Horse and Buggy Politics


Curiosity about the Amish, one of the most colorful and unassimilated of America’s micro-minorities, is a more substantial phenomenon than I had ever suspected. More substantial and more commercial, too. A column in the New York Times Book Review alerted me to the unlikely but conspicuous success of two authors who write bestsellers set in Amish communities. One, Linda Castillo, writes murder mysteries and the other, Beverly Lewis, “the Queen of Amish Fiction,” specializes in Amish love stories. Castillo’s background is in Harlequin romances, Lewis’s in Christian and children’s literature, so it’s not surprising that I never encountered them as a reader, though between them they’ve published well over 100 titles and sold millions of books.

Who knew? Publishers. “Word has gotten out that if you write about the Amish, you can sell books,” according to an Amish woman quoted in the Times. Apparently this curiosity extends to entertainment as well. Wikipedia lists scores of Amish-themed films, stage plays, TV series and episodes. It’s possible to have missed all this pop-culture Amishtick, of course, just as it’s possible to miss the reclusive Amish themselves. Witness (1985), the acclaimed Peter Weir film starring Harrison Ford, is the only motion picture listed that I’m sure I’ve seen.

My curiosity is engaged and I’m trying to make up lost ground, but there must be a lot of people who know more about the Amish than I do. If you’re not among them, you may not know that the Amish, popularly known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, were originally German Swiss Anabaptists who established their first settlements in Pennsylvania in the 18th century. Though there are fewer than 300,000 of them still living in their separatist communities, they’re one of the fastest-growing minorities in America because the average Amish marriage produces six or seven children. They’re farmers and craftsmen who live according to a Bible-based Ordnung, a strict code of behavior that prohibits, among other affectations of modernity, nearly all the technological innovations of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. They literally live in a different world, a world that existed before electricity and automobiles — and before the words and images from billions of glowing screens began to flicker across our imprisoned modern brains.

With limited knowledge of their lives, I always considered myself pro-Amish. Any tribe of Luddites, pacifists, and proto-socialists is a tribe I want to have on my side. What’s not to love about apple-cheeked farmers in straw hats who’ve never touched a cellphone or watched a sitcom? Who take Romans 12:2 — “And be not conformed to this world …” — as their most essential Bible lesson?

Not that the Amish are entirely above reproach. They pursue no formal education beyond the eighth grade; like all fundamentalists who steer strictly by the Bible, written by a tough bunch of male chauvinists in the Bronze Age, they’re a century behind most Americans in granting equal rights to their women. Complaints about some of their “puppy mill” operations have revealed an unsentimental, utilitarian attitude toward animals that neither PETA nor I could endorse. But surrounded by a national culture in a state I can only describe as putrefaction, where the commercial mainstream is represented by superhero movies, zombie fantasies and the assembly-line literature of James Patterson and his elves, the Amish may be our last sacred innocents—-the last Americans who have yet to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid.

I’ve never lived near an Amish community, though I’ve passed their horse-drawn carriages and wagons, bearing bearded men and women in bonnets, on back roads in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. My interest in them has been increasing thanks to media coverage of an Amish community established 10 years ago in Maine, where I live in the summer. Most of Maine’s entertaining news stories are generated by its blustering, simple-minded mini-Trump of a governor, Paul LePage, whom you can imagine precisely if you remember Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam from the old Warner Brothers cartoons. But on days when the volcanic LePage lies dormant, local newspapers often fill front-page space with colorful stories on the Aroostook County Amish—features on their organic dairies and diesel-powered sawmills, disputes over their horse droppings on rural roads, frightful one-sided collisions where horse-drawn carriages moving at 10 m.p.h. are hit by trucks and motorcycles traveling at warp speed. (More common in Maine are motorcycle-moose collisions, the aftermath of which you do not ever want to see.)

An article that earned my attention and applause was a feature in the Bangor Daily News by Abigail Curtis, her profile of an “Amish atheist” named Kenneth Copp. Reading about Copp, a 57-year-old farmer and carpenter who had been “shunned” by his Amish community when he lost his Christian faith, I stumbled upon one of those ironies, one of those truths that stop you in your tracks because you can’t believe you didn’t see it before. The Amish have always set a good example, rarely followed, with their non-violence, their distrust of technology, their old-fashioned work ethic, and best of all their religious commitment to humility and self-effacement, in radical contrast to the promiscuous self-regard and self-promotion that anchor the American zeitgeist. But while I was empathizing with the painful journey of the atheist farmer Kenneth Copp — his apostasy has cost him not only his community but his wife and children — I realized for the first time that the most important lesson the Amish have to teach us is political.

Bear with me for a moment. The most bizarre aspect of the American political scene in the 21st century is our ridiculous, unprecedented polarization. As the gap between Left and Right grows and grows, an alarming majority of voting citizens identify as liberals or conservatives as if these distinctions were genetically and unalterably determined, like their height or their skin color. And yet we know, as North Carolina’s Barry Saunders once reminded us in a particularly sagacious column, that an intelligent person approaches politics one issue at a time—-trending liberal on this one, conservative on another, moderate or uninterested in several more. I hope I pass the Saunders test. Unless the GOP purges and reinvents itself entirely, it appears that the Democrats have my vote forever—-but not necessarily because they have my heart. I’m not happy letting Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren tell me which of my opinions are appropriately liberal. And I never bought into the New Left’s extreme, pharisaical identity politics, which often threaten the First Amendment as well as common sense. Somewhere in my brain there’s still a lurking libertarian who jumps up when I least expect him.

