It is ironic that Amish and Mennonites --arguably some of the least politically active Christian sects in America -- settled in some of the most politically important regions of the country, in states that are critical for their primary caucus value or swing state potential. Iowa is a good example, but so too is my home state of Ohio, where the largest concentration of Amish dwells. The millions of dollars spent on television ads by candidates and their Super PACs, needless to say, have failed to reach the Amish and conservative Mennonites, as television is hardly their main medium of communication.
Even if it was, politics remains foreign. I often wonder what America’s first Amish bishop, my 6th great grandfather, or the first Mennonite bishop in Virginia, my 5th great grandfather, would say about my working in Congress these last three years as a senior policy advisor to a U.S. congressman, or even my media commentary on TV, given the whole ‘no graven images’ thing. Or how my deceased father and grandfathers - prominent preachers in the church who never stepped foot in Washington D.C.’s political arena -- would feel about my pursuits in political punditry.
They’d give me a mouthful, no doubt, something about needing to stay clear of this nexus of national nefariousness. And who can blame them after witnessing the Romney-Gingrich-Santorum mud slinging in Iowa, New Hampshire and now, South Carolina? Growing up in a small Amish-Mennonite town in Ohio, I witnessed how my community stuck to the land, to living simply, to nonviolence, to voluntary service --all principles I support. Engaging Washington has never been their focus. You will never see an Amish-Mennonite lobby office open on K Street, for example.
If the 2012 presidential candidates want to change this dynamic, then, they should speak to Amish-Mennonites about the importance of political engagement. Candidates should keep in mind that Amish--Mennonites have a rich history of reform and radical protest --as Anabaptists willing to face persecution and death for their beliefs and as WWII conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the war.
Most now believe, as I do, in helping those who are marginalized, malnourished, or mistreated, not unlike Jesus helped, in his words, “the least of these,” all the while deeply committed to nonviolence, justice, and mercy. Many find the majority in Congress to be out of touch with America’s increasingly impoverished publics and more in touch with campaign contributions, industry interests and reelections.
Securing the Amish-Mennonite vote, then, requires that candidates be ready to tackle the hard issue of poverty, peace, and violence. This is what the community cares about. Simply take a look at the Mennonite Central Committee’s purpose: “responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice.” Potential voters, therefore, might ask, “As president, how will you tackle America’s income inequality, poverty, incarceration, homicide and violent crime rates?” (Incidentally, they are the highest rates in the rich world.)
Candidates queuing for Amish-Mennonite votes should care about these rates. They are costing this country hundreds of billions of dollars and undermining economic productivity. But what if they don’t care? Perhaps the Amish-Mennonite vote is too marginal? Since Washington is so responsive to money, perhaps the economic argument for the values underpinning my Amish-Mennonite roots will garner more traction. If financial incentives motivate politicos, then put some numbers on those dividends available from reducing violence.
It is time for a peace industry and a Super PAC to support it. I’m not talking primarily about the myriad Amish and Mennonites who are not pounding Washington’s pavement in search of more peaceful policy. I’m talking about the majority of businesses that perform better when poverty and violence is not prevalent.
It’s true. If a country increases its ranking on the Global Peace Index by 10 slots (e.g. if US, ranked 83rd, increases it peacefulness and ranks 73rd), the GDP per capita increases well over $3,000 and consumer spending increases dramatically. Yet businesses, which will undoubtedly benefit from a boon like this, remain relatively quiet when it comes to policy promotion in Washington that can improve the peace.
That’s why state legislatures should chime in too. More peaceful states are saving serious amounts of cash because they are not spending it cleaning up violence. And at a time of belt-tightening, any mustering of extra monies must be welcomed. Here’s how: The more peaceful states have the greatest educational opportunity, the best perceived access to basic services (e.g. clean water, medicine, etc.), the least amount of poverty, the least inequality among all household incomes, the highest population percentages with health insurance, and equal distribution of resources.
But if industry and state legislatures fail to move candidates then take a lesson from Jesus himself. If alive today, this relentless lobbyist for the poor and for peace would be pounding Washington’s pavement with patience and persistence, overturning today’s modern money tables and blessing the peacemakers and the meek among us. Perhaps that will move you.
Michael Shank is the U.S. vice president for the Institute for Economics and Peace, an international research organization that produces the Global and U.S. Peace Indexes.