On September 3 The New York Times carried a story about a twenty-six-year old man being charged in Curryville, Missouri, with two sexual assaults on under-age girls and suspected of several more over a period of ten years. I am not clear why the Times found this event newsworthy. Because it did not involve a Catholic priest? Because the victims were girls rather than boys? Be this as it may, I find the story interesting because it does involve a religious angle: The accused belongs to an Old Order Amish Community, which normally handles all offences and disputes internally, without recourse to the law enforcement machinery of the state (a fact accurately reported by the Times). In this case, the community tried for a long time to handle the matter in its accustomed manner: The offender is urged to confess and repent his sin. If he does, the community forgives him. If he does not, he is subjected to the only available punishment—“shunning”—which means that he stays in the community, but nobody speaks to him or has any kind of contact with him—actually a quite harsh punishment, which is usually effective. If the offender does finally confess and repent, the punishment is lifted. In this case the procedure was repeated several times, before the leaders of the community gave up and, very reluctantly, called in the police. The offender pleaded not guilty, which particularly disturbed the Amish—lying is one of the worst sins in their moral code. Visitors from home kept urging him to change his plea to guilty until further visits were forbidden by his public defender who (very responsibly) explained: “The legal system doesn’t care about your religious beliefs. When it comes to time in prison, I have to look out for my client.” Fair enough.
The Amish descend in a rather complicated way from the Anabaptists, the so-called “left wing” of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Their most visible characteristic was that they did not recognize infant baptism, re-baptizing adults who had undergone this ritual as children. But, more importantly in historical perspective, they held a very rigorous understanding of the Christian life as faithfully following in the footsteps of Jesus. Not surprisingly, there were different views as just what this means. Broadly speaking, the Anabaptists split into two factions: one violent, the other peaceful. The violent ones took up arms and sought to establish the Kingdom of God here and now. The most dramatic attempt to do this was the establishment of a saintly commonwealth in the north-German city of Muenster, a project that was ended bloodily by an unusual alliance of Protestants and Catholics. An important leader of the peaceful faction was Simon Menno, a Swiss reformer. He and his follower gave up the idea of imposing sainthood on an entire society, settling instead for the establishment of a saintly subculture. Mennonites settled in America in modest numbers and survive to this day, along with the Quakers, as one of the so-called “peace churches.” Except for their uncompromising pacifism, they are not easily distinguished from other mainline Protestant denominations. The Amish derive from a schism in 1693 when a group led by another Swiss preacher, Jakob Ammann, left the main Mennonite body in order for form a community more strictly separated from the larger society. German-speaking Amish came to America, most of them settling originally in agricultural communities in eastern Pennsylvania, where some of them can still be found. They too split into two groups. The Old Order Amish more radically reject all use of modern technology—they are famous for moving around in horse-drawn buggies. The other group is somewhat more lenient—they do drive automobiles. Both dress in garments reminiscent of sixteenth-century Germany—strikingly similar to those of ultra-Orthodox Jews. (I suppose it is fortunate that adherents of these two faiths live in different parts of the country. The confusion could otherwise be embarassing.) As eastern Pennsylvania became more urbanized and its general culture more intrusive, some Amish decided to move to more isolated locations—such as eastern Missouri.
I came across them in another remote area, this one in central Georgia. It happened in the late 1950s. I had been drafted (luckily between wars) and was stationed in Fort Benning. I had read in the local newspaper that a group of Amish had recently settled in Montezuma County, which was then a very bucolic area (I have no idea what it is like now). A friend of mine, another sociologist, and I decided to pay a visit on a Sunday morning. The event turned out to be one of those “aha” experiences, with an insight that became important a decade later as I was trying to formulate my own approach to the sociology of religion.