Only the dullest or most ignorant voter adopts a pre-selected package of beliefs and prejudices, or marches in step with a multitude that never changes its tune. In the aftermath of the horror in Charlottesville, a familiar city where several of my friends live, Far Right racists with friends in the White House have been exposed as the kind of neo-Nazi vermin no half-civilized politician or businessman can excuse; one positive after-effect might be a true schism in the Republican Party. Yet even at this emotional moment when the gap between the two Americas seems to yawn as wide as we’ve ever seen it, it’s possible to peel away indigestible extremes like the white supremacists and question whether some of the most profound differences between Left and Right are as unbridgeable as they seem. At least from an Amish perspective.

The “movement” conservatives who animate the Republican Party care nothing, finally, about any of the culture-war issues like abortion, gun control, gay marriage, school prayer or Confederate statues. They flatter and humor the “deplorables” who do care, including white nationalists, for the votes that often win elections and advance the movement’s single consistent goal — shrinking government and emasculating regulators so the wealthy, unimpeded, can become wealthier yet. Along with this single-minded greed comes the entrenched, conscience-easing myth that the poor are lazy parasites whose deserve nothing from their fellow taxpayers (polls show a majority of Republicans believe this). On the other side, the political goal that unifies most liberals, from out-and-out socialists to modern New Deal Democrats, is a social safety net that leaves no unfortunate Americans in free-fall.

Where do the Amish, who do not participate in electoral politics, enter the equation? Oblivious to America’s essential political conflict, they’ve managed to render both goals — and both parties — irrelevant. Small government? The Amish expect nothing and take nothing from the government — no Social Security, welfare, Medicare, unemployment insurance or food stamps — even though they’re obliged to pay taxes. But the poor, and the safety net? Social safety is built into the Amish community. Those who have more take care of those who have less, the inept and incompetent can count on the assistance and expertise of the most capable. Each community functions like a single family, but the safety net extends to other Amish in communities all across the country. Unexpected misfortunes in Ohio are alleviated by donations from the churches in Maine or Michigan. The Amish, pretty much alone among Americans, truly have each others’ backs.

This tradition of generosity and cooperation is so ingrained that even “fallen,” ostracized Amish like Kenneth Copp reap its benefits. This was the part of his story that impressed me the most. When it appeared that Copp, working alone, would never be able to get his hay in before an approaching rainstorm, several Amish men from his former community showed up, in defiance of the ban, and helped him bring in his bales with their horse-drawn wagon.

“They teach basic honesty, and they have a structured society that cares for people,” Copp told the reporter Curtis. “That is something I definitely miss. I miss the community. I miss it a lot.”

Very few Americans, raised as we were, could live the life of piety, hard work, limited autonomy and simple pleasures that satisfies most of the Amish. Yet it seems to satisfy most of them who are born into it. Their communities are not coercive. They oppose infant baptism, and an interesting feature of their Ordnung is rumspringa (“running around”), the period in late adolescence when Amish teenagers are released from the strict rules of the community and encouraged to sample the world outside. They mingle with the “English” (the Amish call all non-Amish “English”) and behave or misbehave according to their temperaments. If life with the English appeals to them, they’re free to leave their parents’ community — but nearly 90% of these teenagers choose to return, accept baptism in the church, marry within the church and begin their lives as Amish adults.

So much for the wisdom of “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm …” Security is a basic human requirement, and individuals who have experienced the iron-clad security of an Amish community are rarely tempted, it seems, by the perilous “freedom” of the capitalist democracy. I know I’m oversimplifying, and there’s no turning a nation of 300 million souls back into a primitive commune. But it seems to me that the Amish example reconciles libertarians, anarchists and socialists, and exposes most ideological warfare as the clash of the clueless. It especially shames Americans who adopt predatory capitalism and belligerent individualism as their religion, like the Ayn Rand disciples who have captured the Republican Party.

“Cooperation is the law of civilization,” the anarchist Peter Kropotkin wrote, and Eldridge Cleaver repeated. “Competition is the law of the jungle.”

It boils down to caring for, and about, other people. In America’s winner-take-all economy, a Rand-tainted capitalist perversion which has produced the most obscene income inequality in the civilized world, liberals advocate federal or institutional responsibility for those unfortunate others, and “conservatives” take no responsibility at all. The Amish take personal responsibility, according to a biblical mandate that stresses the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount. They actually “do unto others …” etc. It’s hard to imagine anything, except maybe their technophobia, that places them further from the American mainstream. In our war of all against all, Americans fight over nearly everything but the moral high ground. And when the roll is called up yonder, we’ll all be waiting in line far behind these antique Christians who said goodbye to progress — and to politics — four hundred years ago.

Hal Crowther is a longtime journalist whose essays have been awarded the H.L. Mencken, Lillian Smith and American Association of Newsweeklies prizes for commentary and the 2014 Pushcart Prize for non-fiction. His latest book is An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L.Mencken (University of Iowa Press, 2014). Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2017

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