Mennonite Takeover?

Just read this article. I feel misunderstood; but in a way they do call us out on some stuff. It’s called “Mennonite Takeover?.” What do you think?

An excerpt:

All these neo-Anabaptists denounce traditional American Christianity for its supposed seduction by American civil religion and ostensible support for the “empire.” They reject and identify America with the reputed fatal accommodation between Christianity and the Roman Emperor Constantine capturing the Church as a supposed instrument of state power. Conservative Christians are neo-Anabaptists’ favorite targets for their alleged usurpation by Republican Party politics. But the neo-Anabaptists increasingly offer their own fairly aggressive politics aligned with the Democratic Party, in a way that should trouble traditional Mennonites. Although the neo-Anabaptists sort of subscribe to a tradition that rejects or, at most, passively abides state power, they now demand a greatly expanded and more coercive state commandeering health care, regulating the environment, and punishing wicked industries.

Even more strangely, though maybe unsurprisingly, mainstream religious liberals now echo the Anabaptist message, especially its pacifism. The Evangelical Left especially appreciates that the neo-Anabaptist claim to offer the very simple “politics of Jesus” appeals to young evangelicals disenchanted with old-style conservatives but reluctant to align directly with the Left. Most famously, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, once a clear-cut old style Religious Left activist who championed Students for a Democratic Society and Marxist liberationist movements like the Sandinistas, now speaks in neo-Anabaptist tones.

Comments (25)

  1. Robert Martin

    You need to read Sheldon Good’s response in Mennonite Weekly Review, October 7th.

  2. Isaiah

    The article was written by someone involved with the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a think-tank with major corporate ties and relationships to other far right think tanks. This has to be pointed out that this is not merely from a ‘neutral’ perspective.

    What the author laments I think is a good thing, developing a distinctly anabaptist voice in co-operation with other churches. The Mennonite Church has often come along side of traditional evangelical causes to the point of many formerly Anabaptist churches abandoning any sense of that particular identity (for example the Missionary Church was once ‘the Mennonite Brethren in Christ’ but dropped both the mennonite name and the pacifist stance in the mid 20th century) as anabaptist Christians.

    And the ridiculous claim that Anabaptist support a “coercive” state in matters of social services is so ridiculous it’s funny. I’m sure the fact that his institute was dubbed “the seminary” of the Reagan administration really shows how much he cares about the evils of “coercive” government.

    What next? Will Glenn Beck do a whole show about the Communist Mennonite takeover of America – the same kind of ridiculous attacks he used against Liberation theology last year?

  3. Tim Baer

    It suffers from some over-generalization but I feel it is pretty spot on. His comments on Claiborne’s book are a little out of context (and, seriously, Jesus for President is hardly up to the same standard Irresistible Revolution). But there is a concern here, and one that I have echoed, that “neo-anabaptism” (or whatever) has more to do with left of center politics than religion. It co-opts religion just as the right has done to promote political goals, not religious ones.

  4. Daniel

    As a self-labeled neo-anabaptist who is in those circles I find the discussion interesting. There is some general left-leaning among us, but it’s generally much more anarchist(see things like Relational Tithe) than supportive of state programs.

  5. TimN

    Isaiah, thanks for the background on the Institute for Religion and Democracy. Their Wikipedia article points out that they were set up in 1981 to challenge Christian support for liberation movements in Central America. Mark Tooley isn’t just involved with this group. He is their president. Before that he worked as a CIA analyst for eight years, according to his bio on their site.

    Frankly, if folks like this find Anabaptism threatening, we must be doing something right. The history of The American Spectator on Wikipedia is worth a read as well.

    One of the striking aspects of the article is the way Tooley claims the mantle of sacred defender of Christianity from political entanglement while at the same time loudly condemning this poetic rejection of the state in The Litany of Resistance:

    With governments that kill… we will not comply. With the theology of empire…we will not comply.… With the hoarding of riches… we will not comply.… To the peace that is not like Rome’s… we pledge allegiance.” (written by James Loney, but attributed to Shane Claiborne in the article*)

    Tooley has written about Mennonites before when he covered the Goshen College anthem decision. I suspect we’ll continue to hear from him in the future.

    All this said, I think it is worth listening to Tooley in two areas, though not for the reasons he would like us to

    Alliance with the electoral party politics

    First, Tooley says, “But the neo-Anabaptists increasingly offer their own fairly aggressive politics aligned with the Democratic Party, in a way that should trouble traditional Mennonites.” I have felt strong discomfort with the leanings in this direction that Jim Wallis and Sojourners have headed. But not because I don’t think Jesus calls to political change. Rather, I believe the way of Jesus is not that of loyal opposition or court prophet (more of my thoughts on this here). When we advocate with the state around a particular issue of social justice, we need to tread very carefully lest we ourselves become its tools.

