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AJ and the Amish

During my year of living biblically, I made several pilgrimages across America. I wanted to embed myself in various communities that live the Bible literally in their own way "“ from Hasidic Jews to evangelical Christians. I also invited religious people to my house. I think I'm the only person in American history to out-Bible talk a Jehovah's Witness. After about three hours, he looked at his watch and said, "I gotta go."

One of my first trips was to Amish country in Lancaster County. My wife and I drove down from New York (I'm proud to say that I have absolutely no urge to make a double entendre when we passed Intercourse, Pennsylvania, which I see as a great moral victory).
To be biblically honest, I was a little leery of going to Amish country - the Amish have been a go-to religious punchline for so long, sort of the Carrot Top or Jazzercise of American spirituality, and I didn't want to fall into that trap. I didn't want to seem like I was mocking them.

In the end, I'm glad I went. I learned a huge amount and got to experience the beauty of the Amish culture. Plus, I got to hear an Amish joke told by an actual Amish person, which was a pleasant surprise.

Here are five Amish facts I learned during my year:

  • If you browse websites about the Amish, you'll often see a lot of pictures of the backs of their heads. The Amish follow strictly the second commandment "“ you shall not make graven images. And they are also concerned with appearing vain. So they don't like their faces photographed. They compromise by showing the back of their heads.
  • Amish have beards in accordance with Leviticus, which forbids the shaving of the corners of your beard. But they do shave their moustaches. The moustache was thought to have military associations by the early Amish, who came over from Switzerland in the 18th century.
  • The Amish do tell Amish jokes. My wife and I stayed at an Amish man's house, and he told us one. (Note: Please lower your expectations. The Amish are working with some pretty tight constraints here). Okay, here goes:

The joke and more Amish facts after the jump...

Q: What happened when the Mennonite man married the Amish woman?
A: She drove him buggy."

  • The Amish perform a foot-washing ritual, in accordance with the New Testament's John 13:5, which says "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example"¦"

  • Amish sports are the quietest sports in the world. Here's what my wife and I saw as we were leaving Amish country.

"I spot a cluster of about 30 buggies. We pull over to see what's happening. We have stumbled onto an Amish baseball game. Many discourage competitive sports. But here are 18 Amish teenage boys, their sleeves rolled up, their shirts and suspenders dark with sweat. Julie and I watch for a long time. These kids are good, but something is off about the game. I realize after a few minutes what it is: This is the quietest baseball game I've ever seen. No trash talk. No cheering from the parents in the stands. Near silence, except for the occasional crack of the bat. It is eerie and peaceful and beautiful."

PS Thanks for all the great comments on my first post. You make me commit the sin of pride!

>>Click here to purchase AJ's new book The Year of Living Bibilically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible today.

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This Just In
The Pope Just Officiated an Impromptu Inflight Wedding
VINCENZO PINTO, AFP, Getty Images
VINCENZO PINTO, AFP, Getty Images

Though he might be more famous for his tricked-out Popemobiles, when Pope Francis needs to get somewhere in a hurry, there’s always a papal plane. On Thursday, he made that Airbus 321 a vessel that one lucky couple will never forget when he officiated an impromptu marriage between Paula Podest and Carlos Ciuffardi, who have been together for more than 10 years and are both flight attendants for Chile's LATAM Airlines.

It started out innocently enough: on a flight from Santiago to Iquique, Chile, Crux reports, the flight crew was posing with the Pope for a group photo. When Papa Pancho asked the couple if they had had a church wedding, they explained that though they have been civilly married since 2010, the church that they were supposed to get married at was destroyed in an earthquake just a few days before their big day. Not one to let a little thing like being 35,000 feet in the air get in the way, Pope Francis suggested that he make up for their original plans and marry them right then and there.

“He held our hands, blessed the rings, and he married us in the name of God,” Ciuffardi told Crux.

His Holiness also made sure the happy couple knew how historic their nuptials would be. “Never has a pope married a couple on a plane,” he said.

