Reality television has cracked one of the most reclusive groups in American society–the Amish. Television viewers can now get a peek into the Amish youth psyche through UPN’s controversial series, Amish in the City.
In the series, which first aired in July, young Amish going through rumspringa, the period of their lives in which they are allowed to explore the outside world before deciding whether to be baptized and make a lifelong commitment to the church community, are thrown together with non-Amish city dwellers in a house in Hollywood.
Long the butt of jokes on sitcoms and late-night talk shows, the Amish have traditionally been viewed with a detached fascination–why would 21st-century Americans choose to live in the 18th century without electricity, cars, or modern clothes?
The history of Amish and other Anabaptist groups such as their theological cousins, the Mennonites, is intimately connected to American history. The story begins more than three centuries ago, when King Charles II granted William Penn a sizable tract of land in the New World in what is today Pennsylvania.
Penn was a Quaker and had at times faced discrimination because of his religious beliefs in his native England. He decided to build a colony far removed from the religious persecution and wars which had devastated Europe for centuries. To advertise his “holy experiment,” Penn traveled along the Rhine River in modern-day Germany, inviting members of several persecuted religious groups, including Mennonites and Quakers, to travel to the New World.
Many of the Mennonite farmers and weavers of the Rhineland were descended from families who had immigrated to more tolerant German kingdoms after facing pogroms in Switzerland in the 16th century. The tolerance of their German rulers was beginning to wear thin. Many accepted Penn’s invitation, accounts of which circulated excitedly through communities through word of mouth and printed flyers in German. Thus began a flow of thousands to the New World, with the first group of Germans arriving in Philadelphia aboard the Concord in 1683.
Following that first boatload of Mennonites and Quakers decades later, would be Amish, who had originally split from the Mennonite church in the late 17th century as the result of a theological dispute. The Amish eventually settled in many parts of the United States and Canada.
Amish and Mennonite theology is very similar, both in their conception of the individual’s relationship to community and to God. While over the decades, most Mennonites have adapted as the society around them evolves, wearing modern clothes, owning cars and televisions, the Amish have taken the scriptures’ command to be “in the world but not of the world” literally, and remained stuck in an 18th-century time warp.
Given this history of tolerance and respect for the Amish that predates the American Revolution, it is disturbing to see Hollywood using Amish youths for ratings.
The rumspringa period can in some Amish communities become one of excess, as sheltered teenagers experience the outside world for the first time. Most, however, after having a taste, decide to return to the teachings of their ancestors and live their lives within the church community.
As someone who is Mennonite by birth, but is troubled by the church’s teachings regarding pacifism and separation from society writ large, I can attest that this confrontation with secular society can be a psychological strain, given the burden of centuries of history and culture. Even if Amish youth decide to leave the church behind, their Amish heritage will remain a prism through which they view the world for the rest of their lives even as their families disown them. Now, thanks to UPN, as they weigh centuries of religious doctrine against the enticing temptations of southern California, America will be able to watch.
Most sickening has been the way in which Viacom, the corporate parent of UPN, settled on the Amish in the City project after its CBS Beverly Hillbillies project was canceled amidst political pressure. Les Moonves joked that, “The Amish don’t have as good a lobbying group,” when discussing the project with reporters.
Has our society degenerated to the level where religious minorities are picked on because they don’t have political power?
Regardless of the ratings success of Amish in the City (the series has made the network competitive with the major networks during its time slot); this project harms the religious fabric of our society–never mind the lives of these five young Amish.
It is sad that over three centuries, idealistic visionaries like William Penn have given way to cynical Hollywood execs that see nothing as sacred and care only for the bottom line.
–Jamie M. Fly, a descendant of the 1683 Mennonites and Quakers, is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations working on European and national-security issues. As a child, he visited Amish families in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with his grandfather, a Mennonite minister.