    Listening to bell hooks

    There is a second, and far more disturbing layer here that needs naming. The fact that the “neo-Anabaptist” movement can be discussed in some depth in this article without naming any women or people of color is as much an indictment of our movement as it is this commentator.* How liberative can a movement be if the leaders it makes most visible are all white and male? We here at YAR are certainly not immune to this problem.

    Tooley’s comment that neo-Anabaptistm permits a “naughty sense of rebellion” points to the very real risk of the appropriation and commodification of Anabaptism as yet another product to help young white middle class evangelicals feel edgy. There is of course, a rich opportunity in connecting with this group, but the publishing and marketing industry that targets this audience has as a hegemonizing power that we do not often discuss.

    Last night I watched a presentation by bell hooks talking about cultural criticism and rap music. She said, “Rap music is so diverse in it’s themes, its style and content, but when it becomes a vehicle to be talked about in mainstream news is always the rap music that perpetuates misogyny” She goes on to say “This [colonization] has to be seen in the larger framework of capitalist production in our society.” . I’m not suggesting that the commentators named in Tooley’s piece are misogynistic or violent. Boyd, Wallis, Claiborne and Hauerwas are all articulate, charismatic, intelligent and highly effective writers. But the same forces that colonized the hip-hop movementare at work on the “neo-Anabaptist” movement as it seeks to enter the mainstream. bell hooks names these multinational media corporations as part of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” These corporations are a principality just as powerful and demanding as the state, but far less discussed. Here’s the whole presentation by hooks::

    *The mis-attribution of the litany of resistance to Claiborne masks the one openly queer voice in the article.

    edit: It looks like Tooley is quoting from the Jesus For President Litany which is posted on Claiborne’s Jesus for President site. The litany as posted there does give credit to Jim Loney.

  6. dave

    The mis-attribution of the litany of resistance to Claiborne masks the one openly queer voice in the article.


  7. Daniel

    dave – he’s referring to not giving James Loney(who is openly gay/queer) credit for the The Litany of Resistance.

  8. dave

    @Daniel – thanks, that is what I assumed, but didn’t know that Loney was openly queer.


  9. Tim Baer

    I think you make a hasty condemnation here: “There is a second, and far more disturbing layer here that needs naming. The fact that the “neo-Anabaptist” movement can be discussed in some depth in this article without naming any women or people of color is as much an indictment of our movement as it is this commentator.*”

    Maybe we can face facts with facts here. Anabaptists are largely fiercely cultural. There’s no doubt that within Mennonite Circles we play the “name game” which is used to identify people solely by race/roots. The tradition of anabaptism is almost entirely based on race (indeed, we know all too well how much certain race purifiers love this about us). So it should not come as any surprise that leaders within the movement are mostly white (Though he names Wallis and Claibourne who have no real roots or attachment to our anabaptist denominations).

    So again, it shouldn’t be a shock to see whites speaking for a religious experience that has been traditionally white (It’s true that other nations have non-white Mennonites but I honestly doubt that Mennonites in Zimbabwe have any opinion about the American Left Wing Politics the author addresses).

    Just a thought.

  10. TimN


    You’re correct in your statement of cultural roots of traditional Anabaptist groups. And the history of Mennonites, Nazism and anti-semitism (which I’ve written about ) still affects us today.

    But I have hope for an Anabaptism that moves beyond simply being a cultural and racial identity. Which is exactly why this conversation is important because as far as I know neither Hauerwas, Wallis, Claiborne or Boyd have any connections by birth with traditional Anabaptist groups. So if they are the New Hope for Anabaptism, we don’t seem to have moved an inch.

    So no, it’s not a surprise or a shock that these men are all white, but we still have a responsibility to work to change it.

    I don’t have any personal experience with Mennonites in Zimbabwe, but many Colombian Christians I know are quite directly affected by US militarism and are active in challenging it, both in Colombia and in North America. It’s not about “American Left Wing Politics.” It’s about whether or not we we as Christians are complicit with the powers and principalities in this country (and elsewhere) as they plunder the world. When Jesus called us to metanoia, that’s the world he called us away from.

  11. TimN

    Here’s a useful collection of quotes from articles on the campaign by Mark Tooley and the Institute for Religion and Democracy against the social witness of the United Methodist Church:

  12. Tim Baer

    Just to be clear:

    “I don’t have any personal experience with Mennonites in Zimbabwe, but many Colombian Christians I know are quite directly affected by US militarism and are active in challenging it, both in Colombia and in North America. It’s not about “American Left Wing Politics.”” – Tim N.

