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.
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.
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.).