Tolerance in America
The idea being put forth today, by those intent upon convincing not only the rest of the world, but Americans themselves, that we are a nation of religious intolerance, is absurd. Those that claim that we are religiously bigoted toward anyone that chooses to worship in a manner outside of what we claim to be the norm, need only look as far as the nearest Amish community, to be proven wrong.
While driving the interstate north from Pittsburgh one sultry August afternoon about three years ago, I saw something that took my breath away; children dressed in a uniform of black and blue, were at play in a field, not more than a few yards from the four lane freeway I traveled. They were Amish children.
At sixty-five miles per hour, I wasn't able to see much through my rear view mirror, only a simple white clapboard school-house, in the middle of a gently sloping meadow. Behind the school, sat two small rectangular sheds, which were obviously privies, and to the north of the buildings, a ball field. The boys, in their wide brimmed black hats, manned the bases, while the little girls, in their bonnets and long skirts, bobbed along the sidelines.
Having recently moved to western Pennsylvania, from southern California, I was fairly overwhelmed, with the dizzying amounts of green along the highway. After six weeks, I'd come to expect the grazing cattle and the occasional deer, but the Amish children at play were completely unanticipated. I knew there were Amish in rural Lancaster county, much further to the east, but I had no idea they lived so close to what used to be, a major industrial center.
I was thoroughly intrigued after that initial sighting, and began to look more closely at the farms that sat on the hillsides along the interstate. A tell-tale sign that a farm belongs to the Amish, are the flaxen-maned draft horses that graze in pairs beyond the paddocks, and the absence of utility poles and lines to the overly plain, always white, farmhouses.
On one particularly blustery winter day, again traveling north on the interstate, we approached the area where the school-house stands. Boxey, black buggies lined the rutted dirt road, perpendicular to the highway. The children, cloaked in black woolen capes which whirled and fluttered in the wind, hurried from classroom to carriage, anxious to be out of the cold. In some cases, a parent stood waiting, or tending a harness, while the warm misty breath of the carriage horses billowed around them. In an instant, the scene had vanished from view.
As I focused my eyes on the paved road ahead, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to live isolated from American culture, while living within the United States. The Amish children in the school beside the freeway, literally watch the world pass by, day after day.
There are approximately 200,000 Old World Amish spread across twenty-two states. They began immigrating here from Europe, early in the eighteenth century, to escape religious persecution. They maintain life-style elements of a seventeenth century agrarian society, and they reject anything that might distract from their devotion to God and family. They are simple, humble people that ask nothing from anyone outside of their immediate community, but to be left alone to live and worship together.
Though most speak English, their native language is a dialect of high German. In deference to their religion, they are deferred from serving in the armed forces, they do not pay into or collect benefits from social security, and they are only required to send their children to school through the eighth grade. The Amish pay all other taxes required of them.
Clearly, improvements in the infrastructure and urban sprawl, have made it increasingly difficult for the Amish to stay truly isolated, but they have adjusted, as have their English (all non-Amish) neighbors. After all, its hard to harbor any ill-will against a community as simple and humble as the Amish, who have proven historically, through their actions, to live as they preach, in peace.
The descendants of political, economic and religious refugees, Americans have an appreciation for tolerance, and are thus, by our very nature, tolerant people. But, we must be wary of those who would use the very qualities that make us great, as weapons against us. Tolerance is not a synonym for ignorance or stupidity.
All of the above photos were taken in the counties of northwestern Pennsylvania in the summer of 2010.