I suppose by now you’ve all read the recent piece by Nancy MacDonald in the Globe and Mail on the topic of vaccine hesitancy in southern Manitoba. I’ve read a variety of reactions to the article, ranging from proclaiming it the best analysis of this problem they had ever read, to suggesting that by focusing on the social tension caused by the pandemic, the article is missing the point.
I’m not going to settle the debate about this article, but I do think I can offer some insight into one common misconception about southern Manitoba Mennonite culture.
So here’s the misconception: that southern Manitoba Mennonite culture is a culture at all.
Of course there’s the “Russian Mennonite culture” that I often joke about on the Daily Bonnet. Yes, there is a common food, language, clothing, etc. but there is no common religious culture. Manitoba Mennonite culture is not a culture (singular) but many cultures (plural). Any attempt to explain vaccine hesitancy in the area with a single explanation will ultimately fail. There isn’t one answer. If only it were that simple.
A number of explanations for vaccine hesitancy were offered in the article from a lack of education, to a history of persecution that led to distrust of government to, as I suggested in the article, the influence of American-style evangelicalism that led to libertarian politics.
I think all these elements are factors, but it would be helpful to dig a little further into the different Mennonite cultures within southern Manitoba. This is something that is rarely mentioned in media coverage of our area. Too often we are treated as a monolith.
Think about this – there are (likely) more Mennonites in Winnipeg than there are in all of southern Manitoba. And, yet, when “Mennonites” are mentioned it is often rural Mennonites who stand in for the entire Manitoba Mennonite population. What accounts for vast differences in vaccine uptake among Mennonite populations – in Winnipeg (90%), Steinbach (68%), Hanover (55%), Winkler (45%) and Stanley (25%)? Anyone who wishes to offer an explanation for Mennonite vaccine hesitancy must account for these vastly different numbers.
If the problem was simply that in some regions there are “so many Mennonites” then you’d expect to see similar numbers in all of these areas. (I acknowledge that we don’t actually have stats on Mennonite vaccine uptake, only regional). It seems the flaw is not in Mennonite theology, or else you’d see high vaccine hesitancy among Winnipeg’s Mennonite population as well.
Likewise, when matters like this are discussed, it is almost always “ethnic” Russian Mennonites in places like Winkler, Altona, and Steinbach who are mentioned. Whereas, to my knowledge, the Vietnamese and Chinese Mennonite churches in Manitoba don’t have a vaccine hesitancy problem. Again, this would suggest the issue is not with Mennonite theology itself, but something else …
So what is it?
Well, let’s explore the education, persecution, and libertarian theories again. How has resistance to education, a narrative of persecution, and the influence of libertarianism impacted Mennonite thinking in rural Manitoba?
Again, there is not one answer because there is no one Mennonite.
Have you heard of the No True Scotsman fallacy? Someone says, “no Scotsman would ever do xyz …” and when they see a Scotsman doing that very thing, they say, “Well no true Scotsman would do it.” They’re moving the goalposts.
I think discussions of religion often invoke this fallacy. It’s easy for us to define who is and isn’t a Christian or who is and isn’t a Mennonite based on what makes us look good (or bad, if that’s what you’re trying to do). So it would be easy to say that the backwards anti-science Mennos are “not real Mennonites.” They, no doubt, would say that CMU-attending liberal Mennonites are “not real Mennonites.” I want to avoid this trap and instead simply point out a number of divisions within the southern Manitoba Mennonite population that I suspect exhibit different behaviour in terms of vaccinations.
There are other ways to group Manitoba Mennonites, but perhaps the most common groupings are based on immigration history.
Kanadier (who stayed in Canada) – The Kanadier (or Canadians) refers to Mennonites who came to western Canada from South Russia in the 1870s. They were dissatisfied with the Russification policies of the Czarist government and were recruited by the Canadian government to settle and farm in Canada. This group signed a “Privilegium” with the Canadian government granting them land (taken by the government from First Nations people just 3 years earlier), religious freedom, military exemption, and the right to have their own private schools, among other privileges. This was a small group of conservative Mennonites who left Russia while most of the others stayed.
Kanadier (who left Canada and returned) – In the 1920s the Canadian government broke their promise made in the Privilegium by forcing Mennonites to attend public schools and learn English. For many Kanadier this was not a problem. For the most conservative of the Kanadier, however, this was unacceptable and thousands left for places like Mexico and Paraguay where they felt they could be free from government interference. In more recent decades many have returned from those countries.
Russlander – The Russlander (or Russians) came to Canada in the 1920s in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. This is significant because they faced more real persecution at the hands of government than did the Kanadier. They arrived in Canada just as the more conservative Kanadier were leaving and, in many cases, purchased their vacated land.
Full disclosure – my father’s side is Kanadier and my mother’s side is Russlander.
There was also another wave of Mennonite immigration after WWII and after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Aussiedler). We could also discuss cultural Mennonites vs. practicing Mennonites and look at different denominations within these immigrant groups, but I think that these three groups are sufficient to make my point.
On the narrative of persecution (and a little bit about education)
Now here is my hypothesis – the Mennonites (and their descendants) who faced the most actual persecution are the least likely to be distrustful of government. This isn’t to say that a narrative of persecution has not shaped how Mennonites think about their place in society, but that it’s more of a narrative of persecution, rather than actual persecution, that is a predictor of government distrust (and along with it, vaccine hesitancy).
