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The Grand Bargain of Religious Freedom and Religious Responsibility: The Mennonite Example

  • Dennis R. Hoover
  • October 31, 2023

As the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) has long argued, an environment of religious freedom will only become sustainable when there is a grand bargain of rights and responsibilities—that is, when governments protect religious freedom rights and religious communities choose to exercise those rights responsibly.

Unfortunately, many countries around the world today are beset by conditions that are essentially the opposite. Instead of a grand bargain of religious freedom and religious responsibility that benefits everyone, too many countries are rife with religious repression and religious irresponsibility. Moreover, a vicious feedback loop can easily develop between state repression of religion and religion-related violence. Repression begets radicalization, and radicalization begets repression, and the cycle repeats.

Nevertheless, there are also many examples of virtuous feedback loops, local contexts in which (1) governments grant a high degree of religious freedom and religious autonomy, even to groups that are outside the societal mainstream, and (2) religious groups reliably behave in socially responsible ways, contributing directly and indirectly to peace and the common good.

I grew in one such context, namely Lancaster County, PA, the population of which includes a prominent concentration of the Amish as well as closely related groups of Old Order Mennonites. Historically and today, the story of these ascetic religious communities’ interrelationship with their surrounding society and government remains a relative success story of religious freedom and religious responsibility.

Mennonites are part of the Anabaptist tradition, which is rooted in the radical Reformation of 16th century Europe. Mennonites have proved to be highly fissiparous over their history; they have divided into numerous separate groups, the Amish being the most well-known. While some Mennonite groups have almost completely acculturated to mainstream modern culture, there are still many conservative Mennonites who continue to maintain a rejection of “worldly” society. They are widely known as a community that abstains from many modern conveniences and technology, uses horse and buggy for transportation, dresses in distinctively plain clothing, and follows a strict ethic of pacifism. They are generally seen by the wider American society as non-threatening and as a welcome (even if anachronistic) part of the social tapestry.

But it’s important to look closer at what makes the grand bargain of religious freedom and religious responsibility actually work in this case. Conservative Mennonites and their Amish cousins do dissent and deviate from mainstream American culture and norms in quite significant ways, and they do occasionally ask difficult, unpopular things of the wider society. I’ll mention 6 examples:

  1. Whereas gender equality is the dominant norm in most of American culture today, the family life and internal church decision making of conservative Mennonite and Amish communities remains very patriarchal.
  2. Much of mainstream American culture today is somewhat relativistic about religious differences, adopting a casual “all roads lead to heaven” kind of indifferent tolerance. By contrast, conservative Mennonites and Amish are emphatically not representative of that kind of relativism. They have a great deal of confidence in their own moral and religious epistemology, their own hold on absolute Truth.
  3. Whereas many theologically conservative Christians in America still place a lot of emotional stock in a God-and-country notion of patriotism, most conservative Mennonites and Amish eschew politics altogether and will have nothing whatsoever to do with Christian nationalism.
  4. Mainstream American society is very individualistic in most areas, including individual religious choice. Most Americans believe strongly that not only should there be no legal penalty or physical threat as a consequence of changing one’s religion, but also that there should be no social disapproval at the family and community level. Conservative Mennonites and Amish are somewhat different. While they do agree there should be no legal penalty or threat of violence, they employ significant nonviolent social pressures to discourage baptized adults from leaving. The most severe method is “shunning,” a harsh form of social exclusion.
  5. The American culture and economy are highly consumerist in nature, and highly oriented to efficiency, technological advancement, and formal educational achievement. By contrast, conservative Mennonites and Amish reject materialism and live radically plain, modest lifestyles. Some pull their children out of school after the eighth grade to focus solely on learning farming and related trades through experience.
  6. And finally, by far the most radical way in which conservative Mennonites and Amish dissent from mainstream America occurs with respect to armed military service and a military draft. Mennonites join others in the peace church tradition (such as the Quakers) and conscientiously object to armed military service. In the occasion of a military draft, members of the peace church traditions request to be exempted from armed military service on religious grounds. Such exemptions have usually been granted, but if they are denied, most conservative Mennonite and Amish believers are willing to go to jail before submitting to conscription for armed service.

My point in relaying these examples is that the presence of this highly distinctive religious minority within America is more than a tourist attraction for southeastern Pennsylvania. By the way they choose to follow their conscience and live out their faith, they ask American society and government to demonstrate tolerance, to respect religious freedom even when it is uncomfortable, to make fair accommodations and exemptions.

This is part of the grand bargain of religious freedom and religious responsibility. But it’s not the only part. Conservative Mennonite and Amish communities also need to hold up their end of the grand bargain. Here are six brief examples of how, in my view, they do precisely that.

  1. They are highly industrious and hardworking, which derives in large part from a faith-based work ethic. As a consequence they make significant contributions to the economy.
  2. They are loyal and law-abiding citizens. Their largely apolitical stance is not at all a kind of anarchism. They acknowledge and respect the rule of law and the role of the state in enforcing the law. There is a reason one never sees a headline about a Mennonite crime wave!
  3. They practice what they preach in terms of robust pluralism. While they ask American society and government to respect their religious autonomy, they reciprocate toward other religious communities. They respect that other communities have different belief and standards than their own.
  4. They practice what they preach in terms of charity, compassion, humanitarian service to those in need, and peacebuilding. The Mennonite tradition has long been an energetic contributor to local and international humanitarian work and peacebuilding initiatives, including via Mennonite-affiliated agencies such as the Mennonite Central Committee.
  5. They rely largely on extended family and private faith-based forms of social support for people within their faith community, which means that they are less of a burden on the government’s taxpayer funded social programs.
  6. In the event of a military draft, while they won’t participate in armed combat, most a very willing to participate in alternative service programs organized by the government. In World War II for example, Mennonites worked collaboratively with the U.S. government in establishing extensive Civilian Public Service projects, for example public works projects and medical services.

In short, the interrelationship between Mennonites and their surrounding society and government shows that the grand bargain is possible. But it does require both governments and religious groups to abide by appropriate limits, make reasonable compromises, shoulder proportionate responsibility for the common good, and engage each other with mutual respect.

About Dennis R. Hoover

Dennis R. Hoover (D.Phil. Politics, University of Oxford) is Editor of The Review of Faith and International Affairs, Research Advisor to the Templeton Religion Trust’s Covenantal Pluralism Initiative, and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement. He is co-editor with Chris Seiple of The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement (Routledge 2023).

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