Political discourse: a family affair

AP This photo combo shows President Barack Obama in Chapel Hill, N.C. on April 24, 2012, and Republican presidential candidate, … Continued


This photo combo shows President Barack Obama in Chapel Hill, N.C. on April 24, 2012, and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on April 18, 2012 in Charlotte, N.C.

In pursuing politics in Washington, and as a senior congressional staffer, I am the odd one out in my extended family: many, if not most, of my relatives are farmers, preachers or teachers. At family reunions, consequently, like the one I recently returned from, political questions are directed at me.

Our reunion took place at a Mennonite Bible School two hours outside of Washington, D.C. This was not coincidental; I was raised Mennonite. In fact, America’s first Amish bishop was my sixth great-grandfather and its first Mennonite bishop in Virginia was my fifth great-grandfather. My aunts, uncles and cousins, all of whom are Christian, are generally removed from the political scene but they are always interested in my political work in Washington.

It quickly became evident that some of my relatives, despite hailing from a long line of Amish and Mennonite preachers, aligned with Republicans. Granted, some family had since left the Mennonite church to join Lutheran, Brethren and Methodist churches. But this same trend is apparent with conservative Mennonites on the other side of my family as well.

View Photo Gallery: Faith is on display at the gathering of delegates, held this year in Charlotte.

View Photo Gallery: Washington Post photographer Melina Mara has been following Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, on the campaign trail. Here are some of the images she has captured.

One Mennonite uncle, for example, acknowledged that he had thrown his weight behind Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Another cousin took issue with President Obama’s health-care plan and the Affordable Care Act. And several relatives admitted their primary go-to news source was Fox News. This Republican-leaning sentiment was not new. These same relatives would have voted for former president George W. Bush, had they, in fact, voted (many Mennonites, despite paying taxes, don’t believe in engaging government).

I find all of this deeply troubling. Why? Because it goes against every Mennonite teaching and principle on which my parents raised me. Most Mennonites, like me, were raised to value and pursue nonviolence, justice and peace. Most Mennonites, like me, were raised to be like Christ, a prophet who promoted a policy of inclusion, of equality, of nonviolence, of compassion and care for the least of these, of the golden rule. And these are the principles that I, too, believe.

Mennonites around the world are very involved in responding to basic human needs (e.g. sustainable development, alleviating poverty, etc.) and working for peace and justice through their global and grassroots Peace Corps-like Mennonite Central Committee, as well as humanitarian efforts via the Mennonite Disaster Service and international development efforts supplied by MEDA, a non-governmental organization with whom I met when I was last in Afghanistan.

These organizations take Jesus seriously when he said, “Whatever you do for the least of these you do unto me”. The implications of this are huge when considering how the U.S. treats others, be they Mexican immigrants or Afghan tribesmen.

How in the world, then, can war, prejudice, hate-filled media, income inequality and poverty fit into this paradigm? It can’t. That’s the point. To my relatives’ credit, at our reunion’s church service, they did pray for their enemies and prayed for their forgiveness (citing “for they know not what they do”). We even repeated the Lord’s Prayer, which is all about forgiving those who trespass against us.

View Photo Gallery: President Obama campaigns in Norfolk en route to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, which begins Tuesday.

How can some relatives support Republican candidates who have already pledged to wage more war abroad, who will eviscerate the support systems we have in place to ensure America’s poor and disabled do not completely lose their last lifeline, and who continue to broadcast vitriol on Republican-funded media outlets? I recognize that President Obama has taken us into as many new wars as his predecessor, invading or further escalating wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

In terms of lining up the parties for consistency with Christ-centered ethics and principles, however, the Democrats at least have an eye out of the growing poverty and inequality in this country, which are at record-high rates. I recognize that neither party adequately represents the Amish and Mennonite perspective, but at least Democrats are positioning policies to remedy the fact that one out of every two Americans live below the poverty and low-income level. Republicans would let the free market deal with it or assume that social mobility would fix it, never minding the fact that social mobility rates in the U.S. remain some of the lowest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s ranking of rich countries.

