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Introduction and Overview
This guide is intended to spark discussion of and reflection on The Amish, a two-hour AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary that takes viewers inside a little-understood religious community whose intense faith and strict adherence to tradition have by turns fascinated and repelled, inspired and perplexed America. The film examines how and why the Amish -- a culture marked by separatism and a rejection of modern technology -- have thrived within one of the most individualistic, technology-oriented societies on earth. It offers key insights into American values, illuminating boundaries that have been carved out to define freedom of religion as well as the balance between majority rule and protection of minority rights.
Intended for use by educators, students, community members, and other viewers, this guide offers a starting point from which to discuss and analyze the Amish, both past and present, along with related themes of religious difference and tolerance. The film and guide can serve as resources in comparative religion, government, social studies, history, government, civics, English, writing, and current events courses.
Learning Objectives and Curriculum Standards
The Amish provides a point of departure for discussion, writing, and activities that meet an array of state and national curriculum standards and benchmarks. These include fostering an understanding of:
- The importance to individuals and society of such personal rights as freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of expression and association, freedom of movement and residence, and privacy
- The ways in which specific provisions of the United States Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, limit the powers of government in order to protect the rights of individuals (e.g., freedom of religion, speech, press; equal protection of the law); the principle of majority rule balanced with protection for minority rights
- Competing ideas about the purposes government should serve (e.g., whether government should protect individual rights, promote the common good, mold the character of citizens or promote a particular religion)
- The role of religion in the English colonies (e.g., the evolution of religious freedom, treatment of religious dissenters, and the concept of separation of church and state)
- The role of diversity in American life and the existence of a multiplicity of values, beliefs, and practices in an increasingly diverse American society; the conflicts that stem from diversity (e.g., violence or discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity, race, language, gender or sexual orientation; alienation of one group from another)
- The Warren and Berger Courts' interpretation of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience
- The significance of religious groups in local communities and their approaches to social, political, and cultural issues
- Cultural trends of the second half of the 20th and early 21st century (e.g., the influence of television, the Internet, and other forms of electronic communication on the creation and diffusion of cultural and political information worldwide); how the world's religions have responded to these cultural and technological trends
- Gender roles across the globe (e.g., conflicts in the perception of gender roles in various religions, especially the roles of and expectations for women)
Standards adapted from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning's Content Knowledge Standards and Benchmark Database (www.mcrel.org/standards).
Using This Guide
This guide is divided into two parts. Part One presents a series of discussion questions organized into three thematic blocks that focus on the essential elements of the Amish belief system, issues of religious freedom and tolerance as highlighted by Amish case studies, and questions about the relationship among technology, faith, tradition, and change. These queries can be used for discussion by small or large groups of students or community members, or as writing prompts. In Part Two of the guide, you will find suggested projects and activities to extend viewers' engagement with the film and its key themes.
Part One: Discussing the Film
Discuss the following questions:
- What does the U.S. Constitution say about freedom of religion?
- What happens when a religious group's practices conflict with laws or customs that are considered central to American life?
- Review the Free Exercise Clause of The First Amendment, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." What does this clause mean to you?
- Now imagine a religious group that declared that sending its children to high school was a violation of religious principles. In your opinion, would the Free Exercise Clause permit parents to make this decision, or would the state have a compelling interest in forcing the students to attend school?
As you watch the film, take notes on essential aspects of Amish beliefs. Record the definition of key terms -- including Ordnung and Rumspringa -- while creating a list of principles or views that are common to the various Amish subgroups throughout North America. As you watch, also take note of variations that exist among Amish subgroups.
Understanding Amish Principles
Defining key terms. Based on the notes you took during viewing, define the meaning of the following terms:
Then discuss: Why do Amish people go to church? How does the Amish system of worship work?
A ban on images. What is the religious basis on which Amish people refuse to pose for photographs or allow interviews on camera? How did the filmmakers honor this aspect of Amish life while capturing the thoughts and actions of Amish people for the film?
Roots of a tradition. When and where did the Amish church start? What are its roots? How does baptism within the Amish faith differ from baptism within other faiths? Define Anabaptist. Why was this controversial in the Middle Ages?
Community vs. the individual. At what points in their history did Amish people share numerous lifestyle similarities with people who were not Amish? How did the Industrial Revolution mark a turning point? How has the Amish church changed since its founding? How and why has it remained constant? Has the resistance to change been based simply on a strong belief in tradition, or is there a deeper reason? What does sociologist Donald Kraybill mean when he says: "The focus in the Amish society is on the community. Always on the community. In American life, the focus is on the individual." How has this focus on community affected Amish decisions about technology? Discuss with reference to the phone, the automobile, and electricity.
War and peace. What is the Amish view of war and militarism? Of forgiveness? In what ways does the response of the Amish community to the murders in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, exemplify this view of forgiveness? What does Dwight Lefever, pastor to the Roberts family, mean when he says: "Hope walked in the door" at the Roberts house? Why is forgiveness a natural part of the Amish worldview?
Freedom of Religion in Focus
The Yoder decision. Review chapter six of the film, which describes the Supreme Court decision in the landmark 1972 case of Wisconsin v. Yoder. What issue was at stake in this case? What argument did Amish parents make to support their refusal to send their children to high school? What counter-argument did the state of Wisconsin make? How did the Supreme Court rule? What section of the Constitution did the Supreme Court invoke in its ruling? What is your reaction to the ruling? Do you think the government should compel Amish parents to send their children to high school? Why or why not? Discuss.
