The Amish touched the world in their response to a shooting spree in a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa., in 2006. The indelible images of "plain people" who had lost their children attending the killer's funeral and hugging his widow and other members of his family were a testament to the human capacity for love and forgiveness.
Flash forward a few years: The bottom feeders of reality TV are manufacturing a different image in shows such as Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia, where stripper poles, lap dances and revenge take center stage. "Like a bully who can spot his next victim, reality television has set its beady eyes on the Amish," declared a television review in the New York Times.
Yet even though it is not a fair fight -- with plain Anabaptist communities choosing a path of non-resistance -- there is a growing interest in their simple lifestyle that emphasizes faith and community over fame, technology and wealth.
Who today would want to join the Plain Mennonites or Amish?
Young women, Baptists and seekers who have personal contact with Anabaptist life are some of the more likely candidates, according to a new study.
Distinctive, stable communities that place faith and family life at the forefront present an attractive alternative to some people, especially young adults, who appear to be seeking a genuine alternative to a modern world that glorifies technology, consumerism and secular lifestyles, suggests researcher Cory Anderson of Ohio State University.
"What group better serves as an antithesis to contemporary youth culture than the plain Anabaptists?" asks Anderson, who surveyed nearly 1,000 people interested in Anabaptist communities. He presented the study at the recent meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in New York.
Expect no great rush of people converting to Anabaptist groups such as the Amish, Mennonite and Hutterite communities that in work, dress and communal life are separate in varying degrees from the larger culture. These communities trace their origins to a movement in 16th-century Europe that in general emphasized adult baptism and separation of church and state. They set demanding membership standards. Their growth is largely due to relatively high birth rates.
Anderson estimates there are only 1,200 to 1,300 first-generation members among the approximately 500,000 members of such communities in the U.S.
But that number has been growing in recent years as more people seek the plain life, in part lured by the utopian vision of a simpler, family-oriented lifestyle depicted in Amish romance novels, tourism sites, news features and some popular films.
"While ... there is no grand social relocation to plain Anabaptist sects," Anderson says, "the number of 'outsiders' seriously entertaining membership with these groups and the number actually joining have increased in recent decades."
Anderson's study is based on a survey of people who visited his Anabaptist website seeking information about "plain" churches in their area. Over 18 months, he gathered data from 953 people who made serious inquiries.
The results provide insights into what types of people are attracted to "plain Anabaptist" life and what draws their interest. Some of the key findings include:
• Younger adults and women had the strongest interest. In a nation where worshipers are significantly older than the general population, the largest proportion of inquiries came from people up to age 34. It was not until ages 54 and older that the percentage of people who inquire was underrepresented relative to the general population. About six in 10 inquiries were by women.
• Among religious traditions, Baptists and other evangelical Christians were the most likely to express serious interest. Evangelicals were two-and-a-half times more likely than mainline Protestants to be inquirers.
• Having a strong community, being serious about following the Bible and leading a Christian life and a commitment to modesty were the elements of plain Anabaptist life that were most attractive, with about two-thirds of those who expressed interest citing those attributes. They also were drawn by the strong family lives and traditional culture and simple lifestyle of plain Anabaptists.
"I am a Christian. I don't like the way the English teenagers live. I have always treasured the simple life and the way the Amish live and am looking to hopefully become Amish when I'm old enough," said one teen who described herself as "a modest young lady."
The reality gap
Perceptions of plain Anabaptists have been evolving since the period after World War II and into the 1950s when Amish-themed tourism and some academics promoted a sense of urgency in connecting with these communities associated with the nation's rural past "while they are still around," noted historian Steven Nolt of Goshen College in Indiana.
As many of the communities grew, attention began to shift from questions about their survival to focus on the simple lifestyle of these groups in contrast to the emphasis on technology in the larger culture, including the space race. In the 1970s, when shortages produced long lines at the gas pumps, the Amish seemed to be people "ironically ahead of everyone else," Nolt said.
More recently, the Amish response to the school shooting in Nickel Mines demonstrated the theological values of plain Anabaptists are taken seriously. Still, some cable TV shows and other popular portrayals seek to depict Amish leaders as hypocrites. Analysts theorize that these negative depictions reassure individuals tempted to measure their own lives in relation to plain Anabaptists that such ideals of communal harmony are not realistic.
The reality, of course, is that plain Anabaptists are neither perfect saints nor petty tyrants. What is also true is that, while plain Anabaptists struggle with universal temptations such as ambition and envy, they have created thriving religious communities dedicated to directing their lives toward God.
And, as Anderson's study indicates, this lifestyle is appealing to many different groups. Women inquirers, for example, were positively correlated with the emphasis on a strong family life. Evangelical inquirers were particularly attracted to the Anabaptists' seriousness in following the Bible and their perceived similarity to early Christianity.
There are enough reality TV characters such as Snooki and "The Situation" from MTV's Jersey Shore and the Kardashians celebrating fame and excess. Few "outsiders" will actually join plain Anabaptist communities, but their enduring witness provides a simpler, spiritual alternative that a growing number of Americans appear to be seeking.