    I didn’t mean that non-whites were unaffected. Rather, the author was expressing how Neo-Anabaptists are influenced by American left-wing politics, so it should come as no surprise that he only used American Anabaptists as the cases in point to demonstrate this. In retrospect, however, he barely did even this as Claibourne and Wallis have only the loosest affiliation with Anabaptism (Neither are part of any of our denominations as far as I am aware which hardly makes them any sort of authority on what our theology is).

  13. John Arthur

    Hi YAR,

    Neo-Anabaptists seems to be a term that is broader than Mennonite and in my opinion covers those in non Anabaptist denominations that espouse significant elements of Anabaptism. John Yoder’s writings have been very influential.

    Values of social justice, non-violence and the care of creation are as central to them as to many Mennonnites. Political strategies differ among neo-Anabaptists and range from left leaning political activism to Christian anarchism.

    Social change, in line with the “upside down” reign of God, comes cheifly through a community of Spirit empowered and comitted disciples following the servant way of Jesus, and not through the use of coercive power. So there is no neo-Anabaptist takeover and never will be.

    Shalom to you all and God bless you all for your thoughtful posts,

    John Arthur

  14. TimN


    Thanks for this reminder of both the broader umbrella of those drawn to Anabaptist values and how those values suggest a model of social change that explicitly rejects take over.

    I checked out your blog briefly. Great to see you embracing the term “Neo-Anabaptist.” I’ve started to hear this popping up more and more. Where did you first come across it? What has your journey been with claiming that label?


  15. John Arthur

    Hi Tim,

    I cannot remember exactly when or where I first came across the lable neo-Anabaptist but it was a few years back.

    I noticed it start cropping up among people who were influenced by Yoder and Hauerwas or the radical discipleship evangelicals like Jim Wallis.

    I have also noticed it cropping up recently among people who are anti Anabaptist and are labelling those supporters of Yoder’s approach in the “emerging” churches as neo-Anabaptist.

    Briefly, My journey has been as follows. I have been an evangelical Christian for about 42 years and for a substantial part of that time, I have either been a member or attended conservative evangelical Baptist churhes.

    I was originally a hard line Calvinist Fudamentalist. In 1972, I walked into my favourite evangelical bookstore and noticed an interesting book which I flipped through and purchased. That book was “the Politics of Jesus”.

    It was to gradually change the way i looked at the bible, theology and theological ethics. You might say that its rigorous, Jesus centred approach was to revolutionise my whole outlook.

    In 1994-1996, I attended the Baptist Theological College of Western Australia (now called Vose Seminary). The library has a big section of Anabaptist writings, though most of its students never read it.

    Although I have had little personal contact with Anabaptist communities (There are none in Western Australia) apart from brief occasional visits to the now defunct Perth Anabaptist fellowship in 2006 ,I claim to be neo-Anabaptist in impulse from the praxis and theological stance I have taken.

  16. AlanS

    Just a thought on the ‘why are all the neo-anabaptists we’re talking about white men’ question. What’s the influence of the fact that they all became leaders in their own tradition first and then have found Anabaptism later? They’re all coming from religious/cultural traditions that promote white men over others. Perhaps their leaning towards Anabaptism will help influence some other traditions that haven’t been so receptive.

    Now that being said, I don’t think this absolves Anabaptism, or this discussion, from Tim’s point. I’m just saying that point out that white male leaders are attracted to Anabaptism isn’t necessarily a minus. What I’m saying is that the lack of leaders of other genders and races is the problem.

    Also, one more (disjointed) thought on this subject. How much of the elevation of white male leaders has to do with wider societies elevation of white males in general. I don’t think that white men are the only ones who are attracted to Anabaptism, but the might be the only ones who people pay attention to on a wider scale.

    Not to say that Anabaptism doesn’t have it’s prejudices to work through, I’m just wondering if the elevation of white, male, neo-anabaptists might have more to do with forces outside of our control. Maybe not, just some thoughts.

  17. Josiah Garber

    Makes some good sense to me.

  18. Sam

    Two things:
    I’m delighted that Anabaptist ideas are spreading through mainline Christianity on the one hand, and through evangelical circles on the other. It speaks to the integrity of our commitment to being a third way. Of course, this means that the neo-Anabaptists aren’t a monolith-Jim Wallace, coming from mainstream Christianity, has a more political agenda. Claiborn, coming from a more evangelical perspective, has a more anarchist bent.

