Today marks the formal beginning of my research fellowship in legal studies at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton University, USA. In an unforeseen manner however, some of the work I will be carrying out during the fellowship has already taken shape over the past two weeks. During these two weeks we have been vacationing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Lancaster County is only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Princeton, New Jersey. Yet it feels like one is in a different country.
One reason why Lancaster County feels like a different country is that it is one of the strongholds of the Amish. As soon as one takes the exit from the highway, this becomes noticeable because of the slow-moving vehicles on the road: Amish buggies drawn by horses. Neither does it require much effort to determine on which farms the Amish live, because of the many black and white clothes on the washing lines. One can actually encounter the Amish, and also Mennonites who belong to the same 'Plain People', in local shops, some of which are run by members of the group.
The Amish are a conservative Christian group which had to flee European countries such as Switzerland and Germany in the early 18th century. Here they were persecuted because of their religious convictions. In the Province of Pennsylvania, William Penn, himself an English Quaker, offered them hospitality in exchange for their being willing to farm the fertile soil.
Ever since the Amish have attempted to stick as much as possible to their traditional lifestyle, because of what they regard as their biblical task, i.e. to be in the world but not of the world. For this reason they largely refrain from using electricity and cars. It is not so much the electricity and cars as such that they are against however, but the fact that these could connect them too closely with the outside world. In a similar vein the Amish are generally hesitant to use the judicial system or to engage in political activities.
At the same time, the Amish are widely considered to be about the best neighbours one could possibly wish for. They are also connected economically with the people around them, because of the fresh produce and other goods they trade. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the Amish constantly negotiate with the outside world and adapt slowly but steadily to new developments there.
In turn, the Amish present a test case for the outside world, which has to frequently consider which concessions should be made in legislation and otherwise to accommodate the distinctive lifestyle of the Amish. Although this tolerance does not always come easily, the fact is that the Amish have been able to live in Lancaster County and elsewhere in the U.S. according to their religious convictions for centuries now.
Having once had to flee Europe, it is currently open to debate whether the Amish would be as accepted here as they are in the U.S in this day and age. If there are any doubts on this matter, one fascinating question that might be explored at Princeton would be what explains this apparently lasting difference in the scope of religious freedom between the U.S. and Europe, and which lessons could be drawn from this in order to continue safeguarding the rights of religious and other minorities in increasingly majoritarian contexts.