The following Newslines column originally appeared in the February 2019 edition of The Sword & Trumpet.
An article in the Mennonite World Review entitled “Dark side to Amish religious freedom?” was not a bad article, but it did uncritically relay the beliefs of the “Amish Heritage Foundation” (AHF). I was very glad to be introduced to this brand-new organization as it has an incredibly Orwellian name, it is peddling a rather insidious mis-accounting and misunderstanding of history, and it utilizes atheists who have left other ultra-conservative religions to “teach” the Amish how to escape. It is a dishonest and direct attack on conservative Anabaptism (and all of orthodox Christianity) and it behooves us to understand what they’re attempting.
George Orwell wrote the book 1984 which was a fictional account of a dystopian government who manipulated language in order to manipulate and control the people. Orwell wrote, “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.”
The Amish Heritage Foundation is named the same way. Its purpose is the opposite of preserving the Amish Heritage. Its purpose is to destroy the Amish Heritage. The founders spin it as “reclaim[ing] our Amish narrative”.
There is a very revealing quote by the founder of AHF in the Mennonite World Review article. This quote gives lie to the Orwellian name “Amish Heritage Foundation” and bypasses theological and historical arguments and cuts straight to an admission of intent. MWR writes, “[As a child,] executive director Torah Bontrager…heard the story of Harriet Tubman assisting escaped African-American slaves along the underground railroad. ‘I told myself if I escaped and I made it, I would create an Amish underground railroad for those who wanted to transition to the outside world,’ she said. ‘That’s what the Amish Heritage Foundation is.’”
This clearly lays bare the Orwellian “war is peace” deception contained in the name. The AHF was created to help Amish escape the Amish life like slaves escaped slavery. That would be like the Underground Railroad calling itself the “Slavery Heritage Foundation” to make it feel more palatable. The purpose of the Underground Railroad was to destroy slavery by helping people escape it and the purpose of the Amish Heritage Foundation is to destroy the Amish by helping people escape it. Neither was to preserve the heritage of the Amish or the “heritage” of slavery.
I fully support the rights of all Amish people to self-determination and making an informed, adult decision on whether to remain Amish or to pursue other churches or none at all, but even though I’ve not chosen to be Amish like my grandparents were, it really makes me unhappy to see such a dishonest approach.
AHF is parallel to liberal “Christianity” that keeps the name Christian but which strips it of most historical beliefs and holds religion as a useful fiction while believing and practicing functional atheism with a bit of “Lord, Lord.” In fact, most leaders of this organization claim to be Amish, even though they are not. They call themselves “noncompliant Amish”.
Promotion of Atheism
The founder of the AHF, Torah Bontrager, graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Philosophy in 2007 where “she focused on Tibetan Buddhism” (according to her website bio).
AHF’s flagship and inaugural conference (“Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story”) had as its speakers a parade of atheists and non-Christians with clear résumés of dedicating their lives to anti-religion causes. Many of the speakers are people who left their religions and were at the conference to teach the Amish how to leave Christianity as well. In their conference schedule, AHF expresses their unhappiness that many Amish that leave the Amish go to “Mennonite” or “born-again” churches. Here are a few speaker bio excerpts.
Sarah Haider is an ex-Muslim and co-founder of Ex-Muslims of Northern America. AHF’s conference program writes, “Sarah will share the work that she is doing on behalf of her culture of origin and how their challenges and solutions might apply to the mission of AHF.”
Joel Engelman is an ex-Orthodox Jew whose AHF bio says, “Through his research on individuals who have left Orthodox Jewish communities, Joel will explore the commonalities between the Orthodox Jewish and Amish experiences of leaving religious communities… the common challenges of those who choose to leave insular religious communities will be discussed.”
Marci Hamilton is a former Supreme Court law clerk and is an advocate for reducing religious liberties and an advocate for the government prosecuting fringe religions.
Galen Guengerich is an ex-Mennonite who is now a Unitarian Universalist “minister”.
Historical Inaccuracy and Secular Education
There are so many historical inaccuracies espoused by Torah Bontrager and her AHF that it deserves a scholarly paper refuting it all. It ranges from
the petty (referring to the Pennsylvania Dutch language as “Amish”) to* serious résumé inflation (first and only Amish person to graduate from an Ivy League college; she’s neither) to a distortion of history which is foundational to their leftist, atheist agenda (Wisconsin v. Yoder). Since they focus so heavily on that last point and because it is so important to their agenda, I will focus on that here.
