In an extended rumination on the history of political thought, Dick Howard suggested that the real drama is between “politics” and “antipolitics.”1 By politics, he meant a centuries-old struggle, allegedly launched by Socrates, over the best way for human beings to live together. Politics is contentious and messy because it pits people of varying interests against each other, and it is never-ending because what works in one instance might not fit another. Antipolitics proffers a cleaner solution. It presents a “final answer” to the vexations of public life by proposing a system said to benefit everyone, or at least to be capable of lasting forever. It is antipolitical because it circumvents political conflict in a bid to “free people up” to do other things like raise families, start businesses, or spend their days watching reality TV. Howard cited Plato’s Republic, with the superintendence of its wise philosopher-kings, as the first antipolitics. Post-Cold War end-of-history narratives envisioning the global adaptation of American economic institutions numbered among the most recent.
Anabaptism has an antipolitics, too. Its version is a little different because it draws less on the perfectibility of public life than on the imperfectibility of human nature, but it has exerted profound influence over Anabaptist history. Starting in the 16th century, Anabaptist antipolitics asserted that the created order stood in rebellion against the kingdom of God (another kind of “final answer”) and implicated all earthly governments in that rebellion. The task of the Christian was to work for God’s kingdom while living in a human kingdom – in a sense, to be an agent behind enemy lines. Practically, that meant not getting too close to human governments – not voting, not serving in military or police forces, and certainly not holding office. In Europe, where every political entity was unsympathetic to Anabaptism at some level, it was easy for Mennonites to conclude they should avoid the state, but when some of them crossed the Atlantic, they encountered a free church tradition that seemed less hostile. As James C. Juhnke chronicles in A People of Two Kingdoms II: Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politics, some of the Russian Mennonites who came to Kansas decided they could serve the Kingdom from within the government almost as soon as they reached American shores – indeed as early as 1877. Juhnke traced their story from arrival to World War II in an earlier book.2 The new volume chronicles their even fuller embrace of politics since the 1940s and pays particular attention to Mennonites who ran for or served in state or federal offices. Juhnke explores not only the effect these men and women had on Kansas politics, but also the effect political engagement had on them. Regarding both – but especially the latter – the results were mixed. The story of Mennonite politics is one of promise and price.
Promising were the new ways political engagement presented for expressing Anabaptist perspectives on public life. The best examples focused on war and peace. Though the horrors of World War I almost made pacifism chic in the 1920s and 1930s, Congress responded to new European war clouds in 1940 with America’s first peacetime conscription. Similar bills reinstated it after World War II and extended it until the 1970s. Kansas Mennonites never accepted the “peace-through-strength” argument that conscription made war less likely, and they voiced their skepticism in denominational publications, letters to editors, and pleas to political leaders. However, they did appreciate the opportunities for alternative service that conscription provided. From 1940 to 1945, conscientious objectors (COs) were assigned noncombatant jobs in work camps, hospitals, and mental institutions through the Civilian Public Service program, and, after 1951, in the similar I-W program. Tensions flared occasionally between Mennonite COs and their decidedly non-CO supervisors, but these work experiences opened the Mennonites’ eyes to the possibility of public service. They provided a religiously acceptable way for American Mennonites to serve their country and, in some cases, resulted in church plantings.
By the 1950s, part of the old Anabaptist guard against politics had fallen. Even on issues less obviously connected to war, Kansas Mennonites spoke out. As Juhnke noted, capital punishment was probably the next most consistent site of Mennonite political organizing. The Western District Conference issued formal statements opposing it, and local churches praised politicians who, sometimes at risk to their careers, refused to reinstate it. In 1979, when death penalty opponents from across Kansas placed a two-page advertisement in The Topeka Capital-Journal, Mennonites accounted for nearly half of its hundreds of signatures. The civil rights movement also convinced Mennonites that government could do good as well as evil. Decades of mission work in Africa and the U.S. South wore down racial shortsightedness and, by the 1960s, inclined increasing numbers of Mennonites to see more clearly what it meant to recognize all people as children of God. Though never major players in the civil rights movement, most Kansas Mennonites welcomed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it came.