Crew members Paula Podest (L) and Carlos Ciuffardi smile after being married by Pope Francis during the flight between Santiago and the northern city of Iquique on January 18, 2018
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holidays
The Legal Reason Why Public Christmas Displays Feature Reindeer
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iStock

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” But in practice, not everyone agrees on what abiding by that clause means in real-life situations. For instance, can a courthouse or a public park feature a nativity scene?

According to the Supreme Court, maybe not—or at least not unless it includes a menorah and a plastic reindeer, too. In the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly, the court established a precedent that became known as the “reindeer rule," a legal standard that has governed public displays of holiday cheer ever since.

The case hinged on a Rhode Island display that was owned by the city of Pawtucket but was located in a park owned by a nonprofit organization. The annual display, which dated back 40 years, included a nativity scene (also known as a creche or crèche) in addition to other Christmastime symbols like reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, a Christmas tree, and a “seasons greetings” banner. The justices ruled in favor of the nativity scene, arguing that there was a secular argument to be made about including the religious reference:

The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday recognized by Congress and national tradition and to depict the origins of that Holiday; these are legitimate secular purposes. Whatever benefit to one faith or religion or to all religions inclusion of the creche in the display effects, is indirect, remote, and incidental, and is no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than the congressional and executive recognition of the origins of Christmas, or the exhibition of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums.

In the case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put forth a legal rule of thumb called the “endorsement test,” writing that governments can run afoul of the Establishment Clause by appearing to endorse a specific religion or a belief, rather than being inclusive of a variety of beliefs. “Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,” O'Connor explained.

According to the National Constitution Center, “Court observers at the time saw the presence of the reindeer as broadening the purpose of the display.” And so the reindeer rule was born.

Then, a 1989 Supreme Court ruling in reference to two holiday displays inside and outside the Allegheny County courthouse in Pittsburgh made this standard even more clear. A nativity scene inside the courthouse that prominently displayed a banner that read, in Latin, “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ,” with no secular objects on display, was ruled unconstitutional. Meanwhile, a display outside the courthouse with a menorah, a Christmas tree, and a sign that declared the city’s “salute to liberty,” as the case ruling puts it, was allowed to stay. With the overtly Christian indoor display, nothing counteracted the government endorsement of “a patently Christian message.”

As Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in his opinion, “Although the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus,” while the menorah display combined “with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty does not impermissibly endorse both the Christian and Jewish faiths, but simply recognizes that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society. The widely accepted view of the Christmas tree as the preeminent secular symbol of the Christmas season emphasizes this point.” This ruling only applies to government property and government sponsored displays, though, which is why it's completely fine for private entities like churches to erect public displays of nativity scenes on their property.

Though the reindeer rule seems pretty clear, it hasn’t stopped towns from testing the boundaries of the court’s ruling over the decades since it was established.

In 2014, Cherokee County, Texas, for instance, got into a spat with the American Humanist Association over the constitutionality of a nativity scene in front of the county courthouse. The state attorney general publicly supported the county, and there was no forced removal of the display. That same year, similar controversies took place in towns in Virginia and Arkansas. Some cities have groups like the Thomas More Society and the American Nativity Scene Committee, which work to get Christian displays erected in public places across the country, to thank for their nativity scenes. The former calls nativity scenes “classic free speech.”

But some towns have proven to be a little more inclusive of other holiday decor—or at least wary of litigation. The Florida Capitol building in Tallahassee, for instance, has approved holiday displays that include not just nativity scenes, but privately funded decorative contributions from the Satanic Temple, Seinfeld fans (a Festivus pole), and Pastafarian followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

But the U.S. remains a very Christian country, despite its longstanding religious freedom laws, and according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 44 percent of American adults think Christian symbols are OK to display on government property, even in the absence of symbols from other faiths. It should be noted that a Pew survey that year on religion found that 71 percent of Americans identified as Christians, though the percentages of residents practicing other faiths or identifying as atheists has been rising. Still, that doesn’t mean that nativity scenes get total respect in America. Plenty of baby Jesuses get swiped out of their mangers every year.

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