So why do some relatives — on both sides of my Amish-Mennonite-sprung family — support Republican candidates? I assume it results from a mix of where they are getting their media and their position on a small handful of social issues.

One cousin noted that the church, not the government, should handle all health care and I assume, in saying this, he was primarily referring to birth control and sex education. And while the Mennonite church has made some progress on inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities, there is still a long way to go. No doubt the Democrats’ efforts to be more inclusive has marginalized my more conservative relatives. But again, I cannot help but think, as exemplified by his prophetic teachings, what would Jesus do? This must be what guides us, not polemical media channels.

Leaving the reunion, I committed myself to doing a better job sharing my perspective during these gatherings. In the past I had been so befuddled by the aforementioned contradiction that I relied only on diplomacy and largely skirted the controversial issues. I think it is time to do something different. That means, for me at least, more facetime on Fox News to reach similarly minded audiences and more articles like this one.

Michael Shank is an adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and a policy advisor and communications director with Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.).

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  • bonnie1954

    I too have observed the anomaly of sincere-help-your-neighbor Mennonites embracing what I perceive to be mean-spirited political policies. But it’s not just Mennonites. I have Southern Baptist family members who would feel right at home at Michael Shank’s family reunion.

    Though I’m not a Mennonite, I have worked at Eastern Mennonite University for almost 10 years (and here I must insert the caveat that almost everyone working at my university would resonate with Shank’s politics of social compassion — in fact, he holds a grad degree in “conflict transformation” from this university) and I have come to understand that many members of the extended Mennonite or Amish “tribe” are big on self-reliance and mutual aid at the one-on-one level. In their Anabaptist tradition, governments have sometimes persecuted them, especially if they refused to serve in the military in keeping with their belief that Jesus was serious about turning the other cheek.

    So they learned to pitch in for each other in case of a barn or house fire, or expensive medical needs, or other setbacks. This small-community mindset leads many Mennonites (and folks from farming backgrounds generally) to be suspicious of “big-government” plans and solutions for social problems.

    On the individual level, however, Mennonites tend to be generous contributors to their churches and charities. Unfortunately, I believe the magnitude of our social problems is such that one-on-one assistance and small-time charity are equivalent to trying to fill a watering trough with a medicine-bottle dropper. The effort is commendable, but the results will be slow at best, negligible at worst.

    And, yes, our vengefully angry media outlets — lamentably clothed in Christian garb far too often — are putrifying minds in every segment of the U.S. population, including the Mennonite-Amish segment, especially that outside of the influence of higher education.

    I do agree with you, Michael, that those of us who don’t like Fox TV-style diat

  • rubensteinrichard

    Michael Shank’s fine article makes us realize that progressives will not make genuine headway in religious communities like the Mennonites until they acknowledge that their own politics are based on visions of human potential and the possibllity of social transformation, and that these visions are essentially faith-based. By this I do NOT mean that they are necessarily based the beliefs of any organized religious group, although many of them originally derive from the teachings of Biblical, Enlightenment, and post-Enlightenment prophets. Such visions are based on a faith, supported by reasonable evidence, that people and social institutions can be far better than they are right now, if they make up their minds to change the systems that generate poverty, inequality, economic crises, and war.

    If Barack Obama conveyed more of this spirit of practical utopianism, of radical opposition the current status quo, we could support him more wholeheartedly than many of us do now. As to Michael’s relatives opposing the government, I’m inclined to oppose it myself, except where it offers to assist those most in need of succor. A Romney presidency and Republican sweep in Congress would produce a humanitarian disaster. An Obama victory delays that disaster, but only delays it, so long as the Democrats fail to address the SYSTEMIC causes of poverty, joblessness, crime, broken families, suicide, environmental destruction, collapsing infrastructure, and useless military adventures. They can’t address these causes because they are in the pockets of the companies that profit from their maintenance. Whoever wins the next election, we need a new, anti-corporate People’s Party.