We continue to hear a lot about religious freedom from the Trump administration and conservative evangelicals these days. As we know, the issues have ranged from wedding cakes to contraceptives. In the last few weeks, Republicans have even moved to export their religious freedom efforts around the world. Evangelicals believe they wage these battles in order to resist a broader conspiracy to undermine their freedoms and of course place much of the blame on the Obama administration.
What is missing from these debates, however, is any consideration of the original proponents of freedom of conscience — the historic peace churches. What, if any, parallels exist between conservative evangelical efforts for religious freedom and those efforts throughout history made by those in the peace churches?
If you need a refresher, the peace churches are a cluster of churches that have attempted to live out the nonviolent teachings of Jesus — Anabaptist groups like Mennonites and Amish would be included as would Quakers, Brethren, and sometimes Moravians, among others. Though scruples against “bearing arms” often defined them, there were other cultural practices from which they refrained as well. Though members of peace churches have often tried to avoid official participation in politics, they have nevertheless lobbied governments for the freedom to refrain from those activities that compromise their convictions. In the 18th century, both in England and America, this included primarily military service and taking oaths of allegiance to political rulers. For a great collection of primary sources on this, see the volume Conscience in Crisis. Exemption from combat remains a core tenet, but other cases have cropped up now and then, such as those involving education, taxes, and social security.
(Before going further, let’s get one thing straight: the peace churches do not live out their convictions because other people, such as those who do fight in the military, have made it possible for them to do so. This is a common myth and is often used to dismiss peace positions. Rather, these convictions have been held throughout their history, regardless of whether governments make legal provisions for them or not.)
Like all religious minorities, members of the peace churches have suffered for their beliefs. Even when toleration was granted, they were still harassed. A good example is the way they were treated during the American Revolution. On this, see Francis Fox’s, Sweet Land of Liberty. While not killed, as they were during the Reformation, they were nevertheless thrown in jail, had property confiscated, and simply harangued by those who were not sympathetic their beliefs. Not surprisingly, if we look at this issue historically, religious freedom and tolerance has been championed the most by those in the minority – those who were actual victims of religious oppression. In contrast, establishments and majority religions have never been champions of toleration simply because they do not, themselves, need it.
In an effort to probe these issues further, I reached out recently to a couple of historians friends who are also interested in Anabaptist history to comment on this. I also posed some questions about this topic among Facebook’s “MennoNerds.” Here is my summary of the feedback I received:
Steve Longenecker, a Brethren historian who teaches at Bridgewater College in Virginia, concedes that there is a basic similarity between traditional Anabaptist concerns and those of conservative evangelicals. “All are first amendment and freedom of conscience concerns.” (Interestingly, some Anabaptists have taken a similar stance on wedding services provided to same-sex couples as conservative evangelicals. In one Iowa case, Mennonites refused to allow a same-sex couple to use their wedding venue.) But these more recent cases have an added layer of complexity, Longenecker says. The traditional Anabaptist concerns only involved the rights of church members and the government, but the latest cases have involved the rights of a third party. The rights of same-sex couples within the marketplace need to be considered given the 14th amendment as well as civil rights legislation. Or take the contraceptives cases. These affect the rights of all employees, not just those who have a problem with the contraceptives in question.
Others who responded wanted to take the issue in a different direction. This is because many Anabaptists find some core differences between the efforts for religious freedom in the Anabaptist tradition and those of current evangelicals. Unlike the peace churches, white evangelicals are not religious outsiders. Rather, in fact, they help to make up America’s religious establishment. So it is curious to see evangelicals adopting the rhetoric of religious freedom in an effort to promote their interests. Anabaptist critics of evangelicalism are hesitant to see any parallels between their own tradition’s efforts to promote religious freedom and what conservative evangelicals are attempting to do. The insider/outsider distinction is important. Anabaptists see their historic efforts as working to protect minorities from the intolerance of the establishment. But they feel evangelicals only use freedom of religion as a means of imposing a larger cultural agenda or are concerned merely with religious freedom for Christians like them. One is authentic, while the other is disingenuous. Anabaptists are not alone in these conclusions, as historian John Fea has indicated recently. Many Anabaptists are fierce critics of evangelicals and believe their brand of “Christendom” is based on a most ungodly alliance with corrupt political power and are complicit in a long list of evils including the military-industrial complex, racism, intolerance, and economic inequality to name a few examples. (On the distinctive vision of Anabaptists in contrast with “Christendom,” see this Walter Klassen piece in CT.) In short, using religious freedom as a means of dominating others flies in the face of Anabaptist virtues. Rather than fighting the culture wars, evangelicals would do better, some said, to promote the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and join Anabaptists in the real kingdom work of social justice.
The Young Center’s Steve Nolt referenced a case in the 1990s in Pennsylvania where an excommunicated Amish man challenged the owner of an Amish hardware store who would not him sell him goods because he was “shunned.” Evangelicals, he said, were quick to support the ex-Amish man and felt Amish businesses should not be allowed to treat him differently. They believed the religious beliefs of these Amish did not constitute a legitimate reason to refuse sales to this individual. The irony here is obvious, given evangelical beliefs that religious freedom means bakers should be allowed to deny services to homosexual clients. Nolt said that the difference rests in “what kinds of things one views as true Christian practices.” Evangelicals do not endorse the practice of shunning and therefore believed it could not constitute a reason to treat someone differently — even though the same individuals would likely support evangelical efforts to deny services to same sex couples.
Thanks to those who responded and to Steve Nolt and Steve Longenecker. No doubt a larger conversation would bring out a variety of Anabaptist perspectives on evangelicals and what they’re up to. As both Steves pointed out to me, Anabaptists and Brethren are diverse. But the basic tensions that emerged here point to some foundational differences between evangelicals and Anabaptists. (By the way, David Cramer and I edited a book about this relationship.) I don’t doubt these differences have been exacerbated in the Trump era. Despite the fact that evangelicals have been part of the American establishment, they have come to see themselves as persecuted and in need of religious freedom protections. Many within today’s Anabaptist communities — the heirs of the original religious freedom advocates — would beg to differ.