Freedom of religion and freedom of speech allow people to believe and say what they want in this country. But I know from firsthand experience that religiously driven myths reinforced by leaders can harm children’s lives and thwart their potential.
Like many Christian children, my Amish upbringing instilled in me the belief that Jesus’ return would be preceded by devastating conditions including floods, earthquakes, droughts, tornadoes, crop failures and fires — basically all the things climate change is unleashing. With no adequate education to temper these beliefs, fear of the coming apocalypse traumatized me. Had I stayed in the religion, recent weather patterns would no doubt have had me praying doubly hard. When I escaped my community in Michigan in the middle of the night at age 15, I arrived in mainstream society laden with fears that had been reinforced through a limited Amish education that ended at the eighth grade. I’d acquired little secular knowledge thanks to a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case Wisconsin vs. Yoder, which found that Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law was unconstitutional because it violated Amish parents’ rights to exercise their religion. As a result, I had no knowledge of science, sex education, or any subject contrary to Amish religious views. Had I not escaped, the Supreme Court ruling would have sealed my fate: becoming an ignorant Amish housewife.
My hunger for empirical answers to allay my fear of hell drove me to earn a high school equivalency diploma and eventually apply to America’s top schools. Upon entering Columbia University, I was shocked to learn that many of my professors weren’t aware that the highest court in the country had set a precedent in favor of extremist religion over my basic rights. Over and over, I’ve seen how the system regularly protects religious sects as they harm children –– from a failure to educate them to a failure to physically protect them.
For example, in New York City, Mayor de Blasio has failed forcefully to stand up to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to ensure that these schools provide Hasidic children with a state-mandated secular education. Most recently, 30 members of the New York City Council signed a letter spearheaded by Council Members Chaim Deutsch and Kalman Yeger in opposition to regulations proposed by the New York State Education Department to provide the bare minimum general education to which they are entitled under state law.
And last month, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by congressional leaders to defend the constitutionality of a ban on female genital mutilation after a doctor from a Muslim community was charged with cutting the clitoral hoods of nine 7-year-old girls who cried and bled as a woman restrained them.
Whether fundamentalist Islam, ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Amish, or any other religion, all insular religious communities use a range of tactics to exert power and control over their members, starting at birth. Many of those tactics are steeped in utter fictions that serve to keep children from fulfilling their potential.
Yes, religious leaders can say what they want. But society must help minimize the harm. While [Robert] Jeffress has the right to make outlandish claims about [global climate change] rainbows, children should have the right to a federally-mandated adequate education that would give them the tools to assess the veracity of those claims.
What is religious fundamentalism? Typically, it is an unwavering and unapologetic belief in the absolute authority of a religious text or texts. Adherents believe their religion is the one true religion and that its precepts should govern all aspects of life. The ultimate goal is the governance of everyone’s lives under the rules and standards of the religion’s holy book(s). Rules are comprehensive, encompassing behavior, dress, gender roles, and access to information, media, and technology. Adherents believe that their religious beliefs and practices should be exempt from criticism, and any form of criticism is labeled as heresy or persecution. There are many types of religious fundamentalists throughout the world, but here in the United States we are most familiar with fundamentalist evangelical Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, orthodox and Hasidic Jews, and Old Order Amish (which are fundamentalist in their adherence to their religious text, but not with regard to forcing their beliefs on those outside their community).
As disparate as these groups may seem on the surface, they have much in common. Each group believes that its holy text is an absolute, inerrant authority for all aspects of life. It is not uncommon for these groups to separate themselves from their surrounding communities, focusing almost exclusively on staying within their religious communities with regard to their worship activities, leisure activities, and even employment. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, for example, must be work for an employer that is flexible with regard to Jewish holy days and for leaving work early on Fridays for Shabbas. Not in all cases, but frequently children are sent to sect-approved/operated schools. In Amish communities, education is forbidden past 8th grade, and in communities that have their own schools, the teachers are young women within the community who have no education past 8th grade. For Hasidic Jews, girls and boys attend gender-segregated schools. Boys attend yeshivas where the focus of education is on studying the Talmud. Little attention is given to other subjects, and evolution is not taught. Among Evangelicals, it is popular to either home school one’s children or to send them to a fundamentalist Christian school, where, again, evolution is not taught to children. Fundamentalist Muslims often send their children to madrasas where the focus is on religious education. In some Muslim-controlled countries, girls are not educated.