Their distortion of the history of Wisconsin v. Yoder (a 1972 Supreme Court decision) seems entirely driven by their agenda. (In fact, the AHF efforts are a quintessential case study in how the left attacks religion via the conduit of secular education.) The AHF (and Elam Zook in particular) says Wisconsin v. Yoder (WvY) “directly created an embrace of ignorance” and rejection of education. The truth is rather the reverse. WvY did not cause Amish suspicion of formal education, rather Amish suspicion of formal education caused WvY.
During the time period preceding the WvY decision, public education was rejecting God. The Amish only rejected public education because public education was rejecting God. WvY did not cause the Amish to reject public education and be suspicious of book-learning education, but rather it was the atheist drift of the educational establishment that accomplished this. WvY only codified in court precedent the 1st Amendment’s constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of conscience in regard to education. This was a freedom the Amish were already exercising and willing to go to jail for pre-WvY. Some had been fined and sent to jail already. WvY was not a catalyst and cause of Amish rejection of education; rather WvY was the State realizing that the Amish were correct in claiming that religious freedom, a religious freedom whose exercise came out of a heritage predisposed to practical, hands-on education rather than book-learning.
During the time period surrounding WvY, all Christians from the Amish to the Protestants to the Catholics recognized the attack of leftist/atheist public academia on religion. The Catholics already had their own parochial schools, the Protestants and Anabaptists did not. The Protestants, because of their heritage, developed high-quality institutions of Christian book-learning education in response. The Amish, because of their heritage, created schools that went only through eighth grade and focused their post-school educational efforts on hands-on craftsman and farming skills taught through apprenticeship and on-the-job training.
The AHF has an extremely derogatory and condescending view of the Amish, writing, “[The Amish] are a perilously disadvantaged minority group in the USA and Canada with no scientific and technological skills, no emotional and social intelligence, and no higher education.”
Anyone who has interacted with the Amish knows that this absurd polemic is at best an overgeneralization of the worst of a small minority of Amish upon the entire Amish populace. My Amish and ex-Amish friends are the some of the most intelligent, funny, creative, friendly, curious, skilled, and engaging people I know. For just one example, the ingenious eco-friendly, budget-friendly alternative-energy solutions devised by a number of ex-Amish and Amish friends and acquaintances could fill a book. I know Amish who were computer programmers while still Old Order Amish and who scored top 5 percentile in standardized national High School tests.
In contrast to AHF’s negative view, much of both the secular and religious world recognize that the modern world has fallen into the theoretical book-learning ditch and have underemphasized the trades, practical skills, craftsmanship, and apprenticing. There is a crisis of student debt where students have gotten useless, expensive degrees that they’ll be paying for their whole lives, degrees that brought them little real-world value. Most of the world recognizes the world-class apprenticeship and craftsmanship of the Amish (not to mention their strong, relationship-focused communities) and seek to recapture a healthy balance for our lonely tech- and artificially-focused world. (An example is found in the book Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive by Erik Wesner.)
As someone with a deep love of book learning, thinking logically & consistently, and being well informed, I am of the opinion that the Amish are generally unbalanced on the practical side without enough book learning. I love that my Amish and Amish-Mennonite communities here in Kansas love book-learning and I seek to spread that vision among conservative Anabaptists of all stripes. However, I also recognize my own weaknesses and the weaknesses of the modern world and realize that we have a lot to learn from the Amish craftsman/apprenticeship model.
An insightful conservative Anabaptist leader who wishes to remain anonymous wrote, “AHF’s main contention is that the government and civil society must reassert control over Amish education as the only realistic tool for enforcing assimilation of modern values in the church. Amish and Mennonite churches are artificially able to resist societal and moral assimilation because their children are not under the public school system. If they can remove the ‘prop’ of avoiding the secular education system, then the church will eventually be changed… They have accurately identified a key: If you can assert control over what children are taught and [are patient], you force change in the church.”
AHF’s attack on WvY follows the successful playbook of the left in adding the right of gay marriage to judicial canon: change academia’s opinion, thus changing a newly indoctrinated generation of young people’s opinion, thus changing the Supreme Court’s opinion.
