Shoofly Pie and the Religious Right

In the mid-1990’s I was the headmaster of a private K-12 school in Sarasota, FL. The school was owned by a group of Mennonite churches in town. Some said that 1 out of every 8 persons in Sarasota at that time was Mennonite, Amish, or Brethren. I always thought that was too high a number, but the three Anabaptist (non-Catholic and non-Protestant) groups did represent a large constituency.

One day I had a visit from the school’s insurance agent. Supposing he had some policy-related question I welcomed him into my office. What he then asked was not what I expected. He informed me he was running for school board for the large Sarasota County School district. He had figured out that perhaps he could win if he could get all the Mennonites in town to vote for him. He wanted my advice on how I thought he might make that happen. My response to him was two-fold: first, I informed him that many Mennonites didn’t vote; second, there was no way he would ever get all the Mennonites anywhere to agree on any one thing! He looked surprised and disappointed and left. In case you are curious, he did win the school board seat. I have no idea how many Mennonite votes he got!

This little conversation has often reminded me how folks think that this or that religious or faith-motivated community is a monolithic whole. How wrong they are! This week I was reading my copy of The Mennonite Quarterly Review, a journal of The Mennonite Historical Society of which I am a member. In it I read an article about how the Brethren in Christ group (a sub-group of the Brethren wing of Anabaptism - neither Catholic nor Protestant) had moved during the mid-1960’s to become part of the evangelical left, a “progressive” group within the evangelical community. I smiled as I read because I lived through all that. I attended an evangelical college in those “mid-1960’s” and watched and perhaps even participated in the stress of the American campus (yes, even evangelical colleges) of that era.

I suppose some of you are already chuckling because you never thought of there being a progressive “evangelical left” with all that you hear of the “religious right.” Actually, the evangelical left existed prior to the advent of what we think we know as the religious right. Let me tell you about the Chicago Declaration – an evangelical left manifesto that I supported from 1973 which “denounced racism, sexism, economic injustices, and militarism.” Is this what you thought was the evangelical agenda? Come on now, be honest!

Prior to, and after that brief stint leading a Mennonite school in the mid-nineties I have worked in our public schools. I often had to choke back a chuckle when I heard some well-meaning, but ill-informed staff member or stakeholder talk about the evil evangelical or wrong-headed religious right being some monolithic group – it reminds me of that day in my office in Sarasota and it reminds me now of a pundit wondering if this or that candidate will win the “evangelical” vote. Lots of luck. I will say to the TV pundit and the well-meaning staff member or stakeholder the same thing I said to the aspiring board member: first, lots of evangelicals may not vote at all; second and more important, good luck on getting all of us (notice the change in person) to agree on anything!

Of course, I am equally sure that all my “progressive” friends agree on everything! Right? . . . Err . . . sorry, bad choice of words! Of course not.

You see, no large or small group of people (not even a family, clan, or religious community) can be assumed to agree on everything. To act or speak like you think they do is only to put your own bias out there, or in the case of the attitude toward evangelicals of some of my progressive friends, their own “conservophobia.”

Me? I am done now and going to go get a piece of shoofly pie, the best dessert in the world – the only thing in the world all Mennonites agree on!

Note: Some of the insights in this blog were taken from Manzullo-Thomas, Devin C. “Born-Again Brethren in Christ: Anabaptism, Evangelicalism, and the Cultural Transformation of a Plain People.” The Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol XC, No. 2, April 2016, 203-237.