Thirty Years of MCC-Washington Office:
A Unique or Similar Way’
KENNETH L. ESHLEMAN*
Abstract: Through the combined efforts of GC and MC peace leaders, a pattern of increasing contact with government officials from the 1920s to the 1950s led to the establishment of a permanent MCC office in Washington in 1968. This article contends that the original vision of a uniquely “Mennonite” way of speaking to the state was generally unrealistic. While parts of the vision have been fulfilled, the office has not been able to speak for all Mennonites or act as a neutral observer. The methods used and positions adopted are strikingly similar to other religious lobbying groups. An analysis of 27 years of voting records published by MCC-WO reveals that the average Democrat in Congress supports WO positions far more frequently than the average Republican. A strong majority of voting Mennonites, in contrast, hold Republican and conservative views.
The Washington Office of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was opened just over 30 years ago in July 1968. At the time, prominent Mennonite thinkers supported this step toward greater political involvement by claiming the office would develop a uniquely “Mennonite” way of speaking to the state. More recently, several authors have claimed that a unique approach has indeed been found. Clearly MCC-Washington has become part of the constellation of groups who advocate policies promoting peace and justice in the nation’s capital. But claims that it has discovered a distinctive political approach cannot be sustained. First, the office resembles comparable interest groups in the role it plays and the tactics it employs. Second, its policy positions, as reflected in 27 years of voting records, generally match other religious peace and justice groups. Finally, these policy positions illustrate the political differences between Mennonite leaders and members also experienced by other religious offices active in Washington.
POLITICAL ALOOFNESS TO WARY ACTIVISM
The movement of twentieth-century Mennonites from a stance of very limited political involvement to a greater, if still cautious and wary, activism is a story now familiar thanks to the recent scholarship of such authors as Leo Driedger, Donald Kraybill, Keith Graber Miller and Perry Bush. These scholars generally agree on the factors pushing Mennonites toward more political activity. Mennonite experience in two world wars and the divisive war in Vietnam focused attention on the military draft and alternative service. The emergence of the activist welfare state and the civil rights movement demonstrated that political activism might promote social justice. The expanding programs of MCC intersected with government policy in ways not always compatible with MCC goals, thereby creating new reasons for MCC to seek policy changes by the government. Finally, rising levels of education and urbanization among Mennonites after World War II also led to greater political engagement, a pattern that frequently occurs as rural and less educated groups experience social assimilation.
Finding a Political Voice
To be sure, the Mennonite desire to express faith-based convictions to government had been visible long before the opening of the MCC Washington Office in 1968. Committees organized during World War I to represent Mennonite pacifist concerns might be seen as the early forerunners of a permanent office in Washington. In 1917, the Mennonite Church (MC) set up a Military Committee and General Conference Mennonites (GC) established a Committee on Exemption, or Committee of Seven, in an effort to arrange non-military service for conscientious objectors (COs) with the War Department. The MC committee became the Peace Problems Committee in 1919, and the GC counterpart became the Peace Committee in 1926.
Contacts with the government by the church’s peace committees and MCC from the 1920s to the 1950s dealt primarily with the status of COs in wartime and the government’s foreign and defense policies. Before World War II Mennonites had communicated by letter or in person with Presidents Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt; with Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, Senator William Borah and several congressional committees to:
– oppose a national day of military mobilization and U.S. policy on Nicaragua and Mexico;
– support the Welsh Bill ending compulsory military training in high schools;
– encourage diplomatic efforts to outlaw war and reduce armaments;
– request an “acceptable procedure” for COs in case of war;
– inform FDR that Mennonites could not “participate in war or military service of any type.”
With the coming of World War II, Mennonite political attention focused more exclusively on developing an alternative service program. In 1940 Mennonites joined in “intense peace church lobbying efforts” led mostly by Paul French of the American Friends Service Committee as the Civilian Public Service system was created. Mennonites joined the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO) in 1940 and formed the inter-Mennonite MCC Peace Section in early 1942. NSBRO, with a Mennonite representative on the staff, was often viewed as “the Washington office of the Peace Section” until 1968 when Peace Section established the MCC-Washington Office.
