TLC has found another crew of renegade Amish and Mennonite youth to cast for Breaking Amish on July 21st. If the LA version is anything like the previous Breaking Amish or Discovery Channel's Amish Mafia, not only will the "reality" show include heavy doses of fiction, it will also fabricate more myths about Amish life that deserve a good debunking. Consider these myths alongside the hard facts about real Amish life:
1. The Amish Are Slowly Dying Out
Common sense suggests that an unplugged, high-school-rejecting, horse-and-buggy-driving people are fading fast in our high-speed cyber-world. The facts flip that assumption on its head. Since 1992 the Amish population has grown 120 percent, from 128,000 to 285,000. Because the Amish don't proselytize, their large families (6-8 children) fuel the growth. But producing babies is not enough: the youth must be persuaded to sign on to the Amish team. On average, 85-95 percent of teens choose to be baptized and remain in Amish life. Outsiders who affirm Amish beliefs, learn to harness a horse, and speak the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect are also welcome.
2. The Amish Are Technophobes
Because they don't have television or Internet in their homes or Volvos or even pickup trucks in their driveways, the Amish are easily mistaken for Luddites. But they are not anti-technology. Peer into Amish society and you'll see state-of-the-art LED lights, rollerblades, gas grills, solar panels, and battery-powered hand tools. The Amish use technology selectively. They spurn technologies that they fear will ruin their community and its religious values: television, cars, computers, etc. However, they readily accept and invent new technologies (such as a wheel-driven alternator to recharge the batteries on their buggies) that they think will enhance the well-being of their society. Moreover, many Amish "engineers" adapt mainstream technology to fit within their moral values. They strip electric motors from large sanders and replace them with pneumatic motors to provide "Amish electricity" in furniture shops, for example. One thing is certain: Amish people spend much more time than the rest of us assessing the long-term impact of new technologies on human relationships.
3. The Amish Don't Pay Taxes or Vote
Amish people are not economic or social parasites. They pay all taxes -- school (twice for private and public schools), income, real estate, sales -- but not Social Security, which they view as health insurance. In 1965 the U.S. Congress exempted them from Social Security (they do not pay the tax AND they do not receive any benefits), and they are also exempt from the recent Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The Amish contend that church members have a duty to care for the physical and material needs of other members. They are strict church and state separatists who reject both commercial and government insurance.
Amish people are permitted to vote, but typically fewer than 10 percent head to the polls. Those who do vote are more likely to cast ballots in local elections than presidential ones. As conscientious objectors to war, some consider it hypocritical to vote for the commander-in-chief. Holding public office is taboo because it may entangle them in litigation, which the church forbids.
4. Amish Elders Arrange Marriages
Neither bishops nor anyone else engages in matchmaking; young people are free to date and marry whomever they like. But if they wish to remain Amish, both persons must be baptized members of the Amish church before a bishop will marry them. (A bishop will marry a couple even if one person is a convert to the Amish faith -- regardless of background.)
5. Because They Refuse to Cooperate with Police, an Amish Mafia Protects Them
The Amish Mafia of reality TV fame is a fabrication of the producers. Some of the actors were raised in the Amish community but never joined it. Their knowledge of Amish practices enables them to help stage what appear to be authentic scenarios.
Certain offenses within the Amish community are punishable by the local congregation. Other more serious ones are reported to outside legal authorities. An early episode of Amish Mafia cited the shooting of ten Amish schoolgirls in 2006 as a reason for creating a protective mafia because the Amish won't call the cops. In reality, the first thing the Amish teacher did when the armed intruder entered her one-room schoolhouse in 2006 was call 911. The police arrived shortly thereafter.
6. Rumspringa Is a Wild Time When Teens Live in Cities
Popularized images of wild and drunken Amish teens have been extremely exaggerated since the "documentary" Devil's Playground appeared in 2002. Surprised that Amish elders do not brainwash their youth but respect their voluntary choice to be or not to be Amish, producers have exploited and Hollywoodized this rather tame rite of passage. In fact, Rumspringa (age 16 to marriage) is simply a time when youth can "run around," hang out with friends, find a spouse, and decide if they want to make a life-long commitment to join the Amish church. (This modern idea of adult religious choice is an old Amish belief that reaches back to 16th-century Switzerland.) In cultural limbo (betwixt parents and church elders), youth operate outside the rules of the church because they are not yet baptized. In some communities, rowdy groups engage in "worldly" activities -- driving cars, drinking, texting, and visiting local bars. In more traditional enclaves, Rumspringa youth play ice hockey, throw softballs and go hiking. Whether they're watching video games on the sly or playing volleyball in a cow pasture, Amish teens are living at home, not in some faraway city like LA or NYC.
Donald B. Kraybill is senior fellow in the Young Center and distinguished professor at Elizabethtown College (PA). A longtime scholar of Amish life, he is co-author of the new book The Amish, a definitive study of the Amish in America.
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