Why we love, and love to hate, the Amish

The week before Christmas, 3 million people watched the Discovery Channel’s new reality show, “Amish Mafia,” making it the second-most-viewed cable show that night, after the trashy hit “Moonshiners.” This is surprising for two reasons: First, it reveals Americans’ enduring fetish with all things Amish; there are 250,000 Amish in North America, putting the number of people watching “Amish Mafia” at more than 10 times the number of actual Amish people. And second, the show is really so awful, it doesn’t deserve to be on TV.

The fourth episode, which aired this week, reached new lows of ludicrousness. The Amish mafia don Lebanon Levi absconds to Florida with Esther, the girl he loves, who at the beach discards her traditional “plain” garb for a 1940s pinup-style one piece. Meanwhile, back in Lancaster County, Levi’s colleagues are organizing horse-and-buggy drag races and throwing illicit parties (for cash) in authentically Amish venues.

If ever a commercial enterprise could be accused of turning religion into a freak show, “Amish Mafia” is it. In the last 10 minutes of the show, a small-in-stature Amish person gives the film crew a tour of his house, which includes a glimpse of the kitchen, where water comes out of a hand pump, and of the unplumbed bathroom, where three holes are cut, side by side, into a wooden box. This one scene, in which religious-minority status and outhouse humor collide, should have been widely criticized as offensive, not tweeted about with low-brow glee. Imagine if the tour guide to the toilet had been an Orthodox Jew. Or a Muslim. Or a Mormon.

The media buzz about “Amish Mafia” centers on whether it’s “real.” Are there really tough-guy enforcers (with guns) living within the Amish community and outside the law, collecting debts and protecting the virtue of their women? Lancaster Amish say no. Ira Wagler, author of last year’s memoir “Growing Up Amish,” has close ties to the Lancaster Amish community. “When it came out, I went to my closest friends,” Wagler said. “These know Lebanon Levi, and they said the whole thing is completely made up.”

Discovery says yes. “They are actual people,” a Discovery spokeswoman told a reporter recently. “These are real people in the Amish and Mennonite communities.” In any case, the show posts disclaimers all over the place.

But what “Amish Mafia” shows me is how very far Americans are from anything resembling what the pundits and policymakers optimistically call “interfaith understanding.” The Amish don’t look like Americans, they don’t live like us and they don’t, by and large, want to talk about it. This means that Americans can idealize the Amish — or any other unfamiliar group of believers — and tear them down at will, making judgments without knowledge.

On the one hand, Americans regard the Amish are a peace-loving clan of country folk who eat dinner together every night by lantern light; they are a tourist attraction. A yearning for this old-fashioned simplicity explains why sales of romance novels set in Amish country were all the rage for so many years. Forty-nine authors are now engaged writing what are called “bonnet rippers” – Harlequin Romance-type novels without the sex, says Steve Oates, vice president of marketing at the Christian publisher Bethany House. This idealization persists, despite the fact that the community struggles, according to an essay by Michael Shank in this newspaper, with “physical and sexual abuse, mental disabilities, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.”

And when the Amish show themselves to be craven, fallen individuals (like the rest of us), Americans react with a sensationalistic schadenfreude, as if finally, finally, those perfect people are revealing their true selves. “When one of them has a failure, it’s like ha-ha-ha,” Oates says. Last year’s story of members of a breakaway Amish sect in Ohio imprisoned for forcibly cutting the hair and beards of dissidents was an Internet phenomenon. Even now, a month before their sentencing, the phrase “beard cutting” generates 10 million hits on Google, the first 10 pages devoted exclusively to the Amish. Neither perspective comes anywhere near the truth.

“Amish are people like everybody else,” Wagler says. But that’s a lesson you won’t learn on “Amish Mafia.”

For Lisa Miller’s previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.

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