After the war selective service issues remained the primary, but not exclusive, concern as the Peace Section arranged congressional testimony or meetings with executive officials in 1945, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1955, 1956, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1965, 1966 and 1967. Church representatives in these sessions were Donovan Smucker, Harold Bender, Albert Gaeddert, C. N. Hostetter, Jr. (Brethren in Christ), Harold Sherk, Robert Kreider, Elmer Neufeld, Melvin Gingerich, Edgar Metzler, Alvin Beachy, William Keeney, John E. Lapp, Guy Hershberger, William Snyder and others.
During this long period of frequent contact with government, both MC and GC peace leaders favored an assertive stance toward government, though one limited primarily to war-related questions. In arguing for the continuation of the MC’s Peace Problems Committee in 1925, Orie Miller expressed an activist position: “Our position must be kept before government officials. We Mennonites have a witness to give for the way of peace to other churches and to the people of the world.”
The original mandate of the GC’s Peace Committee in 1926 included cooperation with other peace churches and peace organizations. GC leader Carl Landes of the Mennonite Peace Society declared, like Miller, that “we need to share with the world our testimony of peace” while Ernest Bohn recommended an “active nonresistance” in a 1938 pamphlet.
In addition to Miller, Landes and Bohn, prominent and representative peace and nonresistance advocates were the MC’s Bender and Hershberger, the GC’s H. P. Krehbiel and E. L. Harshbarger, P. C. Hiebert of the Mennonite Brethren and Hostetter from the Brethren in Christ. MC peace leaders especially faced sharp and frequent criticism from vocal opponents who clung tightly to a more separatist two-kingdom position on church and state and objected to cooperation with “liberal pacifists.”
A Joint GC-MC Venture
Inter-Mennonite ventures succeed only if the GCs, MCs and other affiliated groups work together. The creation of the Washington Office followed this collaborative pattern, as had earlier MCC relief efforts, CPS supervision and contacts with government.
Elmer Neufeld, GC peace leader and scholar, and MC theologian John Howard Yoder illustrate the new theological thinking that opened the door for a permanent presence in Washington. At a 1957 MCC-sponsored conference, Neufeld concluded that if Mennonites were “thoroughly motivated by the love of Christ” they would take their neighbors’ interests as seriously as their own in performing a “ministry of reconciliation.” Politically relevant expressions of this love might include “letters and visits to officials, [and] congressional testimony.” Yoder, expressing similar themes in 1964, contended that the lordship of Christ over the state and Christian love for one’s neighbor should motivate concern for both the “victims of governmental injustice” and government officials.
More direct steps in creating an office also involved a mutual GC-MC effort. The MC’s Edgar Metzler, Peace Section executive secretary, “reopened the question of a Washington office” in 1962 or 1963 and projected 1968 as the office’s opening date. The GC’s William Keeney, Peace Section chair, drafted the founding document and invited GC pastor and community worker Delton Franz to serve as the office’s first director. Graduate students John D. Unruh, Jr. and Dwight King, from Bethel and Goshen Colleges respectively, had studied and reported on a Mennonite “witness” in Washington in 1963 and 1966. Efforts to create an office were further encouraged when both the GC and MC Peace and Social Concerns committees expressed support for an office in November 1965. The GC Board of Christian Service demonstrated financial support by designating $4000 for the office.
Although both GC and MC peace leaders supported establishing the office in the 1960s, constituent support for this step was slightly stronger among the GCs. Survey data collected only four years after the office’s opening indicates that 59% of GCs favored the move compared to 52% of MCs. On the different question of whether members “should witness directly to the state by writing to legislators, testifying before legislative committees, etc.,” the more politically active GCs outscored MCs 72% to 54%. This data lends support to the “bipolar mosaic” theory advanced by historian James Juhnke that differing Dutch-Russian historical experiences led to greater political participation among the GCs.
ORIGINAL VISIONS FOR THE WASHINGTON OFFICE
Mennonite ideas about the role of a Washington office in the 1960s now seem to have been a mixture of attainable ideals and workable assignments along with unrealistic goals and contradictory expectations.
