In July of 1983, Polly and I, along with our two boys, ages two and four, held the first service for Somerset Baptist Church, Somerset, Ohio, in a downtown storefront building. We had sixteen people in attendance at our first service. Several months later, we moved to 2,000 square-foot facility, the upstairs portion of the Landmark building. We would remain in this building for two years, with attendance between 30 and 50. We bought a dilapidated church bus from Faith Memorial Church in Lancaster, Ohio, then pastored by John Maxwell.
We then bought an abandoned United Methodist church five miles east of town on Sego Hill. The church grew from 50 to 200, from one bus to four. By the late 1980s, for a variety of reasons not pertinent to this article, attendance declined to fifty people. In 1989, we sold off the buses, moved a ratty 12’x60′ mobile home next to the church to live in, and started a private, tuition-free Christian school for church children. Our enrollment was fifteen students from kindergarten through grade twelve. During this time, I embraced Calvinism and the Quiverfull movement. We had three more children, bringing our arrow number to six. Imagine living in a 12’x60′ trailer with eight people. Fun times, to be sure.
Near the church was Calvary Bible Fellowship on Amish Ridge Road. While locals considered its members Amish, they were actually Mennonite. They had split off from an Old Order Amish group over the doctrine of salvation. While many of their practices were Amish, they did drive white and black vehicles. One member, John Miller, owned a lumberyard directly across from our church. He was later forced to sell the business due to “worldliness” — or so the rumors went, anyway.
Somerset Baptist Church and Calvary Bible Fellowship had a number of similarities. We both believed salvation was good works. We both believed women should dress modestly. We both believed in avoiding “worldliness” and the appearance of evil. We both believed it was important to educate our children in a church school. These common beliefs led to numerous interactions between me and Calvary Bible Fellowship elders/members. I had countless discussions with them. I think they didn’t quite know what to do with me. Our similar beliefs and practices led them to conclude that I was likely a Christian, but other things I believed and did that didn’t conform to their narrow view of the world confounded them.
There were times when the church I pastored didn’t have Sunday night services. On those occasions, my family and I would visit other churches. Sometimes, I would take a few church members with me. On occasion, we would visit Calvary Bible Fellowship. Calvary would also have tent meetings on occasion, and I would stop by to visit. Men sat on one side, women on the other. The music, sung acapella, was wonderful — by far the best congregational singing I’ve ever heard. I found the preaching to be quite Biblical, but not as emotional or enthusiastic as that found in Independent Baptist churches. Afterward, I would hang out with the men of the church, talking about God and the Bible. I found these conversations to be quite enjoyable.
Sadly, the folks at Calvary Bible did not reciprocate. While they would stop by the church when I was working outside, they never attended one of our services or heard me preach. I suspect they saw me as someone who could be won over to their side. I wonder what they would think of the fact that I am an atheist today?
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
Thirty-five years ago this month, Paramount Pictures released Witness.
It was tailor-made for the Reagan administration, and for the religious right, in that it depicts the hardworking, pious Amish as virtuous and anyone associated with The City (in this case, Philadelphia) as depraved and corrupt. That said, I will admit that I saw the movie twice and enjoyed it, mainly for some of the acting performances (which were charming or engaging, if not incisive) as well as individual scenes.
One scene that sticks out, in my mind, takes place in the 30th Street station, where Samuel Lapp, an 8-year-old Amish boy and Rachel Lapp, his recently-widowed mother, are transferring from one train to another. Moments before he witnesses a brutal murder, he sees an elderly man wearing a black coat and hat. The boy believes, for a moment, that he’s met a member of his own community; the man’s face quickly turns into a frown of rejection, which the boy mirrors. That man, it turned out, was a Chasidic Jew.
The scene was inserted mainly as a visual comic relief. Were the writing and direction of Witness more sensitive, or simply more conscious, that scene could have highlighted the “so close and yet so far” relationship between the two religious communities and cultures: While the Amish are farmers and most Chasidic Jews live in or near large cities, both reject modern secular society in nearly all of its manifestations, right down to the way people dress.
Oh, and there’s another similarity between them. It came to light only recently, but I’d had an inkling of it for some time.
During my childhood, my family visited an Amish family every summer. Although I enjoyed seeing the countryside and animals, and learning about a different way of life, I was always glad to return home, even with the emotionally unsupportive family I had: I am a city girl at heart. (All right, I was living as a boy in those days.) But I don’t think that I would have liked spending any more time than I did in that bucolic setting for another reason: Even though the people were friendly and generous, something I couldn’t articulate troubled me.
Ironically, it became a bit clearer to me when I was teaching at an Orthodox yeshiva many years later. Of course, my relationship with the pupils was very different from my experience with the Amish children I met. My family’s visits to the Amish farm were “fun” for the kids—and us—in the same way as time spent with cousins or other peers whose company you have, and enjoy, only on holidays and other occasions. While I had to be the literal and proverbial “adult in the room” for Jewish boys I taught, we didn’t have to live with each other: Their expressions of vulnerability were momentary, and we went back to our lives afterward. Still, it was hard not to see that both the Jewish and Amish boys were more vulnerable and felt more like they were failing, in one way or another, than their parents and other adults in their lives might have realized.
I also couldn’t help but notice that in both communities, the women and girls didn’t seem happy. Rather, they seemed dutifully resigned to their fate. Perhaps some even found a way to “make peace” with it, or to find some sort of fulfillment in conforming to the roles their cultures and religions prescribed for them. Even the boys—who, like their counterparts almost everywhere else, enjoyed more freedom than their sisters, mothers, aunts or grandmothers—seemed to be living in a fear that ran deeper than that of simply displeasing, and incurring scorn from, their elders.
A year ago, I wrote about a yeshiva student of mine who was sexually exploited by a rabbi at his synagogue. Around that time, the media were reporting sexual abuse of children in ultra-Orthodox communities. Those revelations came not long after a wave of stories about clergy members and others in positions of authority who took advantage of altar boys and other children in various churches, including the Roman Catholic and Mormon, as well as evangelical sects. Around the same time, the “Me-Too” movement was spreading.
None of those developments surprised me, as I had just recently “come out,” if you will, about my own experiences of sexual abuse by a priest. It was the first time I’d talked about them with anyone besides a therapist or a former partner of mine. Some might say I am “projecting,” but any subsequent revelation of sexual abuse in a religious organization or community has not caught me by surprise. I include one of the most recent, namely, the horrors of sexual abuse recounted by people who grew up in Amish communities.
Although there is much I respect about the Amish way of life, in particular, their rejection of war, it is as rigidly hierarchical — specifically, patriarchal — as just about any other highly-organized orthodox religion. The perceived proximity of the elders, priests, rabbis, ministers — or, in some cases, even the family patriarchs — to God gives them power and authority that is rarely questioned. Challenging the position of such a leader can lead to the loss of a person’s entire way of life, not to mention his or her family and friends. That, along with the suppression of knowledge about sexuality and people’s (especially women’s and girls’) bodies and the insularity of such communities, all but ensures not only that the vulnerable will be victimized, but also that victims will not have the language to express their experiences or the means to escape from the aftermath of their trauma.
So, perhaps, the Amish and ultra-Orthodox communities have even more in common than Witness suggested, though it might not have been what the movie’s makers had in mind.
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