonite pacifists when they feel like it. If you keep your heads down and your mouths shut, you should be fine.


They speaka your Plautdietsch! In 1921, the Paraguayan government announced a political need for bodies and the Anabaptists came. Paraguay wanted to claim the Chaco region in the state of Boqueron from the Bolivians and in exchange for religious freedom of every sort, gave the Anabaptists a waterless, inhospitable state-within-a-state. Three waves of immigration brought Anabaptists from around the world and they formed three primary colonies, Menno, Fernheim, and Neuland, which banded together to become Filadelfia, the country’s main supplier of meat and dairy products and a financial and commercial powerhouse. Drawback? Paraguay’s first Mennonite Senator from Filadelfia, Orlando Penner, said upon election, ”If we want to keep ourselves caged inside orthodoxy, we will be chasing around the world forever looking for new, empty, isolated lands. I’m sure that if we can’t preserve our identity as Mennonites while still opening up to and living alongside others in this country, then it doesn’t make any sense to be a Mennonite.” Be prepared to expand the gene pool.

The United States

Try, try again! Go east this time. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where my family of Mennonites has spent ten generations, is an idyllic landscape with 200 years of Anabaptist history, both Amish and Mennonite. While most of the Mennonite sects have capitulated to state and societal pressure, thus modernizing, wearing “English” clothes, and listening to radios, the Amish have, with the exception of accommodating and profiting from “Plain People” tourism, resisted modern conveniences. Just a few things to look out for: real estate prices have exploded so buying that new farm may take some deep savings. The Mennonites have continued to sell off their family farms so maybe you can get in on a deal there. Or get some tips from the Amish; their families are pooling their money to buy farms like they pool their efforts to build a barn. On second thought: Lancaster is the most spied on county in America. We’re back to graven images, aren’t we?


Try a new continent! Congo is home to the world’s second largest Anabaptist population and with the Mennonite Central Committee, a respected international relief organization, and other institutions operating as the default health and human services and education departments of the Congolese government you’re bound to feel welcome. The Congolese constitution guarantees religious freedom from taxes and allows parents to educate their children as they see fit. Roughly 85% of the population is Christian; only children suspected of being witches are consistently persecuted, so keep yours close. Farmland is cheap and plentiful because of the economic challenges the country faces. Be prepared for some problems with security. Pacifism is not necessarily a national trait.


Step-Mother Russia has a particularly long and violent history of abuse and persecution against, well, everyone. But particularly against the religious, as you know, having fled there in the late 1800s (along with all the other Anabaptists who were promised refuge, then taunted into exile). But things are looking up! This month President Dmitry Medvedev announced that schoolchildren across the country will receive classes on religion and ethics. And because the population of the country continues to drastically decline, the government will even offer you, as a descendent of former émigrés, a reward for returning! They’ll love your high birth rate. One caution: alcohol is blamed for reducing male life expectancy to 3 years less than what it was in 1964, but since Anabaptists don’t drink you should all be fine.

Gute Gluck!

Ann Neumann has written for Bookforum, Lapham’s Quarterly, New York Law Review, The Nation, Guernica and others. Her monthly column, “The Patient Body,” about issues at the intersection of religion and medicine, appears at The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University, where she is a Visiting Scholar. Her first book, Sitting Vigil: In Search of a Good Death, will be published by Beacon Press in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @otherspoon.