Fundamentalists of all stripes give great authority to religious leaders who often dictate the rules of each separatist community. In Amish communities, there is a bishop, two or three ministers, and a deacon. Each must be nominated, but lots (similar to drawing straws) are drawn to determine which man receives which position. The leaders are responsible for the spiritual education of their congregation as well as making sure the Ordnung — the set of rules specific to each community — is followed. Each church district’s leaders set specific rules for its community, which is why there can be slight differences from one Amish community to another. In Evangelical sects and churches, great authority is given to pastors. Bruce has spoken about this a number of times, so there’s no need for me to expound on the matter here. In Orthodox or Hasidic communities, the rebbe is the authority, and he sets the rules specific to that local community. Rules may include color of stockings women are required to wear or what books are allowed in the Hasidic libraries. In fundamentalist Muslim communities, the imam is the ultimate authority, and he may issue fatwas or rules specific to his community. (Please note that all leaders are male.)
In each of these fundamentalist religions, gender roles are specifically defined in traditional ways. Men are considered to be the leaders of the family, the breadwinners, the final authorities in the household; the ones who commune most closely with their deity. Women are considered to be the nurturers, the caretakers of children, submissive to the authority of their husbands. Typically, women are not allowed to work outside the home in many fundamentalist sects/churches. Amish women are, however, permitted to sell their goods at markets or operate roadside stands for home-grown and home-baked goods. Women are not allowed any positions of leadership beyond teaching women or young children. Marriage is considered to be between one man and one woman, and these communities are not known for acceptance of LBGTQ people.
Dress codes are important among these communities. The Amish are easily identified as their clothing styles have not changed in centuries. They are referred to as “Plain People” because their styles are simple, solid colors typically limited to black, brown, burgundy, blue, purple or green (though some communities may allow other colors). Women wear dresses and aprons secured with straight pins (no buttons, which are considered vain), and they wear a white kappe (head covering) so they may pray at any time. Men wear dark suits with hook & eye closures (no buttons and no fancy belt buckles), suspenders, and a black or straw hat.
For fundamentalist Christians, there is often no exact standard of dress other than “modesty” for women, though many fundamentalist Baptist churches have complex, exacting dress codes. Many fundamentalist Christian women wear skirts or dresses at least knee length, no low-cut tops, and they typically wear sleeves. Women will be shamed for showing too much skin or wearing something too tight.
Hasidic communities have strict hair and clothing rules as well. Married women must keep their hair short and wear a sheitel wig; women wear dresses or skirts; their sleeves must be at least three-quarter length; they must wear thick, opaque stockings (often black, occasionally flesh colored though that is forbidden in some communities); and a lot of black, loose clothing, though blouses or sweaters may be colorful. Married men must sport a beard and side curls (payot) which they can never cut. Most men wear a white button-down shirt and black pants and jacket. A yarmulke must be worn at all times, and when praying, men wear a tallit, or prayer shawl, with tzitzit, or fringe, to remind them of God’s commandments.
Fundamentalist Muslim women must be covered in mixed company, and the culture determines how much covering is required. The most extreme version is the burqa with the niqab (face covering). Men may wear a taqiyah or cap when praying.
Each of these fundamentalist religions believes secularism is the greatest threat to their sect, churches, and beliefs. Access to secular libraries or media may be prohibited, restricted, or discouraged. Often, only books approved by church leaders are permitted to be read. The Amish prohibit technology altogether, though they are allowed to check out elder-approved books at public libraries. Fundamentalist Christians are generally admonished to limit their media access to “G-rated” or Christian-published format. Many Hasidic communities forbid access to secular libraries. In fundamentalist Muslim-controlled countries, all media are controlled by the religious leaders, thus preventing people from accessing any non-approved content. Each of these groups limits media access for “moral” reasons, but they also want to prevent community members from accessing any knowledge that may contradict their sect’s teachings.
While some of Amish people vote, they do not seek public office, and their pacifism prevents them from joining the military. They also are not visibly active in campaigning. Myriads of articles have been written — particularly before and after the 2016 presidential election — concerning the political activism of evangelical Christians. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews are known for their political activism for candidates sympathetic to their communities, particularly as it is an “honor” for Jewish men to collect welfare and food stamps so they can exclusively focus their time on Talmudic studies. As far as fundamentalist Islam is concerned, there are many countries in which fundamentalist Islam controls government.