Why might this be? It seems it should be the other way around. But, then, think about this. It was the Kanadier who left Russia for what we might consider a minor reason (Russification) and it was some of these same Kanadier who left Canada for what many of us might consider not much of a reason either (going to public school). This group was clearly made up of people who were more sensitive to perceived government interference in their lives. Whereas the Russlander group stuck it out in Russia until their very lives depended on it. They clearly were not so quick to blame the government and were more willing to compromise.
Of course, Anabaptists of centuries ago were indeed persecuted and there have been times of persecution within Mennonite history since then, but my point here is that the predictor of government distrust seems to stem not from the actual degree of government mistreatment (in which case the Russlander would be most distrustful) but, rather, how entrenched this narrative of persecution is within a certain Mennonite group’s identity. If a person sees themselves as part of a persecuted group, and if this is part of their identity, then they’re going to look for moments of persecution and even manufacture them because their very identity depends on it. And the frustrating thing about this is how hard it is, given that this narrative is integral to identity, to disrupt this false notion.
There are other differences between these groups, as well. The Russlander often settled in Winnipeg (or North Kildonan) rather than rural Manitoba, and during their extra decades in Russia had become more educated, while other groups of Mennonites resisted education. (Read Gordon Friesen’s classic 1936 novel Flamethrower for a discussion of Mennonite resistance to education).
What about the influence of evangelicalism?
Well, this is a very interesting topic that Ralph Friesen has explored in an article in Preservings. Evangelicalism had the biggest impact on the first group I listed – the Kanadier who stayed in Canada. This led to the transformation, for example, of the Kleine Gemeinde (the dominant Mennonite group in Steinbach) to become the Evangelical Mennonite Conference (while their counterparts in Mexico remained as the Kleine Gemeinde). I note this here as an example of significant theological change and not as a criticism; I myself grew up in EMC churches and, until recently, attended one.
However, not only did southern Manitoba churches fuse their Anabaptist theology with evangelicalism, but in the past few decades many (probably most) Steinbach Mennonites left Mennonite churches altogether. (Some to non-religious lives, but the majority to non-Mennonite churches). As I mentioned in the Globe and Mail, the largest most powerful churches in Steinbach are no longer Mennonite at all.
In recent years, some former Mennonites have also been attracted to very extreme forms of Pentecostalism, such as prosperity gospel churches, with at least one such church in Winnipeg recently offering “religious exemptions” to vaccination. Kate Bowler, the world expert on the prosperity gospel notes, “I discovered that a large number of Mennonites were attending a prosperity megachurch in Winnipeg and I declared it impossible.” This spurred her on to explore the topic in her research.
Is the attraction to the prosperity gospel an extension of Mennonite theology or a reaction against it? Kate Bowler’s quote would suggest the latter.
(I would note, however, there is a commonality between proponents of the prosperity gospel and their propensity for magical thinking (in terms of health) and some Mennonites’ distrust of doctors and their reliance on the traditional folk-healers known as trajchtmoaka. Otherwise, however, I would say the theology of these two groups is incompatible and Bowler is right to find it odd that Mennonites would gravitate toward this type of church).
So how would evangelicalism lead to vaccine hesitancy? Well, it doesn’t. Certainly not in the original sense of the term “evangelical.” The word simply means “Good news” and says nothing about fundamentalism, piety, or individualism. Menno Simons himself (and the song) says, “True evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping / For it clothes the naked/ It comforts the sorrowful/ It gives to the hungry, food / And it shelters the destitute.” You might add, “it unselfishly follows public health orders as an act of love for others.”
When we’re talking about evangelicals and libertarianism, however, we’re talking about a very specific American brand of evangelicalism. One that, like certain groups of Mennonites, has also adopted a narrative of persecution (albeit with much less validity than any Mennonite group). And insofar as evangelicalism is associated with American right-wing politics and individualism it does indeed have a direct connection with libertarianism and by extension the current anti-vax movement.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. Kiera Butler, in a fascinating article in Mother Jones, points out that the modern anti-vax movement started as a lefty-hippie-granola-Hollywood thing, but there was a deliberate effort within this movement to increase their numbers by re-branding it as a “rights” thing and, thus, appeal to conservative libertarians. Some of the vaccine hesitancy in southern Manitoba is proof that this re-branding was successful.
What’s my point?
When this is all said and done, I’m hoping that a historian or sociologist (which I am not) will study this phenomenon. Maybe my hypothesis (it is only that, after all) is incorrect. However, I suspect that studying “Mennonite vaccine hesitancy” in general won’t produce much of value. I believe there are divisions within the Mennonite community that would produce much more fruitful results. Are there differences in vaccine hesitancy among these groups? Are these groups settled in different parts of the province (they are) and does that impact the vaccine uptake numbers in those areas?
My main point here, however, is that Mennonites are far more complex than any one narrative can account for. Unlike other denominations that have a leader (the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, etc.) Mennonites lack central leadership, and are as theologically, culturally, and ethnically diverse as the general population.
Gandhi said there are as many religions in the world as there are people. Perhaps there are as many Mennonite groups as there are Mennonites. I can’t tell you which one is the “true Mennonite,” though, as I’d risk committing a fallacy. I’ll leave that for the theologians – the true theologians – to discuss amongst themselves.