In 1970, Kansas Mennonites produced their first U.S. Congressional candidate – Juhnke himself. In one of the book’s most compelling chapters, he recounts the story of his own campaign launched at the height of anti-Vietnam War activism in and around Bethel College. Juhnke ran at a time when the Democratic Party, his party, was deeply riven between a conservative, pro-war faction and a younger, anti-war element. Locally, the latter tended to be associated with the state’s Mennonite colleges – especially Bethel since it had been given national publicity in Life magazine. Somewhat uncomfortably, Juhnke found himself cast as the anti-war standard-bearer. The task of his campaign was to broaden his image into that of “a concerned mainstream patriotic citizen.”3 The tension between his skill as an articulator of the Mennonite peace witness and his campaign’s need to appeal to a larger constituency illustrated a larger dilemma: just because Kansas Mennonites were ready for politics did not mean Kansas politics was ready for them.
Juhnke’s campaign also foreshadowed the price of political involvement – or, really, the two prices – both of which mounted in the decades that followed. The first was predictable: the more politically active Kansas Mennonites became, the more they grated on the nerves of fellow Kansans. Simply refusing to fight was offensive enough during World Wars I and II, but principled opposition to the Vietnam War drew charges of everything from incivility to treason. Mennonites campaigned for antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy, staged a: “Repentance Walk” to the North Newton post office, refused to register for the draft or supported those who did, and, perhaps most memorably, spent four days ringing a bell on the Bethel College campus to memorialize Americans killed in Vietnam. A few years later, in 1974, a federal judge found the state’s three Mennonite colleges (and two others) ineligible to participate in the Kansas tuition grant program because of their “adherence to sectarian dogmas.” Some considered it payback for the Mennonites’ most unpopular “dogma” – pacifism.4
If anything, though, the second price was even more troubling. As American politics mired in divisive cultural issues in the 1980s and 1990s, it bifurcated into partisan factions that sometimes today are beyond speaking terms. Mennonites struggled to fit into either camp. Their traditionalism and personal religious principles inclined them toward the right, but their foreign policy views and social ethics inclined them toward the left. Internal division was nothing new – in World War II, some young Mennonite men chose military service – but late 20th-century culture wars posed questions not only about adherence to Mennonite values but about the meaning of those values, indeed about the very definition of “Christian.” Increasingly, American polarization became Mennonite polarization. Some Kansas Mennonites, like Democratic state legislative candidate Donna Neufeld, sided with the left; others, like Republican and later Constitution Party candidate Cedric Boehr, identified with conservative evangelicals. Still others, like State Sen. Christine Downey, could not settle completely in either camp and bemoaned a loss of political civility that crept from Topeka and Washington all the way into Mennonite congregations and families.
Given both the promise and price, the story of Mennonite political involvement related by Juhnke is perhaps best understood as a paradox. In a sense, Mennonites are uniquely ill-equipped for political life, and yet politics needs their voice for the very reason they are ill-equipped. The grand tradition of politics from Plato onwards has been a fundamentally humanistic pursuit. It sought to define and pursue good human society on the basis of good human life, but human foibles have always opened it to corruption. Unfortunately, antipolitics is anti-human. It places above the well-being of real people wispy abstractions like national greatness, class consciousness, or markets. Anabaptism is not anti-human because it has always seen people as part of a fundamentally good created order, and it has emphasized that in serving each other people serve the Creator. But the Anabaptist vision of “good society” is also more-than-human because it is rooted in an alternative community Anabaptists believe God created and Jesus announced in his life, ministry, and work. Because the tension between the alternative and the world is not the same as the tension between politics and antipolitics, it is probably inevitable that Mennonites in politics will find themselves speaking different languages than their compatriots. The paradox is that finding new ways to speak about old problems is part of what politics has always been about.