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Consenting Adults? Amish Rumspringa and the Quandary of Exit in Liberalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 November 2005

Steven V. Mazie
Affiliation:
Bard High School Early College in Manhattan (smazie@bard.edu)

Abstract

The Amish are often cited as a paradigm illiberal group, mistrustful of and separated from the modern world. But the Amish practice of rumspringa complicates this common image. At age 16, Amish children are released from church strictures and given a year or more to “run around” in violation of Amish norms. Only after the opportunity to taste life with cars, electricity, alcohol, and rock and roll do Amish-raised teens decide whether to be baptized and enter the church. Consent must be express, never tacit: to paraphrase Locke, an Amish youth is born a member of no church. But is rumspringa a meaningful exit option? Are there plausible ways to make it more meaningful? What does this practice suggest about the debate between “toleration” and “autonomy” liberals, who divide over whether illiberal minority cultures ought to be accepted or somehow reformed? This paper brings a potent case study to the cultural rights debate and argues that both sides fundamentally err. While tolerance liberals tend to vastly underestimate what is required of a meaningful right of exit, autonomy liberals fail to appreciate how much intervention would be necessary to provide such a right. The Amish case suggests that the exit option is deeply flawed as the litmus test for whether and how minorities should be accommodated in a liberal polity.Steven V. Mazie is assistant professor of politics at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan and has taught previously at Bard College, New York University, and the University of Michigan (smazie@bard.edu). His articles have appeared recently in Polity, Field Methods, and The Brandywine Review of Faith and International Affairs. His first book, Israel's Higher Law: Religion and Liberal Democracy in the Jewish State, is forthcoming in early 2006. Earlier versions of this article were delivered at annual meetings of the Western Political Science Association (2003) and the Midwestern Political Science Association (2004) and in a Bard High School Early College Faculty Seminar (2005). The author would like to thank anonymous reviewers, the editors of Perspectives on Politics, and particularly Jennifer Hochschild for their valuable suggestions and criticisms. In addition, he is grateful to Herman Bontrager, Harry Chotiner, Andrey Falko, John Hagan, JoAnne Jensen, Donald Kraybill, Chandran Kukathas, Emile Lester, Carol Levy, Renanit Levy, Marc Olshan, Marek Steedman, Conrad Stern-Ascher, Jennifer Sutton, Lucy Walker, David Wiacek, Ed Wingenbach, Joe Wittmer, and Lee Zook.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
© 2005 American Political Science Association

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