It is an enjoyable bit of irony that they decry Amish schools as tools of indoctrination in Amish beliefs. They know all about that because that’s their game. The choice is not between Amish indoctrination and free will as they would like you to believe, but it’s rather a choice of whose worldview will be imparted in education: that of the secular, atheist left or that of the church. Both are equally eager to impart their worldview through education. The Constitution guarantees the rights of parents to make the choice between those two (and myriad other options), but the AHF wants to take away that choice by reversing Wisconsin v. Yoder.
The saddest thing about the Amish Heritage Foundation is not their dishonest name, their distortions of history, or their attacks on religious freedom to try to destroy the Amish. The saddest thing is what motivated a number of the founders and leaders of the AHF: sexual abuse. If you are a regular reader of this column, you know I have frequently highlighted sexual abuse in conservative Anabaptist and conservative Christian circles. I’ve espoused exposing that sin and trying to build a culture that is naturally resistant to such abuse happening. The experience of sexual abuse is endemic to those involved in AHF and it breaks my heart. Of course, if that abuse was one’s experience when growing up Amish, dedicating one’s life to destroying the Amish is the natural response. It also explains the very derogatory view that the AHF has toward the Amish. It is the darkest corners of the most conservative Amish world that sweep such sin under the rug, allowing it to flourish and grow. And it’s those same communities that do actually embrace insularity and ignorance rather than thoughtfully rejecting certain kinds of secular book-learning as not helpful. So AHF’s extremely negative perception of the Amish on those points makes a lot more sense when one is familiar with the various kinds of Amish and where the AHF folks came from.
Obviously, I also have a limited perspective based on the Amish I know, who are not necessarily representative of all Amish people. Amish are congregational, not conference-based. There is no top-down hierarchy, but rather local churches make their own decisions and evolve in drastically different ways both practically and spiritually.
I do appreciate the scholarship of the non-Amish Prof. Donald Kraybill who has undertaken systematic study of the Amish (and is the world’s foremost academic authority on the topic). He has highlighted a number of the positive things I have also noticed. (Because this does not fit the AHF’s narrative and goals, one of their first tasks was to write a scholarly article attacking Kraybill’s credibility and methodology.)
While this has been quite long and probably gives AHF more attention than they deserve, I believe it is an important case study for us as conservative Anabaptists (and more broadly as conservative Christians) to understand. It is absolutely textbook on how the political left and liberal religion seek to use the power of the state to try to undermine the true church. Let us be alert to the admonitions of 1 Peter 4:12-16 which instruct us to ensure that persecution from the government is not due to sinful behavior like sexual abuse. Let us also pay heed to the many Scriptures (Hosea 4:6; Eph. 4:18; Pro. 1:7; 4:13; 18:15; 19:2; 22:3; James 1:5; 1 Tim. 6:20-21; 2 Tim. 2:15; Luke 2:52; Col 2:8; John 8:32; 14:6) that call us to have a love of truth, knowledge, and wisdom and let us make sure “embrace of ignorance” is not a legitimate criticism of our lives.
Sources: Mennonite World Review, Des Moines Register, AmishHeritage.org, “The Functionalist Problem in Kraybill’s Riddle of Amish Culture” by Michael S. Billig and Elam Zook, TorahBontrager.com, “Escaping the Amish” on Tim Ferriss’ blog, Wikipedia
* “Pennsylvania Dutch” was my first language before English. When I was about five years old, I still didn’t fully understand the difference between the two languages and had a limited vocabulary in both languages. I was on a plane around that age and when the flight attendant came by I asked her, “Ma’am? Ma’am? Could I have a kissy?” She looked at me with shock and asked, “What do you want? You want me to kiss you?” My parents were at my side laughing uproariously at my predicament and quickly explained that “kissy” was the Datch word for “pillow” and that I was asking for a pillow, not a kiss. The flight attendant laughed and huffed in faux relief, “Good! I thought he was getting fresh with me!” All that to say, PA Dutch was my native language. We always called it “Datch” or “Deitsch” (depending on your accent) and when I got older, I learned the formal name was “Pennyslvania Dutch” which was an Englishified mistransliteration of “Pennsylvania Deutsch” which is the German word for German. Never, ever have I heard this language referred to as Amish. However, after reading this article, an ex-Amish friend of mine messaged me and said that when he grew up in the Pennsylvania Amish church, he and his friends would jokingly refer to Pennsylvania Dutch as “Amish”. So Torah’s use of that colloquialism is not as out of place as I thought. This illustrates, again, the hazards of making generalizations about the Amish because they are so congregational and regional.