Mennonites don’t vote.
That’s what I heard growing up. Not that I was raised Mennonite, mind, but even before I knew enough of the beliefs that I knew I wanted to be one, I knew this one fact about them.
Of course, like any “fact” about Mennonites…it depends.
But it’s definitely a part of our history and our spiritual heritage. My husband says we’ve lost our way, but he still votes. I’m not sure I agree with him about where we lost the way though.
First, let me explain why Mennonites don’t vote. It’s because we, more than many religious groups I think (aka why I ended up with Mennonites), understand exactly what the State is. The State is not moral. The State is never moral. The State is never Good.1 The State derives its authority from an underlying threat of violence, too often realized. Whether it’s taxation through the threat of imprisonment or violence if we do not pay,2 violence involved in taking this land in the first place, violence in the name of keeping us “safe” here. This is what State does.
And this is something which Mennonites/Anabaptists recognized from early on. In not baptising their infants, they did not enroll their infants in state registers. They defied state conscription for wars. They did not do this because they feared dying in those wars. If you think that for a second, lemme drop a copy of the Martyr’s Mirror in your lap.
Within the State, therefore, the Mennonite/Anabaptist allowed themselves to die. Whether at the hands of Turk (nope) or European (hey great guess!), they didn’t raise their own hands to stop it.3
The Mennonite in America
When they got to America, Mennonites (and Amish and other Anabaptists) mostly went into seclusion. After a few centuries of *points at Martyr’s Mirror*, they were really not into engaging much at all. And I think, here, they failed. Not because they wouldn’t support the State. But because when they got here, they immediately became engaged in a completely different way with the State.
In Europe, the land was European. The Mennonites were European. They were simply living where they and their forebears and lived, or moving around in areas which had always, historically, belonged to them and to people like them. In coming to America, the Mennonites took land for which other Europeans had committed the beginning of a genocide. Just like the rest of Americans, they grew and moved West, and more and more indigenous inhabitants were slaughtered to make way for them. And there’s that passive voice…
They saw themselves as disconnected. They were not the State. They were not actively slaughtering. They would even give up their own lives, if attacked. But that did not make them somehow innocent in all this. In America, they became colonizers even if not a single one ever took a Native life.4
And as a part of not being a part of that State, most shunned participation by not actually voting.5 Obviously it’d have been the white dudes for a lot of that time, but they definitely owned property and could’ve voted from early on.6
I think most were earnest and sincere in their decision. I don’t think they did it as an elaborate charade. They had identified something TRUE about the State and they didn’t want any part in it. Let the State kill them, if it had to. They told their children stories of how it had happened before. They told their children it might happen again. They accepted it.
Why I Vote
What I think that they didn’t identify, perhaps because of the models and frameworks from which they had come, is that they were always already involved in this State, in these United States. When the State has disenfranchised one—whether through being a fiefdom or revoking one’s right to a vote through centuries of ongoing suppression of non-White US voters—I think there is still an argument to be made that one can be separate from that State and from that State’s actions. We White American Mennonites? Even the ones who still follow a plain path? We are not that. We are not peasants. We are not disenfranchised. We are not rejected by that State.
And so, I find myself a citizen of a State which takes many actions on my behalf. Some of them are actually good. Some? Heinous.
If I find myself in a place where I see that there are two main paths right now for how that State will be controlled? Then I face two choices. The first is whether or not I can pretend that I am somehow divorced from this legacy, through virtue of my beliefs or my community. I can’t pretend that. I can’t lie to myself about that. So then, I ask whether I can do anything to direct which path it will go down. I can make a statement, at least. Even if my state goes red and my vote “doesn’t really count,” I can say that I thought this other path was not as bad. I thought this other path was less destructive. And I took an action which I hoped might divert it along a slightly better path.
And I am not making that choice just for me. I think we sometimes do a good job convincing ourselves that we would be willing to die, if it came to that. Perhaps we would. Perhaps that Mirror is good for more than flattening literally any crease you could ever have in anything, try it. Perhaps it teaches us that we can make that ultimate personal decision. But it’s not just our decision for ourselves. When I weigh the places where candidates differ, I cannot help coming to the conclusion that one would harm fewer. And so, I vote. And so I will always vote.
Where I Think They Got It Right
I think the early Mennonites were onto something though. I think they were onto something which other modern Christians and even other protest voters weren’t necessarily. The State is violence. It will never not be that. It has never not been that. No truly Good person will ever be able to lead a State. Some will be better-intentioned and some worse-intentioned. Some will cause more harm and some less. Some will effect changes from within.
The State will never be our Salvation. None will ever become a vehicle for living out Gospel. Any State is incapable of allying with Gospel. Because Gospel, as we read it, is entirely incompatible with the violence which every State requires to survive. It is incapable of allying itself with State.
So we look for Gospel elsewhere. We do it through other means. But we cannot pretend that we are somehow separate, here, from State as our spiritual ancestors were in their Radical Reformation-era European States. That is not our 21st-century Mennonite reality. Perhaps it may be again. But it is not now.
This post is not political science. This is theology through the lens of a particular history and, more importantly, how a particular group tells ourselves that history. And it’s awkwardly-done theology, at best. But this is also my best try at laying out why I am a Mennonite who votes.
1. I would allow that some societies can be much closer to Good than the State. I think it is possible for humans to create loving and mutually-beneficial communities both in areas under State control (which is what I think our spiritual ancestors sought to do) and in Stateless regions. I also don’t claim that we’re the only group who sees this, but among American Christianity, I’ve rarely found a church which doesn’t have a flag… except most (MOST) Mennonite ones (I’m looking at you and tightening my lips, though, Allegheny). back