    But on the ‘left/right’ divide. Toomey dismisses concern for the poor, the sick, and the environment as liberal and leftist ideas. They aren’t. The health care law just passed is roughly equivalent to Bob Dole’s plan in ’92 and Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts. A carbon tax is ideologically neutral-its just a way of dealing with a collective action problem around CO2. The Republican party is the only party, left or right, around the globe that has decided that global warming will go away if they stick their fingers in their ears and go ‘nah-nah-nah’ long enough, and very conservative people like Ron Paul believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are mistakes and that America shouldn’t be acting like an empire.
    Issues of government size and government debt are not things that neo-Anabaptists rarely spend much time on, but that’s what Republicans ran on in the last election.

  19. Joseph P

    Lots of good commentary here. Thanks all.

    Seems clear that Tooley is premature in asking if future neo-Anabaptists will have to apologize for their “hyperbolic denunciations and sweeping political demands?”

    Also, how disingenuous is it to liken neo-Anabaptist’s “denunciations and demands” to the persecution inflicted by Protestant churches on early Anabaptists? I mean, I definitely think Anabaptists need to shake the victim identity, but let’s get real.

    A much bigger problem than this perceived neo-Anabaptist power grab is the fact of both conservative and liberal Mennonites being poor stewards of their vast resources. I mean, at least people like Claiborne are walking the walk.

    AlanS- I agree that seeing neo-Anabaptist leaders emerge from other backgrounds is a good thing. I think we can separate the positive aspect of that from the unfortunate fact of having fewer female and minority leaders. Ironically, I just read a letter to the editor in the Mennonite Weekly Review from a reader who apparently has observed a female takeover of “male” positions (“like being pastors and leading a seminary”) and calls men to task, essentially wondering what they are doing with all their free time.

    TimN’s points about leadership remain salient, but it’s interesting to note that some people see it from a very different perspective.

  20. ST

    Am I crazy to appreciate that vid you just posted from Ron Paul, Josiah? I like it. I think its good at diagnosing some of the problems of rhetoric and action.

    There are Anabaptist leaders of color…oh the theme is so complicated. But thanks for bringing that up TimN, and for being an ally. From what I’ve seen so far, Anabaptists of colour will likely lead in a different way. Mennos in Zimbabwe do care what happens in the USA. Last Spring they wrote an open letter to all of us, calling for prayer and revival. The discussion among Anabaptists of colour or communities of colour in general may not be on Tooley’s radar at all.

    I think the Anabaptist movement will do some surprising and beautiful things. Like John Arthur said, there will be no takeover. I appreciate the bump in publicity.

    May all of us, regardless of colour, passionately seek to witness to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God!

    I know of an Anabaptist leader of colour who is planning to engage at the SOA protest this weekend. More info:

    Like the image at end of the Ron Paul vid, I’ve always been etymologically intrigued by the word love in the wor(l)d evole / evolution.

  21. Dan S

    It is important to remember that suspicion of government by Anabaptists was the result of the government trying to kill them all the time.

    It’s quite a different matter when government is trying to provide health care and environmental protection to all citizens, which are no more “coercive” than building public roads and parks.

    Yes, we need to be suspicious of government power. But we also have to recognize when that power is being used to help the powerless and when it is being used to protect the powerful. Writing off all government action as “coercive” is just lazy. Government policy is the single most effective tool in reducing suffering that we have, and whether or not our motivations are kingdom-based or not, it is good and right to advocate for policies that reduce suffering.

    And the political reality is that more of the policies that advocate for the powerless come from the Democratic party and more of the policies that protect the powerful come from the Republican party. That’s not to suggest that the Democratic party is always on the side of the powerless, but they are more often on that side than Republicans are. If Tooley is worried that neo-Anabaptists side with Democrats on policy advocacy, then maybe he should convince Republicans to adopt more kingdom-focused policies.

  22. Steve Kimes

    Government policy could be an effective tool if someone other than the isolated wealthy were in charge of the government. When the Senators and Supreme Court Justices and the Chiefs of Staff each spend six months on the street or in a state institution, then I would agree that they could lead all the people.

    I think the fact that most neo-Anabaptists are white men is a concern, but that doesn’t reduce the truth of the movement. What social and cultural limits are keeping women and people of color from openly speaking out about this?

  23. 1nine

    rest assured, the most effective way to influence social change toward one’s own end is by gaining control of that which has been called the “opium of the people”

    there are problems with the Mennonite Takeover article, but there are good points that hit home with the current problems within the denomination.

  24. Steve Kimes

    “Opiate of the people”– television?

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