The first goal was to discover a unique way of relating to the government. Yoder advised that a witness based on “the centrality of the church’s own experience . . . would definitely distinguish [it] . . . from the traditional ‘lobbying’ efforts of church and interchurch agencies.” After fifteen interviews with denominational and ecumenical leaders, Dwight King’s report recommended a “distinctively Mennonite peace witness in Washington” which would avoid theoretical models like “just war” used by other groups.
A second goal was that Mennonites should speak with one voice. Yoder contended that statements to government must be based on the church’s “clear” and “shared” beliefs if they were to be effective or even honest. Officials were already familiar with church representatives who “[did] not speak for their constituencies.” Guy Hershberger, a reluctant supporter of a Washington office by early 1968, wrote that the office should carefully select “public moral issues . . . on which the church can speak unitedly in a corporate way.” Graduate student King agreed, noting “considerable concern” that an office should speak for the church rather than “a few thinkers/leaders/specialists who have a vision of what the church and its message should be.”
A third guiding idea was that the office should function as a “listening post” or “observer.” In this limited role the office would keep the church abreast of governmental policies and proposals, with church leaders deciding how to express Mennonite views to legislators and executive officials. Bill Keeney, one of the founders, explained in a 1992 interview that the office was to be the “ears and arms, but not the mouth” of the church.” Emmett Lehman, then MCC’s representative to NSBRO and an initial supporter of an office, informed the new director in early 1969 that the office had strayed beyond its neutral observer role if it was primarily trying to serve the church’s political activists, “persuade and educate” conservatives or covertly shape the church’s stands on important public policies.
A fourth emphasis was that the office would keep contact with other lobbying groups in Washington to a minimum. Nine years after the Washington Office opened, MCC’s Peace Section issued six guidelines for deciding whether to join inter-group coalitions. The sixth principle stipulated that “in general, we will join rarely and slowly.” More recently, Graber Miller has claimed that Mennonite “emphases on pacifism, humility and service” serve as an Amish-style “bundling board” protecting the office from undue influence by “other religious and secular lobbying groups” who are not absolute pacifists.
A fifth element of the original thinking was that Mennonites should expand their policy focus beyond the traditional goal of protecting the status of COs. Neufeld urged the church to address with compassion the needs of “the shepherdless people of this world” who experience sickness, hunger, homelessness, prejudice and war. Yoder envisioned Mennonites taking “the unpopular side” of social issues, pleading the case of disadvantaged minorities and giving the nation’s enemies a “hearing.”
The founding document for the Washington office also contains what appears to be an internal contradiction. The “observer” office was instructed to “equip” church leaders who would retain the “primary responsibility” for contacts with government, but it would refrain from making any “pronouncements or resolutions.” Yet this passive office was also asked to “analyze and interpret trends” in four broad policy areas, “interpret” for government officials Mennonite concerns on programs and legislation and serve as a “source of knowledge and expertise on peace and social issues.” A staff which acquires policy expertise, analyzes and interprets trends and explains Mennonite concerns “by counseling with government officials” will inevitably function as more than a passive observer neutrally reporting events. Thus, almost from the beginning, the “observer” vision clashed with the assumption that the new office would expand the Mennonite agenda of issues, acquire policy expertise, contact government officials as needed and assist leaders and constituents in deciding when their testimony would be most effective. In the end, the goals of being unique and speaking with one voice proved unrealistic; and the anti-coalition stance turned out to be unnecessarily restrictive.
Several Mennonite voices tempered their idealism with realism in statements before 1968. Neufeld, with Washington experience as NSBRO representative from 1951 to 1954, astutely recognized that “the Christian who participates in the political realm should expect tensions and compromises . . . and should expect differences of opinions, uncertainty and ambiguity.” Attempting to influence specific political decisions would, he observed, raise the level of ambiguity because of the need to cooperate with partly dissimilar groups and accept compromise measures. While Yoder hoped for unity, he understood that a witness to the state would not produce a perfect society and contended that “on one point at a time” the state and society might be challenged to “take one step in the right direction.” In a third example, the MCC Findings Committee in 1966 indicated a willingness to witness to government on a “vital current issue . . . [e]ven when there may not be complete agreement on the problem.”
