Who’s Amish Now?

From the stiff wooden pews of my grandmother’s Mennonite church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,  I often heard a story that perfectly illustrates the Anabaptist approach to profession of faith. It’s a part of Anabaptist lore, told and retold from the simple pulpits of unadorned churches across the country. As it turns out, the story belongs to one Rufus P. Bucher as much as it does to the Amish and Mennonites I grew up surrounded by. Chris Armstrong recently retold it at his blog:

When Brethren evangelist Rufus P. Bucher was asked by a stranger in a railway station, “Brother, are you saved?” he replied that since he might be prejudiced on the question, his interrogator should go ask his wife, children, and neighbors. “I’ll be ready to let their answers stand as my own.”

There’s a reason why the Anabaptists believe in showing and not telling. For a couple of hundred years they were sought out, tortured and murdered for their faith. And not just by their neighbors, but by their state. Fleeing from Switzerland to escape the horrors of the Radical Reformation, Anabaptists, who ascribe to adult baptism and are comprised of Amish and Mennonite sects, headed first to Germany, then to Russia and the infant United States. They never looked back. The need to escape religious persecution at home became the need to find religious tolerance wherever it existed. Today Mennonite and Amish populations live on every continent, in every country that will allow them freedom to live their modest lifestyle, outside the strictures of modern society or government laws. You won’t find a group of believers more versed in the necessity for strict separation of church and state; the Anabaptists know better than most what happens when a nation’s rulers adopt theocratic laws: somebody’s bound to get killed.

All this makes conservative commentator Don Surber’s recent claim that “We are all Amish now” intriguing, if not a bit demeaning. Surber and other luminary conservative commentators, including Michelle Malkin and Laura Ingraham’s blogger Raymond Arroyo—an odd bunch that insists government should stay out of their lives but not out of others’—got wind of the exemption for Anabaptists in the new health care bill. Amish and Old Order Mennonites will not be required to pay the health care mandate, a fee for government-facilitated health care that, if unpaid, will result in a fine comparable to a percentage of one’s salary. Surber writes, “I’d say the Amish have about 16 million people who might want to become Amish and be conscientious objectors to being drafted into Obamacare.”

Michelle Malkin predicts, citing New York state’s Watertown Daily News which first reported the exemption, “I think there’s going to be a wave of religious conversions this year…Amish families can claim an exemption from the Demcare’s planned government health care insurance mandate as a matter of faith.” Her point, that some faiths are more exempt from government intrusion than others, is further “explained” by Raymond Arroyo:

So get this straight: the Amish, Old Order Mennonites and possibly Christian Scientists can opt out of the health care plan, with no penalty, while Catholics and other Christians are bound to pay premiums that fund abortion. How is that fair? Hundreds of Christian, pro-life hospitals, doctors and nurses may soon be forced to violate their consciences and offer or perform procedures they consider morally objectionable.

Beyond the fact that health care reform will not force Catholics nor other Christians to perform abortions—the Hyde, Church, Coats, and Weldon Amendments protect provider “conscience” rights, but sadly, not patients’ (speaking of unfair)—Arroyo misses the point completely.  Contrary to the media’s unrefined reportage on the greatest “culture war” issue of all time, not every Christian denomination is theologically defined solely by their opposition to abortion.

While this talk of conversion may make a fantastic image—Michelle Malkin fastening her clothes on each morning with straight pins, giving up makeup and the spotlight, baking four shoe-fly pies on a wood stove, and not speaking unless spoken to (ok, that’s appealing)—what they display is a resolute and impassioned ignorance of religious nuance. They conflate vastly divergent religious convictions into one monolithic Christian ideology, their own. And they’ve slapped a label on it: FAITH.

What they all get wrong is why Amish and Mennonites are exempt from paying the proposed insurance mandate: Anabaptists don’t believe in insurance. And they never have. Anabaptist theology reaches back, with surprising purity, to its earliest founding principle: two worlds. There’s no point in saving the world because it is fallen and doomed to evil. The second, holy world, the Anabaptist Kingdom, lives separate from society, self-reliant and independent of modern government services, laws, banks or taxes. As Richard Kyle writes:

…the “true church” had to separate from the world and live by the ethic contained in the Sermon on the Mount. In practice, this notion of separation meant several things for the Anabaptists: they advocated the disestablishment of the church and its separation from the world; they renounced warfare and use of the sword; they refused to conform to many civic mores, including swearing by the civil oath and bringing suit in courts of law.

And they refused to rely on the worldly insurance industry to catch them if they fell. In recent decades, “mutual aid” organizations have been established to shield Mennonites from catastrophic loss; the Amish tend to pool their resources when a member is ill, just as they would to build a barn. And you won’t find Orthodox Anabaptists tapping out political screeds on blogs or picketing the local Planned Parenthood clinic. One’s faith and conscience are private, lived by example, “in the world but not of it,” not demonstrated through democratic activism, government lobbying, or proselytizing for federal laws. This kind of separate-from-the-world life is probably not what Malkin had in mind.

As the word of Anabaptist exemption got around the Web last week, Kansas Redneck decided to form his own Reformed Amish sect, offering to be “transitional deacon” while the group got going. The objective would be to get out of the health care mandate but not have to wear those funny clothes and give up cars. He writes, “Heck, what is there to lose? We agree to not accept social suckery [social security] and in exchange are exempted from Obambi care [health care].” A “true patriot’s” dream, no doubt.

While I understand that this conversion talk is in jest, when one considers America’s predilection for shopping around for a new faith like a new coat—often switching denominations repeatedly—choosing one’s faith based on grounds of convenience sounds a bit like the less pithy version of selecting the God you’d most like to have a beer with.

Having narrowly avoided membership in the Mennonite church myself—I come from a long line of Mennonites, my earliest ancestors can be traced back to the Radical Reformation and the initial Anabaptist settlers of Pennsylvania—I’m still bothered by the ease with which these comments suggest adopting a “plain” lifestyle. Faith, they seem to say, is a convenience, not a conviction; a simple matching up of environment and chosen lifestyle to a copacetic denomination, preferably one that will get you out of taxation.

As the week progressed, “We’re all Amish now” devolved into more pointed discrimination of Anabaptists. As one commenter, who mis-remembers the nature of the Establishment Clause, writes, “A clear-cut violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if I ever saw one … the government is favoring one religion over all others by this exemption.” The muddy implication is that objection to the health care mandate on grounds of faith—never mind the nature of that faithful objection—should be applied to all believers, not just the Anabaptists.

My first reaction to all this commentary is one of profound sadness: not only for the ahistorical, a-theological defamation of other faiths, but for the proud commenter’s ignorance of the laws of religious tolerance the US was founded on—and their purpose. My second reaction is one of challenge: I just dare you all to go “plain”; I wouldn’t give you two weeks in the Anabaptist’s Kingdom, health care mandate or not.

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.