Anabaptism has long existed on a spectrum. Presently, groups as culturally distinct as the Old Order Amish and as theologically and socially liberal as the Mennonite Church in the Netherlands all consider themselves to be under the umbrella of Anabaptism. In this article we will limit ourselves to America, and to the center-right of this spectrum, somewhere between the Old-Order groups and the assimilated ones. For those North American conservative Anabaptist insiders, this might span from groups like the Biblical Mennonite Alliance and Anabaptist Disciples of Christ on the left, to Nationwide Fellowship and Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites on the right (from a document on Ernest Eby’s Plain News website, the groups would span from “Ultra Conservative Mennonites” to “Fundamental Conservative Mennonites”). The prevailing American culture would consider all of these groups to be unassimilated.
Traditionally, separate groups of conservative Mennonites have differed primarily in terms of their cultural and lifestyle distinctiveness. There are also differences in theology between these groups, but especially to outsiders the clearest differences are in how they dress and live. Along this dimension, there has been regular and increasingly fine-grained fracturing. This is nothing new, though arguably tragic.
In recent years, it has become apparent that political ideology is another dimension along which there is substantial variation. Even though most of these communities have historically not participated in worldly politics (see the two kingdom theology of the early Anabaptists, which acknowledges the necessity of state violence to keep order while arguing that people within the kingdom of God should abstain from the use of force), political ideologies have strongly influenced the worldviews of many people within them. This has resulted in deep-seated differences arising even within lifestyle-homogenous congregations.
In the descriptions below, we will consider both cultural distinctiveness and political ideology. Along the cultural distinctiveness dimension, there is variation from less plain to more plain. For political ideology, we consider traditional left-right categories, but also a third category which refers specifically to a principled abstention from political involvement or allegiance, where the kingdom of God serves as an alternative.
In the categories below, the first letter specifies the level of cultural distinctiveness (“L” representing more assimilated or less plain; “R” representing less assimilated or more plain), while the second letter specifies the level of political ideology (“L” for liberal; “R” for conservative; “K” for kingdom of God).
Politically Progressive Groups
Groups L-L and R-L. As far as I know, within the conservative Anabaptist churches in North America there are few unassimilated people, and no larger groups, whose political ideologies are progressive. In the United States, I take “progressive” to mean a general allegiance to and alignment with the Democratic Party and their liberal policies.
Politically Conservative Groups
Group R-R: plain but pro-Republican. This group is strongly cultural and highly distinctive in their expression of Anabaptism. Their religious systems largely prevent them from exercising their political opinions by voting or running for office, but because conservative politics includes rhetoric that invokes Christianity and traditional family values, they strongly identify with the right. They tend to believe in something like two kingdom theology, but practically speaking they have no trouble rooting for Republicans to come to power. They see Romans 13 as providing justification for the government’s actions, even though they personally would not take part in certain activities such as military service. They also see the values of the more educated and secular liberals as strongly foreign to them and their way of life. Restrictions in the use of technology may limit their exposure to current events and thus dampen somewhat the influence of worldly politics in these communities. However, they often lack strong teaching about Anabaptist history which would give context regarding the relationship between politics and the church.
Group L-R: influenced by “God and country.” This group retains some cultural and theological distinctives of conservative Anabaptism but have been influenced by evangelical theology and conservative political ideology more so than by Anabaptist history. This group views political liberalism as anathema to Christianity because of the secular worldview shared by many on the progressive left. They may or may not be politically active but would strongly prefer politically conservative Christians in government. For this group, the focus of the Gospel is primarily individual, and is exemplified in Christ’s atonement rather than the kingdom of God. They embrace humanitarian work as an outgrowth of the love and compassion that flows from a relationship with Jesus, but would be quite wary of issues labeled “social justice” because of their association with the political left.
Group R-K: historic, unassimilated Anabaptists. This group is both historical and traditional in their approach to Anabaptism. R-K Anabaptists view the government as taking its place as God’s servant to wield the sword in restraining evil, but would clearly teach that Christians should not be involved. Though they would identify to some extent with others who hold to their perspective on historic Anabaptism, they would not fellowship closely with other groups if their practices were substantially different. They have more in common with the values of the politically conservative than with the politically liberal, but don’t take sides in terms of worldly politics. They are strongly connected to historic Anabaptism and are often part of old communities that have been built over generations. Thus, they tend to be institutional in their outlook, with highly developed practices and culture. These characteristics contribute to the stability of their communities, but also to a lack of dynamic evangelism. Their theology is distinctly Anabaptist and they are suspicious of new movements that lack a track record of multi-generational success.
Group L-K: motivated by the kingdom. This group is similar in many ways to R-K, but less traditional and less institutional. Their impulse is to strip religious culture away and focus on Jesus as King and the implication of that rallying cry. They would strongly shun worldly politics on principle but might critique the right more than the left because of the danger they see politically conservatives posing to Anabaptist communities. The L-K group may be influenced by voices outside of the conservative Anabaptist community, though they are still wary of full communion with non-Anabaptist and/or assimilated groups. People in plainer groups would tend to think of the people in this group as too liberal because of their lifestyle and sensitivity to current social issues. People in this group are less tied to traditional institutions, and thus are more likely to adopt diverse ecclesiological models, such as house churches. Culture is less of a barrier to their evangelistic efforts.
Graphical Representation of the Categories
The figure below represents the categories that exist in these communities, as I understand them. The horizontal axis relates to political ideology and runs from “more progressive” to “more conservative” with “Jesus as alternative politics” in between; the vertical axis runs from “less culturally distinctive” on the bottom to “more cultural distinctive” at the top.
As mentioned, Anabaptist churches have traditionally split along the lifestyle dimension (vertical dimension on the plot). Today, while there is little variation within churches in cultural distinctiveness, a given congregation often has a mix of political R’s and K’s. Though these differences may not be new, the COVID-19 pandemic and recent national politics have brought the differences to the surface.
Will churches continue to be mixed along the political ideology dimension, or will it become an issue that strains or even breaks fellowship in much the same way that differences in cultural distinctiveness have?
If political ideology continues to stoke as much passion within the conservative Anabaptist community as it has over the last 5-6 years, I predict that churches will, over time, become more homogeneous along the political dimension. If true, then within a generation (say by 2050), most churches will have as little diversity along the political spectrum as presently they do along cultural spectrum. That is, within a given church, most people will either have a strong affinity for the political right, or most people will have a strong aversion to participation in politics.
Full disclosure: I identify with the L-K group, and am in solidarity with R-K. I have great concern regarding any group of Christians that has an allegiance to a non-Kingdom political ideology.
This essay is inspired by an article entitled “The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism” and is mostly based on my observation. My perspective is fairly limited, especially when it comes to some of the plainer groups. If my commentary is sharpened or contradicted by a more rigorous investigation, or by additional insight in areas that I lack, I will happily stand corrected.