Friday, 12 July 2013

in praise of the Amish

There is an aspect of evangelical belief which is not as appreciated as it should be: the doctrine of separation. These Christians believe that they should be “in the world, but not of the world”. They base this doctrine on a number of scripture passages, especially John. This separation encompasses everything: what people read and believe, their choices in entertainment and clothes, their family life, their friends and career, and of course who they pray with. Fundamentalist parents do all they can to see to it that their families are not infected with what they see as the sicknesses of the modern world, the clothes, the music, the television, the ideas. Today’s Baptists and other hard-core Jesus people talk up this separation business, in part as a way to control and punish their own church members (the local Baptist group near me is very explicit about disciplining members who stray). The more extreme adherents insist on “second-degree separation”: they should avoid not only the outsiders, but even fellow evangelicals who don’t believe in separation. As though the modern world constitutes contamination.

Which brings me to the Amish. The true champs of separation. While today’s evangelical Baptists and the like live lives much like ours, with the internet and cable television and iPhones, the Amish actually walk the walk on separation. They restrict or ban the use of anything connecting them to the big city, electric lines and phones and cars. Although some members are leaving the Amish fold and some Amish communities are loosening the rules a bit, for the most part the Amish community maintains its 19th-century existence as well as they can; their emphasis on “plain” humility extends to banning “fancy” zippers on clothes.

It must be said that not everything the Amish do is admirable: they make women subordinate to men and rarely send their kids to high school. But there are some things they do that one can admire. First, they are not the Pennsylvania Taliban: they emphasize community, they let teenagers run a little wild before buckling down to the rules of adult life, they smoke pipes and drink beer. Even the dreaded punishment of shunning is only used as a last resort when the church unanimously decides to impose it, and it can be cancelled once the sinner returns to the church. Intolerance doesn’t seem to be their thing.

Second, the Amish are not really obsessed with religion. They don’t let religion dominate their lives like fundamentalists do – instead of building a big church for the preacher and making that the centerpiece of their lives, they hold religious services in each other’s homes. And more importantly, they are consistent about being separated from the world: the Amish believe that running around and quoting the Bible all day in front of other people is a “proud” thing to do, so they don’t beat each other, or outsiders, over the head with their religious beliefs. They keep their Amish stuff separate inside their Amish bubble, rather than trying to sell the Amish way to all their neighbors. The government recognizes that their beliefs about being separate from the outer world are consistent and not “situational”, which is why the government allows them to opt out of military service and the Social Security system.

Which takes me back to the Baptists. They want to be separate from the world when they’re over at their own house, inside their fundamentalist bubble: the Baptist rules himself, his family, his home and his faith his way, and no outside influences are allowed to hold sway. But when he comes over to your house, it’s a completely different story. Not only does he want to win you over to his way of religion, he wants to make you do things his way in other areas that have nothing to do with religion. He wants his views to control not just the Fundamentalists, but everyone else, and not just on religion, but also on science and medicine, law and politics, the works. Abortion, gay marriage, contraception, HPV shots, evolution, stem-cell research.

This problem is rooted in the central hypocrisy of the fundamentalist movement. They believe in the doctrine of separation, but they also believe in the doctrine of evangelism, the notion that true believers are supposed to be going out there in enemy territory, winning over new members. They want the flow of ideas to be a one-way street: no “modern” influences are to enter the fundamentalist bubble, but the evangelicals are supposed to be peddling their brand of medieval snake oil outside the bubble, to the community at large. They are allowed to try to sell their ideas to us, but we’re not allowed to try to sell our ideas to them.

Here’s a perfect example of the hypocrisy. Where I live, down the street there is a Baptist family. They are hard-core evangelicals, ranting about gays and abortion on their website and in every sermon. They were hell-bent on coming down to my house to try to convert my young daughters to their faith. They even sent their pastor and his wife down to my house, to preach at the girls. But when I turned the tables on them – I printed out an article explaining why the Baptist interpretation of gay marriage was fallacious, and sent my daughter to the Baptists’ house with it – they went Absolutely. Bat. Shit. They determined that my daughter is officially going to hell. And probably took a shower to wash off the Devil Cooties, and burned my article in the fireplace before anyone could see it.

If these evangelical people want to separate themselves, and to not be of the world, then let them do that. Let them wall themselves off from 21st century civilization. But don’t use those little fundamentalist enclaves as sally ports from which they can launch their little God Raids on their neighbors. Live like the Amish, and stop wreaking havoc in our school boards, our legislatures, our funerals, our Boy Scout troops, our doctor’s offices. If they want to be left alone, they need to leave us alone too.

Just imagine if there was an evangelical atheist movement. Go door to door?

“Howdy! Welcome to the neighborhood, have a cookie! Man is an animal, the earth is a satellite, the Bible is wrong!”

Maybe not.

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