A clash over smoke detectors. Nearly 50 years after the Yoder decision, another legal challenge involving freedom of religion arose in Morristown, New York, when members of an Amish community refused to install smoke detectors in their homes or to acquire building permits that were required by law. What were the arguments on both sides of this case? What perspectives do public defender Steven Ballan and anthropologist Karen Johnson-Weiner offer on this issue? What does Johnson-Weiner mean when she says, "In a way, [the Amish are] always in church"? Imagine that you had been a judge in this lawsuit. How would you have ruled? Explain, considering the Yoder case as a precedent.
Technology, Tradition and Faith
Liberation or limitation? On what basis do the Amish reject electricity and other forms of modern technology? How does this affect their daily life and their sense of community? What is your reaction to the statement by the Amish man quoted in the film (at 31:43) who says: "By not having electricity, imagine all the aisles I don't have to walk down in a department store! Aisles of hair blowers, and dryers, and toasters, and all that. Hey! I don't have to walk down that, that's liberation! I don't have to make many decisions, the community has made the decisions. To me, that's liberation." Do you agree that freedom from the choices provided by technology constitutes a form of liberation? Can you imagine living without electricity? How would your daily life be different without computers, television, cell phones, and other forms of technology?
Remaining in and departing from the community. According to the film, what percentage of Amish decide to be baptized and to remain within the community? Why have some Amish decided to leave the community? What reasons do Saloma Furlong and Levi Shetler give in explaining their decisions to leave the community? How does Furlong respond to the argument quoted above about the liberating aspects of not having electricity and of having rules imposed by the community?
A destination for millions. What do you think explains the fact that some 20 million tourists visit Amish communities every year? Would you be interested in visiting an Amish community? If so, why? Or have you already visited an Amish community? What were your impressions, either through an in-person visit or through the tour you got by viewing the film? In what ways did the scenes you saw surprise you or challenge your expectations? Review the statement, presented in the final scene of the film, in which an Amish man talks about the defining characteristics of Amish people. The man asks: "How many of you ... think you'd be better off without television? .... How many of you are going to go home and get rid of it?" What is your reaction to this story?
Part Two: Activities and Extensions
Comparing past and present
Watch the historical footage of the Amish community, shot in 1939, that appears in the film at 27:04. How would you compare these images of Amish life from nearly 75 years ago with contemporary scenes of Amish life shown in other parts of the film? Then, using YouTube or another online resource, find another scene of an American town or city shot in 1939. Compare this footage to a contemporary scene of the same town or city. (You can choose your own hometown or another to analyze.) What contrasts do you see between the two locations in 1939 and today? Share your findings with members of your class or community.
Compose a dialogue
Imagine a conversation between one of the following pairs of speakers. Working with a partner, write the text of the dialogue and present the conversations to your class or community group:
- Two classmates -- one Amish and one of another faith -- who are about to complete the 8th grade
- A father and his daughter discussing her decision about whether or not to be baptized
- Saloma Furlong and her mother, or another former Amish and a member of his or her family who has remained within the church
Quotes for reflection
Choose one of the following quotes and craft a response to the speaker, either in writing or verbally. Does this statement help you understand Amish life or history more clearly? Does it raise questions? Concerns?
I think if we want to be a Christian and live a godly life, we have to be submissive. I don't mean that I have to be doing all the work for everybody, or doing all the jobs nobody else wants to do, that's not what I'm talking about. You know, Jesus, when he was here on earth, he came and was a servant to mankind. And I think that's the example that he put forth for us. The more you can be a servant to other people, to your family, to your husband, to your children and others around you, I think that’s the more happiness and peace of life you can have. And then we will be blessed. We'll feel blessed. -- Amish Woman, quoted at 19:29
Baptism, adult baptism, was a capital offense, and they got the medieval equivalent of the electric chair. 2,000 to 3,000 died as martyrs. The government appointed Anabaptist hunters that would go out, looking for them, so they would hold services in caves, hold services in the woods at night, and basically became an underground movement. And that has really stayed in the DNA of Amish culture and Amish history. It's not unlike slavery for African Americans. It's not unlike the Holocaust for Jews. So there's this sense of being a separated people, of being a minority people, of being cautious about what the outside world might do to you again. -- Sociologist Donald Kraybill, quoted at 10:26
And then I realized that no matter how hard I tried, this Amish life just doesn't fit me. I wanted freedom. I wanted to make my own choices about education, about my spirituality, about my relationships. David and I got married a year and a half later. Though I sent them invitations, nobody from my home community came. And none of my family. The life I knew was ending. I was letting people down. Especially my mother. She wrote to me, and said, "Well, today you were put from the church," meaning you are now shunned. -- Saloma Furlong, quoted at 01:10:50
Plan a tour
Using websites on the Further Reading list, plan a visit to Amish country. What communities would you visit? Where would you go? What sites would you choose to see? Share an illustrated summary of your itinerary with classmates.
The Amish and the American experience: Near the beginning of the film, a tourist visiting an Amish community asks a tour guide whether the Amish have an American identity. After watching the film, how would you answer this question? In what ways do Amish communities embody American values and represent aspects of American ideals and aspirations, including freedom of religion and respect for minority views? In what ways do Amish beliefs or practices clash with American values or traditions? Reflect on these questions in a persuasive essay, using evidence from the film to support your argument.
My American Experience
Do you have a story about the Amish? Have you been to Amish country? Do you know any Amish people? What do you know about the Amish lifestyle? Share your story with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.