Our American Cousins

I am old enough to remember a time when we Mennonites of North America did not divide ourselves by the bounds created by the nation-state. In those days of yore, Canadian Mennonites met with American Mennonites as if no border stood between us.

It was kinda fun. We could imagine we were all transnational and pretend we were all one people divided not by nation but only by arcane divisions of theological dogma and religious practice. And we imagined that even those would wither and fade away as we moved into a new age where all people of Anabaptist persuasion would hold hands across the globe and regale the world with strains of Praise God from Whom.

The world doesn’t know what it’s missing for us having not achieved that particular dream.

It’s been a couple of decades since I last mixed and mingled to any great extent with Mennonites in the United States of America. Nowadays, I keep abreast of the Menno scene in the U.S. mostly through Twitter and by observing my friends, family and acquaintances who were raised in the American Mennolands and now live in Canada as Americans-in-exile.

I admit that my impressions of the Mennonites in the land of the free might lack nuance. Or any solid founding in reality. But as I spend so much time on here talking about Canadian Mennonite stuff, I thought it might be nice if I, for once, cast my eyes south of the border.

There are so Many of Them

According to Mennonite World Conference, there are 496,162 baptized Mennonites in the United States. Which, if they all got together in one place, would be enough to make up a medium-sized city. Something like Colorado Springs. And if they brought along all their unbaptized kids and hangers-on, there’d be enough people to make up a slightly less small city. Maybe something the size of, say, Fresno.

By contrast, Canada only has 158,648 baptized Mennonites. That’s only enough to be a city the size of Abbotsford, British Columbia. Mind, I suspect we have more people in Canada who identify as Mennonite but aren’t baptized members. If we count the number of people I would guess identify as Mennonite but aren’t baptized, the number goes up a lot. We could conceivably have the same population as Saskatoon.

I felt that difference in scale when I was a teen attending North American conferences. We few Canadians were awash in a sea of American Mennos. That’s partly because a lot more Americans showed up, so we didn’t even have proportional representation. But even if we did, there are just a lot fewer of us.

But they are Fewer per Capita

But even if there are fewer than us in total, Mennonites in the US have way less of a presence in their nation. With a total population of the United States at 329,072,188, U.S. Mennonites make up only 0.15% of the American people or only 1 1/2 people for every thousand. Canadian Mennonites, on the other hand, make up 0.42% percent of the Canadian population.

That might not seem like a lot but it means that if we were distributed evenly across the country (which we’re not), then every group of a couple hundred people would have one of us in it. And in any case, lots and lots of non-Mennonites in Canada have bumped up against us at some point or another. Americans who aren’t Mennonite appear to be generally confused as to whether Mennonites are Amish or Mormon or what. But as most of them have never met a single Mennonite, their confusion is fairly understandable. Canadians who aren’t Mennonite are also confused about who we are and what we’re all about. But, since so many of them have met one or three of us, their confusion’s on us.

Sorry.

They’re like Canadian Mennonites. Just More So.

One of the things I noticed back when I was a teenager attending Mennonite Conventions in the U.S. was just how confident all those Americans were. We might care about many of the same issues as they did but they cared so much more passionately. And with greater certainty.

We have so much in common – Canadian and American Mennonites — the Americans just have more of it. Their social conservative Mennonites are more socially conservative and their socially liberal Mennonites are more liberal. Or at least more willing to loudly declare their more liberal views.

We’re both uncomfortable with nationalism but they’re more uncomfortable with it. We both have relief sales, but theirs are bigger. We both have something of an urban/rural divide, and an East/West divide, but it just seems like the divide in the U.S. is wider. Even the current schismatizing seems more rancorous in the United States than in Canada.

I often wonder how they muster all that energy.

They’re Touchy about the Ethnicity Question

Some time in the middle of the last century, Mennonites keen on evangelism and religious revival within our ranks started denouncing the idea of “Mennonite” as an ethnic identity. I’ve known both Canadian-raised and American-reared Mennonites do this but, you know, Americans just seem to do this more and louder.

My American-born Mennonite friends tend not to know much about their own culture, seeing themselves as only “American” — a product of the melting pot. But while we Canadians look upon that phenomenon with pity, the U.S. anti-ethnicity folks can get pretty virulent in their denunciations of the whole idea of secular Mennonites — people who maintain a Mennonite identity based on culture and shared history but are no longer attending a Mennonite Church.

I’ve seen all the intellectual arguments and I won’t bother to recount them here but I am at a loss to understand the passion behind their desire to divest our peoples of our cultures. Up here, we’re spending time grappling with our nation’s historic acts of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples. And I wonder how we could possible appreciate the gravity of that if we have no respect for our own cultural identities. Like they taught me in Sunday School, you have to love yourself to love your neighbour like yourself.

I know people who have felt that they could not call themselves Mennonite in any way after they changed Churches. They were in pain, having felt stripped of their identity. I can’t help but see that stricture, wherever it came from, as an act of cultural violence. Not at the level of genocide, to be sure, but still violence.

So I wish Mennonites would stop doing it.

Now, I’m sure that our American Cousins-in-Faith don’t mean it as violence when they denounce ethnic Mennonites. After all, they’re also pretty passionate about their nonviolence. It’s just something about their cultural context that makes them more zealous about stuff.

Or maybe it’s the weather.


The AmericanMenno

The Americano is a cocktail created in Italy in a sort of homage to Americans. This one was created in Canada as a nod to American Mennos. This cocktail doesn’t reference any particular ethnic tradition but uses the homogenizing flavor of cola. Don’t feel like you need to use Coca-Cola, that tool of American cultural imperialism. I used a cola syrup and sparkling water. If you prefer to use a cola, water it down a bit and pour it in after the ice instead of the soda water.

  • 1 1/2 oz campari
  • 1 1/2 oz sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 oz cola syrup
  • 3 oz soda water

Mix campari, vermouth and cola syrup in the bottom of a highball or Collins glass. Fill the glass with ice and top with soda water. Put a straw in it and drink in the zeal that comes of being a religious minority in a global superpower.

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3 thoughts on “Our American Cousins

  1. Some context, some AmeriMennos realize that identifying as ethnically Mennonite ties us to white supremacy, and it imposes a purity test that can make black, Asian, Latinx and Native Mennonites feel excluded.

    I am a Mennonite PK who was never baptized so I understand the feeling of it being your culture or ethnic identity, but it’s really tricky in a diverse and modern society. PS I follow you on twitter but my acct is locked so I’m commenting here 🙂 you can certainly follow me if you want to chat more – @ is same as my gmail

  2. I know my in-laws, when talking with an indigenous person at a indigenous/settler event, were asked if they retained their ancestral language.

    I feel like not acknowledging Mennonite ethnicities would save a huge amount of discussing/arguing/passive-aggressively writing letters-to-the-editor over Mennonite being a religion, not (just) an ethnicity.

  3. I’m not Menno, or Canadian, but I am deaf. When I decided to have a cochlear implant, I went to an orientation session, and several of the other potential implant recipients asked the audiologist, ‘What will my deaf friends think of me?’ There is a very strict subset of deaf culture that considers itself an ethnic identity. It just seems to me that people stratify in any culture.

    As to American Mennonites being more vocal than their Canadian Brethren, IMO that happens because Americans in general are very vocal about a lot of things. We tend to shout our beliefs, and beat our breasts – much sound, and not much motion.

    The sight of barefoot kids sitting on the curb in Fort Madison, Iowa for the 4th of July fireworks left a deep impression on me. I, and I imagine most Americans assumed Amish and Menno didn’t much care about such celebrations of national history. (Of course, the kids might have just come for the color).

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