In Bruce’s recent post Life After Jesus: Moving from a God-Shaped Hole to a Knowledge-Shaped Hole he talks about restrictions that fundamentalist Christian authorities put on secular influences. Indeed, venturing beyond fundamentalist-bubble-approved media is considered a temptation by Satan and demonic forces, potentially leading someone to everlasting torment in hell. Pastors try to scare their flocks into not watching the latest season of “Cosmos” or “Game of Thrones”; that rock music leads to the “Highway to Hell”; that evolution is Satan’s greatest deception. Amish and Hasidic communities threaten members with excommunication if they do not adhere to community standards. For the skeptical or curious in these communities, fear of being cut off from family and friends is a real concern. In addition, many members (particularly women) are poorly educated and lack job skills, so escaping these communities is, at best, a risky venture. Mission to Amish People (MAP) and Charity Christian Fellowship are organizations that help Amish people leave their communities, and Footsteps is an organization that helps Hasidic Jews leave theirs. Organizations such as these offer practical and emotional support to deconverts. Those of us in the real world realize that knowledge is power, and fundamentalists do their best to limit knowledge, thus limiting the power of their flocks.
I look at all these groups and think, there’s no way I could live in one of those communities. After I graduated from high school, I did my best to escape the clutches of fundamentalist Christianity. Fortunately, I possessed a college degree from a highly ranked secular university and developed marketable skills, so I was able to support myself financially. Many in these communities, particularly women, are purposely raised without these skills, ensuring reliance on the community. It is my firm conviction that any group that purposefully restricts access to knowledge and education and discourages contact with outsiders is inherently harmful and potentially abusive. Those in power may thrive within these systems, but the systems themselves are designed to benefit those in power at the expense of the powerless.
(If you are interested in finding out more about the Old Order Amish, I recommend the book Amish Society by John A. Hostetler for a comprehensive examination. For those who have access to Netflix and are interested in deconverts from Hasidic Judaism, I recommend the documentary One of Us regarding the Hasidic community in Brooklyn and in Rockland County, New York. Both are communities with which I am familiar as I live in proximity to both).
Now, for a bit of levity: Amish Paradise by Weird Al Yankovic
Polly and I took a road trip today to Hardin County, Ohio. We finally got a decent day weather-wise (except for 30 mile-per-hour wind), so I was itching to load up my camera equipment and hit the road. Our destination was a sizable rural Amish community between Kenton and Mt Victory, Ohio. While the Amish proved to be elusive, we did stumble upon several interesting churches as we traveled to and from Hardin County.
Mt Zion Old Regular Baptist Church of Jesus Christ.According to an Old Regular Baptist forum, Mt. Zion is part of the Sovereign Grace Association. The church meets once a month for worship. Their beliefs are as follows:
SOVEREIGN GRACE ASSOCIATION OF OLD REGULAR BAPTIST CHURCHES OF JESUS CHRIST.
This appears at present to be one of the smallest Old Regular Baptist Associations. They are however one of the strongest representatives of the original doctrine, faith and practice of the Old Regular Baptist in modern times. The churches of this association stress the Godhead, Inflability (sic) of the Old and New Testament, Election by Grace, Original Sin, Justification by the Imputed Righteousness of Jesus Christ, sinners being called to Repentance, Eternal Secruity (sic), a properly ordained ministry. Their ministers preach a Travail from Nature to Grace, (there must be a begotting (sic) before there can be a birth.)They believe in a Last Day in which there will be a resurection (sic) of the dead the just and the unjust, the joys of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked will be eternal. They baptize by immersion, take the Lord’s Supper with wine and unleavened bread which is followed by feet washing. Old Regular Baptist are non-instrumental prefering (sic) to line their songs in different meters. The members of this association practice modesty of dress. Sisters belonging to these churches do not cut their hair, brothers do not let their hair grow long. They have no secret orders among their membership. Sovereign Grace Association doesn’t however infringe on any of it’s (sic) Corresponding Associations and leaves them to settle their own matters. Like all Orthodox Old School Baptist they deny Freewillism, Arminism (sic),Gospel Regeneration, Works for Eternal Salvation, Pre and Postmillenalism. While there are young people attending their churches, there is no Sunday Schools, Missionary Societies, ETC.. Sovereign Grace Old Regulars believe the church of today has no right to place something in the church that Christ and the Apostles did not establish; that to do such would be adding to the Word of God. You will find these churches are very open to newcomers/outsiders. Visiting one of these churches is like taking a trip back in time, you will often hear shouting and praising the KING OF KINGS AND THE LORD OF LORDS, old time singing and love being manifested throughout the service, if you long for simple New Testament Worship vist (sic) one of these Old Regular Baptist Churches.
