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The Amish keep religion simple

Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series about the Amish in Becker County

The Amish have a very simple religion and belief system. The religion is not theological or doctrinal.

"It's a very simple faith," the elder said.

Their religion is not so much a matter of knowing every detail of the Bible, but following what they do know, he said. They tend to view everything as to what Jesus or the apostles would have done.

"And we do know what Jesus told us, so let's do that," he said.

Religious symbols like communion or baptism don't have the saving quality in the Amish religion they do in other religions.

"We use them as symbols, and they're important symbols and we use them but they don't have the saving quality that some other churches prescribed to those things," the elder said. "What's important to us is following Jesus."

The Amish community doesn't look down on the world outside the community, the elder said.

"We try to be separate," he said.

An outsider might think that the Amish believe that someone who is outside of their church is going to hell, which is not the case.

"And the converse of that is that we don't say with any certainty that we're going to heaven," he said.

Condemnation is not part of being Amish, and the Amish wouldn't condemn people with different beliefs, lifestyles or people living the "modern life." The Amish are also tolerant of other religions.

"We're certainly not intolerant of anyone," the elder said.

Because of the differences of lifestyle and beliefs, most Amish tend to stay within their own groups to find good friends.

"We always want to be friendly to everybody," the elder's wife said. "But we don't tend to be good friends with anybody from the outside."

An Amish minister is an appointed, voluntary, non-paid position.

"No one volunteers to be the minister. No one really wants to be the minister," the elder said laughing. "It's a lot of responsibility. A responsibility that no one really relishes, but somebody has to do it."

A minister will be appointed from the brethren. The way the minister is appointed, again, goes back to the way the Bible says Judas was replaced. There were hundreds, not just 12, disciples who followed Jesus, and the followers put forth names of people who might be qualified. Two names were put into the lot and they drew straws to see who got the job.

"That's the way we still do it," the elder said. "Whoever it lands on, is the minister, whether he wants to be or not."

The chosen man is made minister that day. He may or may not actually be qualified to preach, but the elder said most of the people who are put in the lot have some qualifications.

"But usually it's a crash course in public speaking," he said.

A typical Amish church will have four ministers, but more wouldn't matter to the members. A newer community may only have one or two ministers until more people move to the area.

Members of the church don't join until they are in their upper teens, making it an individual's own choice to join.

"No one's forced to join," the elder said.

A popular myth is that Amish teens go out and explore the world before choosing to either leave the lifestyle or join the church. The reality is that most stay at home and join the church.

"In communities like ours, for any young person to leave and go out and try the things of the world would be very unusual. They almost all stay without question," the elder said. "And most of those who do go out and try it, almost all of them come back."

Those who do leave the community and come back are welcomed without a problem. The Amish are actually very forgiving, the elder said.

"You'll probably never find a more forgiving people than the Amish," he said. "A young person might go out and drink, have a car and do what he does and as long as he comes back and repents and changes his life, it's never brought up again."

A voluntary social order with the oversight of the church and ministers makes sure Amish community members are following the rules, but in the end, everything comes back to the church.

Each community has a different set of rules, and a community member could be punished for violating those rules. If that member didn't like the rules in his community, he could simply move to a community where his actions would be accepted.

"For example, our community doesn't have tobacco, we don't have alcohol and the young people certainly don't run wild, but there are communities that do. So if someone here would just think that he has to smoke and he would start smoking and he would get in trouble for it, he would simply move to someplace where he could smoke," the elder said.

The Christian Woman's Devotional Covering is a fancy name for an Amish woman's head covering, which she will almost constantly wear. When a woman goes somewhere, they would wear a bonnet, which is just a covering without the significance of the devotional covering.

The prayer covering has a religious significance to Amish people. The Amish man is made in the image of Jesus and the woman is in submission to Jesus, and therefore the man. It is also a very recognizable symbol of an Amish woman.

