A New Faith in Politics

May 6, 2008

Author: Charles Leroux

Source: The Chicago Tribune


At the east end of the giant Wal-Mart parking lot in this northern Indiana town of about 32,000, there's a metal-roofed building accommodating as many as 20 horse-drawn buggies. People in plain dress—flat black hats, white bonnets—can be seen around town.

Goshen is a population center for Mennonites and their religious "cousins," the Amish. Both are Protestant Christian faiths built on foundations of pacifism and keeping government, politicians and politics at arm's length.

The Amish remain non-voters who believe in the strict separation of church and state. However, some Mennonites, especially younger members such as those on the campus of church-founded Goshen College, are seeing an opportunity now to integrate politics into their lives in a way that furthers rather than diminishes their religion.

Emily Miller, for instance, is a 20-year-old sophomore social-work major from Waco, Texas, and—like 60 percent of the nearly 1,000 Goshen students—a Mennonite. Though her dorm room features the book bag and flip-flops you'd expect with any kid away at school, there's a sign on her door that stands out, considering where and who she is. It says: "Change We Can Believe In," and in smaller letters: "BarackObama.com."

When a CNN film crew recently asked if there might be a handful of Mennonite students at Goshen willing to talk about being first-time voters, 50 volunteers stepped forward to say whom they supported and why. When students manned registration tables in the student union, more than 300 new voters signed up.

Just last week, the college put up a Web site, goshen.edu /election2008. Students have been posting and explaining their political preferences there, documenting the new political fervor that some, tongue-in-cheek, are calling "Mennonite mania."

Goshen president and alumnus James Brenneman has seen a change in both the students and the latitude allowed them by the church. "Students feel free to express themselves emotionally today, and there's emotional involvement in this election," he said. "Thirty years ago, when I was a student here, we weren't even allowed to dance."