First Baptist Church, Forest, Ohio. The church is an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church. If you are looking for an opportunity to talk to God, he lives at this church. Stop by and listen to what he has to say. On July 1, 2003, Evangelist Don Hardman was holding a revival meeting at First Baptist when God sent the church a message. According to Hardman’s wife Laura:
About halfway into the message, we could hear the thunder and see the lightning through the stained glass windows, During his preaching, when a loud crack of thunder rang out, Don would say, “Yes, Lord, we are listening.” He made reference to the verse God’s voice was like thunder. (Psalms 77:18)
All of a sudden, a lightning bolt hit the church and burnt out the sound system, blowing the light bulbs out of their sockets behind the pulpit. We could smell the burning wires but still did not know we had taken a direct hit. Not once did we lose our electricity, so Don kept preaching on Solomon’s prayer of repentance. About 20 minutes later, a women came running into the church and said, “the church is on fire.”
Evidently, this message from God did not make much of an impression on the church’s pastor. Not long after the lightning incident, the pastor of the church was removed due to sexual misconduct.
Victory in the Cross Ministries, Blanchard Avenue, Findlay, Ohio. Regular readers of this blog might remember that I attended Findlay City Schools from eighth through eleventh grades. According to one of the signs in front of the church, the United States was founded on the Word of God. Victory in the Cross is pastored by George H. Jarrell. Here is what the church’s website has to say about Harrell:
In 1990, I fully rededicated my life to the Lord. Then in 1996 God called me to be a Youth Pastor for the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Lima Ohio, which is Pastor (sic) by my eldest brother.
The Lord opened a door for me in the year of 2000 to be the Pastor for the Gilboa Pentecostal Church of God in Gilboa Ohio. During this time I began to learn the Message of the Cross as taught by Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. As I tuned into Sonlife Broadcasting Network (SBN) I grew in the the (sic) Message of the Cross and God opened up His Word to me as never before.
In the beginning of 2011, through some problems and disagreements I prayfully (sic) left the PCG. With the Leading and Guiding of the Lord I ventured out and began an independant (sic), non-denominational church. We strongly believe in the Pentecostal experience, which is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as Jesus promised the people that they would recieve (sic) Acts 1:8; and the speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gives the utterance as in Acts 2:4.
This sign is in front of an Amish home outside of Kenton, Ohio. Not a church sign, but interesting nonetheless.
Earlier this year, Polly and I took a road trip to eastern Indiana that eventually landed us in Amish country. Here’s a few of the photographs I took of some horses on an Amish farm. The young horse on the ground was either sick or injured and could not stand. We watched for quite some time as both adult horses nudged the young horse, trying to get him to stand. For readers upset at the farm owners for allowing a sick/injured horse to lie on the ground, the Amish often treat animals as a commodity or a tool. Those who have not lived around the Amish often see the Amish as kind, loving folks who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Sadly, some of them can be quite cruel towards their horses and livestock. Last week, I posted some photographs of Amish sheep that were being used to clear ditch lines of weeds. All of the sheep, save one, were quite indifferent to us and went about their work as if we didn’t exist. One sheep, however, was terrified of us and repeatedly tried to flee, only to be violently jerked back by the chain around their neck. Surely the sheep’s owner knew of its fearfulness. Why put it out by the road where it would be terrified every time a car or person came close? We quickly moved away from the sheep, not wanting to cause it further harm.
Earlier this year, Polly and I took a road trip to eastern Indiana that eventually landed us in Amish country. Here’s a few of the pictures I took of some ducks on an Amish farm. I found their synchronized movement quite fascinating.
Last Sunday, Polly and I took a short road trip to Homer and Albion, Michigan. We had been to Homer years ago. One of the photographs I took in Homer of our youngest daughter Laura won a local photography contest. Polly thought a return to Homer might provide an opportunity for me to take another award-winning photo. The weather God didn’t help me much, so Homer was pretty much a bust, but I took a lot of other pictures as we traveled the rural roads of SE Michigan that I think are keepers.
We were delighted to stumble upon a small Amish community. This community is quite poor compared to their brethren in the eastern Indiana. Some of the houses were quite rough, in need of repair. Some were downright dumpy. One oddity was seeing sheep tethered or chained in the ditches in front of many of the Amish homes. I suspect that they were using the sheep to “cut” the weeds and grass along the ditch line. What follows are photographs of several of the sheep that took time out from their grazing to pose for me.
Slogan on Homer water tower? Homer is Home *sigh*
Cost for one year at Albion College? $51,000
Percentage of Albion residents who are black? 30% What made me look this stat up? A lot of churches with crazy sounding Pentecostal names that are typically found in bigger cities.
Favorite find? Whitehouse Nature Center, operated by Albion College. Will definitely have to return and walk the trails.