Historically persecuted religious sects are winning the demographic war
So writes David Larson in Crisis magazine, examining the rapid growth of a community which has doubled in size in just 20 years. There are now 350,000 Amish in the United States, and their demographic growth shows no real sign of letting up.
The Amish are notorious for their restrictive lifestyles, with their communities essentially functioning ‘off the grid’. Having two tweenage daughters and becoming increasingly aware of the sheer evil that is TikTok, this all sounds pretty sensible to me. If only they’d change their rules about booze I might sign up.
Groups like the Amish are notable for their continued growth as a sect, even as wider America has seen a sharp drop in church attendance, particularly amongst the younger cohort. This change has almost certainly played a part in radicalisation both on Left and Right: socially isolated Republicans as well as self-identified liberals are far more likely to find meaning in politics than religion.
Of the historically mainstream Christian denominations in the US, the majority — the Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians — fought brutal wars in the 16th and 17th centuries. Western Europeans eventually grew weary of the endless sectarian violence and the result was liberalism, the idea that the only way to stop conflict was to let people live by their own consciences.
Probably the biggest losers at the time were the Anabaptists, a radical sect from Switzerland whose main attribute was a belief in adult baptism. The Anabaptists were widely hated and persecuted, but this wasn’t totally irrational; when they did manage to take power in the German city of Münster in 1534-5, it ended in a bloodbath.
There, an insane Dutch actor and tailor called John of Leiden made himself dictator, instigating capital punishment for “lying, slander, avarice and quarrelling” as well as adultery, before changing his mind and installing free love and communism — and endless terror.
The Anabaptists were therefore considered a lunatic fringe, although they largely became pacifists; looking for a better life, about 500 of them left southern Germany for North America in the mid-18th century, settling in Pennsylvania, the most tolerant of the English colonies (established by those proto-lefties, the Quakers).
Even in the 21st century groups like the Anabaptists and the Amish have so far resisted secularisation, and modern fertility trends, so their numbers continue to grow at an enormous rate. Demographic projections into the distant future carry huge caveats, but perhaps one day American public discourse will care less about 1776 or 1619 and more about 1534.
Of course such sects all have similar problems, as Eric Kaufmann wrote about in his book on religion and demography. They may have strong social capital within the group, but they play little wider part in society.
A similar dynamic already exists in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox historically neither worked nor fought in the army, but as they’ve become demographically more dominant have come under increasing social pressure to change. If they do adapt, for the sake of the wider country, it perhaps offers a template for the future of religious America — one in which an obscure religious sect like the Amish goes mainstream — weird as it may well be.