We had some difficulty finding the place. We drove through a visibly poor rural landscape—isolated farm houses, with scraggly horses and cattle around them. The first sign that we were getting close was a change in the appearance of grazing cattle—they were fat, looking happy and Pennsylvanian. The Amish were holding their service in a white-washed ex-Baptist church they had acquired. They belonged to the pro-automobile denomination. A lot of cars were parked in front of the church, all black, giving the appearance of a convention of funeral directors. What we saw after we entered the church was striking. Near the door was a long table, where the men had deposited their round hats, also all black. The church was quite full, men and women sitting separately. We had arrived soon after the service had begun. The hymns and the Bible readings (in Luther’s translation) were in High German, but the sermon, by a very impressive man who sported a full white beard, was in Pennsylvania Dutch. The hymns had many verses, sung to music that sounded like dirges (very different from Lutheran hymnody). I gathered from notations in the hymn books that they dated from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As soon as the service was over, the preacher came over and welcomed us very warmly (mercifully in English). It turned out that he was the local “bishop”—just another farmer elected to be leader of the community. He invited us to lunch, which was rich and very good indeed. It was served by the bishop’s wife and two teenage daughters, who then withdrew, leaving the men to talk about serious matters. The bishop was cordial, answering all our questions (and, incidentally, making no attempt to convert us—which surprised my friend, who came from a Southern Evangelical background).
The girls came in briefly to remove the dishes. They went next door to the kitchen, presumably to wash the dishes. At first I did not pay attention to what I could hear from the kitchen. They were singing. Then I noticed what was strange about this: They were not singing their own dirge-like hymns, but typical American Protestant hymns—like “Down by the Riverside”, “Here I come”, “Rock of Ages.” By then I knew (the bishop was very upfront about this) that the young people of the community were carefully kept from contact with the larger American society, apart from what was necessary for economic transactions and amicable but minimal neighborly relations. They did not attend public schools, they were not allowed to socialize with outside children or to go to movies, they had no access to radio, television or newspapers. Where had they learned these American hymns?
I asked the bishop. He said that they had been aware that some of their neighbors were suspicious of them. (We could verify this later. After we left the Amish my friend and I went to a diner in the nearby county seat—not, heaven forbid, to eat—we were more than full—but to have a cup of coffee and compare impressions. The county sheriff was also in the diner. He came over, very friendly, and asked us what brought us to town. When we told him, he became very interested, wanted to know what we made of these people. Most important: Did we think that they were Communists?) The bishop thought that the neighbors’ suspicion would be allayed if they got to know some of their very nice young people. So, once a month, a group of young Amish met with the youth group of the First Baptist Church in town. That is where his daughters had learned those hymns. Right away the thought flashed through my mind: He would come to regret this!
Why? To keep the young people in the faith of what is a small and religiously marginal minority, they must be protected from serious conversation with unbelievers. The Amish have understood this very well—that is precisely why this community moved to rural Georgia. But the bishop thought that contact with a Baptist youth group could do no harm. There, it hit me, he was probably wrong. Baptists were then (and are now) anything but marginal in the Deep South. Compared to the Amish, they were mainstream America. What the bishop was doing was to open a window in the protective barrier which the community had built around itself. Through that window could come in the tumultuous pluralism of American society. I don’t know what happened to the girls singing hymns in the kitchen, or to the whole Amish community in Montezuma County. I have never been back. If the bishop did make a mistake, it was repeated on a much larger scale when the Second Vatican Council opened a very big window on the modern world, with hugely unsettling consequences for the Catholic subculture in America. The Apostle Paul knew what he was saying when he warned the marginal community of Christians in Corinth not to be “yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Suggested translation: Don’t hang out with them!
If asked, I can now expand the fugitive insight I had at the bishop’s dinner table into a full-blown theory of modern pluralism and its effects on religion. In sum: Modernity, for reasons that are not at all mysterious, pluralizes—that is, it constantly confronts people with beliefs and values different from their own. Inevitably, this undermines the taken-for-granted character of every worldview. If one wants to restore the taken-for-grantedness of a worldview, one must shelter its adherents from ideas that challenge it. That is a difficult project. If one wants to impose a taken-for-granted worldview on an entire society, one must set up a totalitarian state which controls all communications with the outside world. If one settles for doing this in a sub-society where one cannot use physical coercion, the control of communications must be even more strenuous. It is obviously easier to do this in an isolated rural community than in the middle of a big city (though that has been tried too). Pluralism (and not secularization, as many still think) is the big modern challenge to religion. This does not mean that modern people cannot be religious. It does mean that faith is harder to achieve.