Book review: ‘A People of Two Kingdoms II’

Mar 13, 2017 by

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Half a century ago, James C. Juhnke was a graduate student in history at Indiana University, completing a dissertation on his people, Kansas Mennonites, and their experiences in politics from the 1870s to 1940. Juhnke’s analysis, published in 1975 as A People of Two Kingdoms, told of Mennonites whose heritage as a semi-autonomous colony in southern Ukraine gave them the potential for deep political involvement. Yet these were Mennonites who still held back from this engagement because of deep tendencies toward theological and cultural separation.

"A People of Two Kingdoms II"

“A People of Two Kingdoms II”

Now retired as a professor of history at Bethel College, Juhnke has completed the second half of this study, tracing the stories of Kansas Mennonites in politics from the 1940s to the present. What he found was a people whose politics have been transformed — not just as partisan political activity (though Kansas Mennonites, in Juhnke’s telling, have exhibited plenty of that) but as a broader interaction with society on a multitude of levels. “This book,” he writes, “is a study of Mennonite engagement in the American political world.”

It is hard to imagine a better chronicler. Juhnke is not only one of the most accomplished American Mennonite historians of his day but also someone whose 1970 campaign for Congress as an anti­war Democrat (narrated here in the third person) epitomized for fellow Mennonites a new model of the scholar/activist.

Out of this personal and scholarly trajectory he has produced a fascinating study that strips away any vestiges of Mennonites as a separatist people supposedly disengaged from politics.

Junhke’s analysis proceeds on three tracks. The first entails a narrative analysis of the deepening of the social consciousness among Kansas Mennonites during and in the decades after World War II. The Civilian Public Service experience gave birth to institutional creations: Mennonite Mental Health Services, Mennonite Voluntary Service and Mennonite Disaster Service (the last of which began among Kansas Mennonites in the early 1950s). This amplified social engagement, he argues, reflected both an increased Mennonite commitment to pacifism and a new willingness to advocate for justice on behalf of it.

By the 1960s, this advocacy drew Kansas Mennonites into causes like the civil rights movement and then opposition to the Vietnam War, nudged along by increasingly bold editorials by Robert M. Schrag in Mennonite Weekly Review.

Since the 1960s, social responsibility among Kansas Mennonites has pushed into new channels. For church progressives, it meant actions like public protests against President Reagan’s nuclear arms buildup of the 1980s and then against the wars in the Persian Gulf. For some conservatives, it brought equally passionate participation in actions like the “Summer of Mercy” anti-abortion protests in Wichita in 1991.

Parallel to and reflecting this heightened Mennonite social consciousness, Juhnke relates, has been an expanded contribution to Kansas civic life. One aspect of this has been the decisions by church institutions to accept government funding. At times this acceptance brought with it corresponding efforts by the state of Kansas, ultimately unsuccessful, to reshape institutional decisions along lines it found more desirable, as at Bethel, Tabor and Hesston colleges in 1974 and 2002.

More commonly this meant the gradual and increased acceptance of state funding by places like Prairie View mental hospital in Newton and Mennonite Housing in Wichita. While these funds did allow these institutions to aid the wider community, they also reflected, Juhnke argues, a “momentum away from the religious-ethnic base and toward a broader American public.”

The fact that state funds were increasingly secured by a new generation of effective Mennonite politicians like Harold Dyck and Duane Goossen is emblematic of the third and most revealing strand of Juhnke’s analysis: the increasing and effective involvement of Kansas Mennonites in state party politics.

Since 1952 and through the present, Juhnke points out, Mennonites always had at least one legislator serving in Topeka and sometimes more. In several fascinating chapters he details their careers. They ranged from people like Dyck of Hesston — the “dean of Mennonite legislators” — and Goossen of Goessel, later state budget director of Kansas, to Ernie Unruh of Newton. More recently the ranks of Kansas Mennonite politicians have been augmented by women legislators such as Christine Downey Schmidt of Newton and schoolteacher Judith Loganbill of Wichita.

To be sure, not all of these politicians were fully Mennonite. Juhnke uses words like “marginal Mennonite” for Eric Yost and “temporary Mennonite” for current U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, indicative of what he sees as their wavering commitment to the church.

While Juhnke’s progressive sympathies are evident, his tone is even-handed and with enough academic distance to facilitate an analysis on both the macro and micro levels. On the national scale, Kansas Mennonites tended to vote like their non-Mennonite neighbors on the rural southern plains. They veered sharply Republican from 1940 on, given the association many made between the Democratic Party and war.

Juhnke’s focus on Mennonites in Kansas allows him to garner subtle insights only recoverable from a micro-level analysis. The best example, perhaps, is the tendency of Dutch-Russian- descended Mennonites to vote Republican while those from the Swiss Volhynian tradition favor Democrats — a fact that made possible the long legislative career of Democratic state Rep. Walter “Sprig” Garber of Pretty Prairie.

Indeed, one of Juhnke’s more surprising conclusions is that Kansas Mennonites have not been as “red” as their reputation supposedly holds. With only a few exceptions, regardless of party affiliation, Juhnke shows, Mennonite legislators largely remained true to certain key commitments of their church-based constituents, like support for education and steadfast opposition to the death penalty.

With scholarship of this quality, one is tempted to critique it only for what it is not and wish Juhnke had extended his scholarly gaze beyond Kansas. To what degree is this remarkable record of political engagement representative of Mennonites elsewhere? But that would be unfair. In his long career, Juhnke has produced a string of books bristling with insights into Mennonite life, thought and history. He has capped off that career with another book offering yet more. We should all be grateful.

Perry Bush is professor of history at Bluffton (Ohio) University.


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