Joe Wittmer, Ph.D., Responds to Questions Regarding the Amish (Installment #1)

I initiated these Q & A sections for the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom's web site and hope my responses help the reader to better understand the German speaking, horse and buggy Old Order Amish.
I was reared in the Old Order horse-and-buggy Amish faith in Indiana until age sixteen and am also the author of The Gentle People: An Inside View of Amish Life (3rd Edition, 2007). 
I hope you find these Q and A sections enjoyable and informative. You may send question(s) to the guest book found on this web site.

Joe Wittmer, PhD       (Deceased)
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Counseling Department
University of Florida, Gainesville

1. How did the Old Order Amish respond to the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack?

The unprecedented terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon was a horrific, life-altering event for all Americans, including the Amish. Experts are still uncertain of precisely how this tragedy has psychologically impacted (or will impact, in the long run) America's children and adults. However, since the Old Order Amish do not watch TV, nor read the daily newspapers, I am convinced that it did not affect Amish children nearly as negatively as it did non-Amish children.

There is no doubt that this tragedy has forced Amish adults to reaffirm their pacifist beliefs more than at anytime in their history of living in America. And, like most other Americans, they have also struggled with how our country should have responded to the horrific event. But, the Amish were/are unequivocally opposed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and do not believe that peace loving, turn-the-other cheek, defenseless Christians can ever sanction the taking up of arms against their fellow man, regardless of the circumstances. They are often reminded of, and are well aware of, the many wars described in the Bible. However, the Amish interpret the Old Testament through the eyes of the New Testament and both through the "words of the loving and peaceful Jesus." And, they believe strongly that Jesus meant what He said when he declared, "love your enemies." To the Amish, "God is love."

Several Amish have told me that, since 9/11/01 they have been confronted by non-Amish regarding their American citizenship and allegiance like never before. They are committed pacifists and these strong beliefs resulted in several documented conflicts for them with their non-Amish neighbors since the tragic event occurred. For example, many have been criticized and scorned for not flying the flag on their homes and businesses following the unparalleled tragedy.

However, there can be no doubt about it, the Amish love their country, give "unto Caesar which is Caesar's," pray daily for America's leaders and teach their children to respect the flag. But, waving and/or saluting the flag, pledging allegiance, singing the national anthem, etc, is contrary to their interpretation of the Bible and is viewed by them as a form of idolatry.

In sum, the Amish agree that America's war on terrorism is more complicated and confusing for them than any previous war in which the US has been engaged. They, like all Americans, are trying to make sense out of the continuous terrorist threat to all of us. And, they like the rest of us, are still learning how to react to, and understand, individuals who want only to kill and maim other people in the name of their God in such a particularly dreadful and horrific manner.

2. How did the Amish feel about the Reality Show: Amish in the City? And, Dr. Wittmer, how do you personally feel about it?

I will attempt to answer this question in as much of a straightforward manner as possible. However, I must admit that I hold a negative and biased personal opinion of the reality show, "Amish in the City." And, the reader should know that I personally wrote letters and made phone calls to try and stop the show from being filmed in the first place. But, after it was announced that it would be televised, I took a special interest in it since I had been born and raised Amish and the fact that one of my Amish cousins was a participant on the show. And, admittedly, since I have had the opportunity to visit recently with his Old Order Amish parents and know first hand of the anguish this has caused them and other Amish as well, I am even further biased.

The 10 week long, TV reality show, Amish in the City, aired during the summer of 2004 and it was reported that some 5.9 million Americans (Time Magazine) viewed the first episode. However, Old Order Amish, baptized church members were not among these viewers as they do not own, nor do they watch, television. Thus, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how members of the horse and buggy sect felt about the show.

The basis for the reality show was a simple concept: UPN/CBS recruited and paid 5 Amish youth of rum springa age, along with six non-Amish "city kids" of the same age, to participate in the show. Rum springa, translated literally from the German dialect all Amish speak, means to "around (rum) run (springa)," or when stated in English, to "run around." The 11 youth were taken to Los Angeles where they lived together in the same house for several weeks. They were filmed interacting during free time and while engaged in various structured activities arranged by the show's producers (they visited the ocean, various theme parks, several different religious groups and cultural festivals--the Hare Krishna, Asian American, Muslim, etc).

