“We thank God that we are living in a land where the voice of the people is respected without thought of armed opposition. There were exciting times, at places— some “mud-flinging,” bitter disputes, charges and counter-charges, etc.; — but no sooner had the people spoken than there was a general acquiescence in the result. This is something to be encouraged, a condition for which to be thankful.”1
These are the opening words from Daniel Kauffman’s editorial in the November 11, 1920 edition of the Gospel Herald. On November 2, 1920 Warren G. Harding was elected president by a landslide, earning seven million more votes than his opponent James Cox.2 Reading these words a century later, it seems that politics has not changed much (although this election has seemed especially fraught and contentious). The relationship between American Mennonites and politics, however, has greatly shifted in the intervening hundred years. The recent presidential election in the United States has demonstrated the depth of division in political perspectives in our country. The 1920 election emphasized a different divide for Mennonites–that between the church and the world.
The relationship of Mennonites and politics has a complex and nuanced history, but it is fair to say that historically Mennonites have eschewed politics, seeking to be “in the world, but not of the world”, a calling rooted in New Testament verses including John 15:19, John 17:14-16, and 1 John 2:15. John Redekop states in his article “Politics” on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) that, “Concerning politics, the traditional Mennonite stance, despite some deviation and exceptions, may be described as separationist or apolitical.” But after discussing major shifts in attitude during the twentieth century, he concludes at the end of the article that, “the spiritual descendants of Menno are well on the way to becoming part of the general political establishment. Increasingly, in these free and prosperous lands, as they move up the socioeconomic scale, Mennonites are learning, for better or worse, to take political activism seriously.”3
Despite the difficult experiences of many Mennonite COs and the hardships of World War I, the 1920 presidential election seems to have been observed with detachment by many Mennonites. Daniel Kauffman, Gospel Herald editor, exhorts his readers to, “be equally zealous in their support of the cause of Christ and the Church” as the cause of a political candidate or ideal. He writes that, “In comparing issues, the most striking issues of the recent campaign were as nothing compared with the great issue of salvation.”4 A recurrent theme in the article is that to put stock in the world is to rely on things that are temporary, transient, and tenuous, but to place one’s allegiance in God is to ensure eternal salvation.
The intervening century has brought enormous change and challenge, and at each turn Mennonites–particularly those in MCUSA and other similarly progressive bodies–have taken steps toward engagement with the world and with politics. In this recent election many Mennonites in good standing with their church campaigned for, voted for, or donated money to candidates and causes they believed in. To abstain from politics in our current political climate smacks of privilege; an acknowledgement that because of your race, religion, or socioeconomic status the success of either political party would have little to no impact on your life.
It is tempting to put our faith in civic action and political candidates, hoping that if only we could elect the right people they would promote peace and justice in our country. But Mennonites will never be fully in step with American politics, and American politics will never fully support Mennonite ideals. The national support for the military, focus on unlimited economic growth and consumerism, and the American myth of rugged individualism all run counter to core Anabaptist values of pacifism, economic and ecological stewardship, and community.
We have come too far as a nation and a church to return to the 1920 stance of detached observation, but we should remember that to become too comfortable in the world is to lose sight of our unique perspective as Anabaptist Christians. Perhaps it need not be the either/or dichotomy put forth by Daniel Kauffman in his 1920 editorial–in the last one hundred years many Mennonites found ways to genuinely engage the political world without sacrificing their faith. But when the election cycle has run its course, we shouldn’t forget that politics is just one avenue for change.
Daniel Kauffman wrote that “The essential difference between the Christian and the worldling- The first makes spiritual matters his first concern, counting the things of this world secondary. The second counts the things of this world first, making spiritual matters secondary.”5 We must continue to push for peace and justice in every aspect of our lives and remember that we are driven not by the highs of political victory but by humbly following Christ in daily life.
1. Daniel Kauffman, “Editorial,” Gospel Herald 13, no. 33 (11-11-1920): 641.
2. Eugene P. Trani, “Warren G. Harding: Campaigns and Elections,” U.S. Presidents, Warren Harding, University of Virginia Miller Center, 2019, accessed 09 Nov. 2020, https://millercenter.org/president/harding/campaigns-and-elections.
3. John H. Redekop, “Politics.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Accessed 05 Nov. 2020, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Politics&oldid=167135
4. Daniel Kauffman, “Editorial,” Gospel Herald 13, no. 33 (11-11-1920): 641.
5. Daniel Kauffman, “Editorial,” Gospel Herald 13, no. 33 (11-11-1920): 641.
I appreciate the admonitions of this essay. To a degree I am not sure the current generation quite understands, however, is the MAJOR related shift that has occurred among American Mennonites since the 1980s in relation to the ostentatious accumulation and display of wealth, which surely is as important as, and is directly related to, the shifts in Mennonite thinking on spirituality, religions and political involvement. This shift seems to have occurred just as the ‘boomers’ were entering their young professional years. Growing up (’50s and ’60s, Berne IN) we had some idea of who had more wealth or less wealth – generally speaking, the two classes were employees and those who employed them. But we all lived in the same neighborhoods, and there were heavy social strictures against ostentatious display of wealth. Very often we only learned that someone had significant wealth when they died and left large amounts to church or local institutions. I spent most of the ’70s in Parkview VA, and although there were houses farther ‘up the hill’ than other houses, the social strictures against ostentatious display were strong there as well. This all seems to have broken down during the Reagan years. I spent most of the 1980s in Europe, and upon return was frankly blown away by the extent to which ostentatious display of wealth had become acceptable, even encouraged by the same social forces that previously had held it in check, and the extent to which philosophies of open greed had become not simply present but even considered admirable among American Mennonites. I would hope that some of the current generation of Mennonite historians and academics will make that major shift a focus of scholarly attention – it is at least as important as shifting political attitudes and, I would say, directly related to such shifts. My sense is that it is less noticed by the current generation because they grew up after the shift was well along. But folks my age easily remember this shift, if not all of them with the same horror of dismay and disappointment I do.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you for your comment. In EMU’s Centennial history Donald Kraybill quotes Omar Eby who asked the question in a 1977 EMC Bulletin article, “Could one have Menno and a Mercedes, Jesus and jewelry?” It seems that for many Mennonites, the answer was and is yes. I agree that wealth and class should be discussed more in the church and I hope it will be studied more in the future.
LikeLiked by 1 person