Many people may remember a time when women wouldn't go to church without wearing some sort of head covering. Becker County Mennonites, according to the elder, used to wear the same head coverings as the Amish do, they simply justified not having to wear hats anymore.

"We don't make those justifications. We simply follow the Bible as it states and we don't think too much about this new-found freedom in Christ. Those aren't issues for us. It worked for our mothers, why wouldn't it work for us?" he said.

The Amish wear beards because Jesus and his disciples had beards. The men's beards are never shaved once they become members of the church. Some communities, the beards are grown only after a man is married.

"In our community, the beard, being a religious symbol, has to do with church membership, not with marriage," the elder said.

Nobody really knows why the moustache portion of an Amish man's beard is shaved, the elder said.

"It's been done that way since the 1600s. We found men with mustaches in pictures from the 1500s, but not in the 1600s. Researchers have tried to find the answer to that and no one knows," he said.

The Amish in the modern world

The Amish don't believe in insurance or use it for anything. They tend to be completely self-insured, which can sometimes be a little tricky living in the modern world. A house loan isn't necessarily easy to come by from just any bank when there is no insurance on that house.

"We tend to use banks over and over again that are familiar with us," the elder said.

If something were to happen to a community member's house, the community would replace it, he said. If it were too big of a task for the local community to replace, they would send the bills out to other Amish communities for help.

"So when there's a fire that occurs, you plus the community plus the broader Amish community chip in as much as necessary to get it put back together," he said.

A bank can sometimes waive the insurance clause in a home loan, and often times, the buildings that are purchased with property have little or no value and may not need to be insured. The bank may also carry their own insurance on an Amish policy to protect themselves, the elder said.

A community member recently had a hospital stay for appendicitis. The man will first pay as much of the bill as he can afford, then his family will help pay as much as they can, then the community will pay, and what the community can't pay will be sent out broader.

The Amish also don't pay into social security or use any government programs. They do, however, pay their taxes into the government, which is a common misconception about the Amish. They pay all the same taxes everyone else in Becker County pay -- school, income tax, and property tax.

"When you get those stimulus checks, we don't get them," he said. "And if we do get them, we send them back. We're exempt from government handouts as well as from participation in any government programs."

As far as politics are concerned, the Amish try not to get involved. For the most part, the Amish don't vote, although in some parts of the country they may vote in local elections.

"Even though we're American citizens, and we want to be good citizens, but our real calling is to a better country. We hope to be citizens in heaven and not here on earth," the elder said.

They do appreciate being citizens of America, they just chose not to participate in government.

"We are encouraged to pray for our government, and be obedient to them," the elder's wife said.

They do, however, express their views to the government, including talking to their congressman. The elder said there is a loosely organized group of Amish around the country that deals with the government on issues like the draft, social security, health care.

"I'm sure our people are peddling pretty fast in this health care issue to see where we stand on this. And the government will want to know where we stand on it, and we want to know what are they going to require that we can't do," the elder said. "When do we need to start hollering?"

Typically, something will be worked out, he said, like the issue with passports and visas. The Amish don't have picture IDs.

"So that becomes a problem when you cross the border," he said.

Before the Patriot Act in 2001, they could cross the border without a problem, but after there was no crossing without a picture ID. The Amish have worked with the government on this problem, and at many Canadian border checkpoints where the Amish cross a lot, they can simply cross with a certain document like a social security exemption form.

"When an issue comes up like that, between our church administration, which is very loose, and the government, there'll be negotiations to try to find out what we can work out," the elder said. "What we can actually bend on and what they can bend on. So that's how we work through conflicts with the government. It's usually worked out OK."

The Amish follow the laws of government as much as they can.

"The only time we can justify disobeying a law is if it goes against our faith," the elder said. "Most laws don't, but there are occasionally some that do."

A 1972 Supreme Court decision gave the Amish the right to have their own schools without government interference.

"Part of the justification for that was the fact that we are able to socialize our young people better than (the government) can," the elder said. "We make pretty good citizens out of our young people."