The Amish are more American than you think

Amish communities are often depicted as a monolithic ‘Other’ to modern society, but the truth is far more complex.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Ever since their culture was made known to the world at large by the 1985 film Witness, starring Harrison Ford, the Amish people of Pennsylvania have proved a rich source of fascination. It seems intriguing to us that in the most modern, technologically progressive country in the world, there should exist such an anachronistic people, apparently stuck in a seventeenth-century time-warp – as witnessed by the quaint fact that they refer to non-Amish Americans as ‘the English’.

They fascinate us because we use their existence as a barometer to measure the merits and shortcomings of modernity. Read any article in National Geographic or watch any television documentary on the Amish, and the unconscious thrust will invariably be: is the simple, communalistic life of the Amish people superior to ours? Has our self-centred, materialistic, progress-obsessed culture actually made us happier? In short, was modernity a mistake?

It is, of course, a variation of the noble savage quandary, which has a long pedigree in romantic philosophy and anthropology. In modern times, it was the springboard for the hippy counterculture of the 1960s and can still be witnessed on the shelves of many high-street bookstores, with the psychologist Oliver James forever seeming to concur with the title of the 1993 Blur album: Modern Life is Rubbish. In cinema, the theme of culture shock between the pre-modern, non-urban man coming to terms with the urban and modern has been revisited many times, seen recently in films such as Crocodile Dundee (1986), Coming To America (1988) and Les Visiteurs (1993). Even though it was a parody of the genre, Borat (2006) was still in this tradition.

Such films present the world in clear dichotomies, between the rural, primitive and holistic and the urban, modern and rational. And analyses of the Amish tend to fall into the same mould. They drive horse-and-carts, live in wooden barns, don’t use buttons, don’t allow bicycles with pedals, wear antiquated hats and have funny beards. Their lives are in stark and directly opposite contrast to ours, so the caricature goes. This traditional dichotomy was even employed by MTV in its 2004 series Amish in the City, in which five young Amish adults were taken to California to live with six non-Amish dudes, in a customary attempt at ‘culture clash’ television.

Yet, to perceive the Amish as a monolithic Other is misleading. There are many different Amish sects, and tensions within them, as Trouble in Amish Paradise (BBC2, Wednesday) showed. It featured Ephraim Stoltzfus, who was having severe doubts about his Amish community’s rules and the power exercised by the religious elders, who insist that the Bible must be read in a form of antiquated German that even these people (who are bilingual in a dialect, Pennsylvanian Dutch, and English) don’t understand.

Ephraim and his brother Jesse’s simple wish was that the proscription of reading the Bible in English should be lifted. Only by reading the Bible in a language that all of the community could comprehend could he and other Amish have direct access to the Word of God, rather than to have it filtered through to them by an episcopacy. This is, of course, one of the oldest dilemmas within Abrahamic religions: should religious truth be divulged by priests (which Catholics and Shia Muslims largely believe) or should believers find truth for themselves by direct personal access to religious texts (which Protestants and Sunni Muslims broadly place emphasis on)?

There was a whiff of Luther about Ephraim, as if in his own very small way he was re-enacting his forefathers’ crusade against those who wanted to keep the Bible in Latin. Ephraim believed the episcopacy had corrupted the meaning of Christianity. After all, there’s nothing in the Bible that says you can’t have bicycles with pedals, or telephones in the house. Like Napoleon and Squealer in Animal Farm, it was almost as if the Amish bishops in his community had become a bit too much like that which their ancestors had sought to supplant.

And in a manner worthy of a medieval Pope, the self-styled Amish ‘bishops’ duly excommunicated Ephraim for daring to suggest that God’s people should understand His Word. No longer welcome at church ceremonies, and even ostracised by their own close relatives, Ephraim, his wife Amanda and their four children went in search of a new church.

Yet his spiritual mission was cruelly interrupted by the discovery that his daughter, Marie, had leukaemia, and that her treatment would cost $3,000 a day. Unfortunately Ephraim had sold his $100,000 farm and given all of his life savings away to a deserving family, and his own family was now living in a rented home with no income and no savings. Had he not been excommunicated, the community would have rallied to his help, for this is an Amish imperative; but now, it seemed, he would pay for his disobedience with his daughter’s life. Fortuitously, other members of the Amish community broke ranks, and came to the Stoltzfuses’ aid. We were told at the end of the BBC programme, which was filmed over a period of six months, that Marie is now doing well.

Ephraim, his wife Amanda and his brother Jesse confirmed all the stereotypes of Amish people: hardworking, loving, courteous, altruistic, kind, devout. It was a touching story, and I admired Ephraim’s devotion to his family and to his beliefs, even though I don’t adhere to them. And I do fear for Ephraim if he does read the Bible in a language he understands. For he will find that it is a monstrous vortex of contradictions. And this doesn’t include the gospels that have conveniently been left out.

Trouble in Amish Paradise reminded us that the dichotomy between the Amish and mainstream Americans (‘the English’) doesn’t really hold. Is not mainstream America also deeply Protestant, devout, hardworking, courteous and altruistic? The US has a deeply ingrained tradition of philanthropy, from Andrew Carnegie (the man who said ‘To die rich is to die disgraced’) to Bill Gates. Should Trouble in Amish Paradise be aired on the BBC America channel, I guarantee the Stoltzfus family will never be poor again.

Patrick West is spiked‘s TV columnist.

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