All Amish youth experience the "running around" Amish rite of passage known as rum springa. Most (some 85-90%) successfully negotiate this "causal time" of their lives and return to the fold. This important phase of their life begins at age 16 and prior to baptism into Amish church membership. Simply put, rum springa, in the Amish sense, is a time when their youth become adults, "put away the things of a child" and become of dating age (16). Contrary to the manner in which it was portrayed on the reality show, it is nothing more and nothing less! Most Amish kids of rum springa age live at home with their parents and continue working on their parents' farms and/or home based businesses. They most certainly do not run off to LA and live in the same house with a group of non-Amish youth of the similar age! I personally experienced rum springa at age 16 and can attest to the fact that it never correlates with lavish parties, extravagant adventures, fancy food, free housing, and lots of money as was experienced by the 5 Amish youth participating in the Amish in the City TV show! This important Amish rite of passage was completely misrepresented by the reality show being discussed here. In my opinion, rum springa can never can be accurately portrayed on a TV show.

Amish parents view rum springa as a very important "faith considering," decision making time in the lives of their offspring. And, to the disappointment, chagrin and lamenting of the church leaders, some parents do tend to "look the other way" during the rum springa period. The facts are that some of their youth do leave the sect and become members of the Mennonite church or some other more liberal Amish/Mennonite sect instead of returning for baptism. Only a very small percentage leave the "plain people" groups altogether (as I did) to become members of secular churches.

The Amish youth participating in the show had an education consisting of eight years of schooling in a two room Amish school house taught by teachers who were themselves eighth grade graduates. They were brought up in a strict environment and taught at home, and at school, to be "inwardly and outwardly humble" in all that they do. Their childhood and adolescent years had been highly scripted; from what they could wear, the language they spoke, who they could associate with, etc. That is, their highly structured "growing up" paths had been so very differently scripted from those of their "English" city kid roommates. Suddenly they were thrust into a world that they had been taught was evil and one for which they were woefully unprepared. Thus, I am certain the reader can well imagine how extremely vulnerable such undereducated, Amish youth would be at rum springa age. One can imagine their personal confusion at this age and especially the ramifications of living with the more "sophisticated" non-Amish youth while being so far away from their families and support groups. However, if you saw the show, I think you will agree with me that the Amish kids revealed a depth that their big city counterparts will take years, if ever, to develop and that they came across much better than did the city kids. Sadly, the Amish youth participants are at that stage in their lives where they are debating throwing it all away and in so doing to risk losing the support of their family and friends.

I have spoken to many Amish regarding the show (most had a basic knowledge of the TV series) and to a person, each was appalled and emotionally distressed that it was produced and broadcast nationally. One Old Order Bishop, who had briefly seen TV only one time while walking through a Sears store, asked me if TV shows often single out the beliefs and practices of a specific religious group as a subject for entertainment. I may be incorrect, but as I told the Bishop, I have never seen, nor have I ever heard, of such a TV show with such a concept prior to "Amish in the City" reality series. Matter of fact, it has been my observation that producers and directors go out of their way to show respect for how members of minority groups are depicted in their TV shows and films. Intentionally focusing on a certain minority group's practice for the sake of entertainment, as was done in this reality series, would usually result in the producer and director being labeled as "bigots." The bottom line is, the Amish do not want, nor do they seek, such unwanted publicity regarding any of their cultural or religious practices. They wish to be left alone to live a peaceful life and they did not appreciate the inaccurate, unwanted attention that resulted from this TV show.

As mentioned above, some Amish youth do run into difficulty with the "world" during this phase of their life. Some tend to experiment with, as the Amish say, some of the "frivolous" aspects of the modern world and, sadly, a few have even gotten caught up in the world of drugs and alcohol. However, the reality show producers led its viewers to believe that rum springa is a church sanctioned practice. Over an over again the viewers where led to believe that Amish youth are encouraged to experiment with all aspects of the "world" and to then make a decision on whether they will or will not, return to the Amish church for baptism. The fact is, no Amish congregation sanctions the rum springa period as a time when their youth are so encouraged. As noted above, rum springa, in the Amish sense, is a time when their youth become adults, "put away the things of a child," and become of dating age (16). Thus, the Amish believe, as I do, that the myth surrounding rum springa was further perpetuated and falsely portrayed by the TV show. Additionally, I believe strongly that the non-Amish viewers were seriously misled in regards to the genuine virtues, values, ways and moral code of the Old Order Amish.

In sum, what bothered me most about the show (aside from the very personal feelings of "that was me a long time ago") was not just the exploitation of the naive, German speaking, eight grade Amish graduates, but the exploitation of the confusion and angst felt by these innocent Amish youth. I am deeply concerned about the long term effects the show will have on them. They will have an extremely difficult time dealing with the experience psychologically, and will, if they ever return to the fold, have to live with the shame and guilt for the rest of their lives. And even more unfortunate, I sincerely doubt that, after this experience, that any of the five will return to the Amish lifestyle.

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