MCC WASHINGTON: NOT SO DIFFERENT’
From the perspective of three decades of operation of MCC’s Washington Office (WO), the hopes of founders that the office would play a unique role among religious-based interest groups do not seem to have been fulfilled when compared with broad trends and patterns of interest group efforts to influence government policy. The timing of the WO’s establishment, the specific methods employed and positions advocated each have been strikingly similar to the Washington offices of other churches.
Proliferation in the Capital
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed “a veritable explosion in the number of groups lobbying in Washington,” largely in response to the expanding role of the federal government. More than half (18) of the 32 Washington offices of religious groups studied by political scientist Daniel Hofrenning were established between 1961 and 1985. Mennonite interest in creating a denominational presence in the nation’s capital in 1968 was, therefore, part of a national trend, not a unique impulse.
Roles and Tactics of Lobbyists
The major purpose of this growing number of interest groups, both religious and secular, was to influence public officials and thereby help shape public policy. Although church offices in Washington, including MCC, prefer the terms “advocacy” or “witness” to “lobbying” to describe their activities, four scholars who have written books on religious office have each used some form of the word “lobby” in their titles or subtitles. Political scientist Kenneth Wald correctly contends that most lobbying activities are “ordinary and morally unobjectionable” and should not be assumed to include electoral threats, bribes or corruption. The term “lobbying” therefore should be understood as a neutral descriptive term, not a pejorative label.
The time-consuming task of monitoring multiple public policy actors necessarily precedes adopting or advocating positions. Increasingly, coalitions among interest groups are formed for “informational” purposes as well as to maximize influence. In a 1986 study, the methods most frequently reported as consuming time and resources were contacting officials directly, testifying at hearings, presenting research results and grassroots lobbying, which includes information provided to a group’s members.
MCC-WO employs each of the methods frequently used by other lobbying groups. Monitoring proposed legislation and federal government action has always been a key task of MCC-WO. Like other groups, the WO has found it necessary to enter coalitions in order to “gather information efficiently, analyze data and speak with . . . greater impact . . .” Despite the 1977 guidelines against frequent coalitions with other groups, the WO has worked with other faith-based groups such as the Washington Interreligious Staff Community (formerly Council). Leaders of offices that make up WISC now meet monthly to informally share information, and joint working groups are frequently formed on specific issues.
The WO invests an estimated 70% of its time “educating” its constituency and “facilitating” those constituents who wish to speak to government. Included in this large category are publishing the Washington Memo six times yearly, issuing voting profiles or records, organizing seminars for constituents, arranging visits with members of Congress, and scheduling testimony by returning MCC workers. The first three activities are grassroots mobilization techniques used by many groups; the last two fall into the categories of contacting officials or testifying at hearings.
While 94% of religious groups report contacting government officials directly, most religious lobbyists lack the close personal relationships with officials needed to make this tactic really effective. Accordingly, WO staffers have estimated spending only 5% to 15% of their time in “direct conversation” with government officials.
Like other groups, the WO frequently supports measures that may be seen as compromises. In 1984 director Delton Franz told an interviewer that “our position is to favor a freeze on military spending. We actually prefer a cut-back, but in order to be relevant and effective we had to make freeze our strategic position.” Current director Daryl Byler also defends working for incremental change. On the Code of Conduct for Arms Transfers, the office clearly expressed its pacifist objections to any transfers, but as a step in the right direction favored proposed restrictions on the transfer of weapons. Thus, in its basic tactics and techniques there is little in the work of the MCC-WO to distinguish it from offices representing other denominations.
MCC-WO VOTING RECORDS: ISSUES AND ORIENTATION
Yet another similarity between MCC-WO and other interest groups in Washington is the publicizing of votes of members of Congress on issues of importance to the group. According to a recent survey, 44% of all Washington lobbying groups and 66% of religious ones publish voting records.
The publication of voting records is intended to generate constituent contact with members of Congress. Publishing annual ratings is not a major activity of interest groups, but such ratings help to identify both the group’s focus on issues and its political orientation.
The WO produced voting records annually from 1970 through 1995 before switching to biennial ones because of concern that election year reports might jeopardize MCC’s 501(c)(3) tax status, which permits tax deductible contributions to a non-profit organization.
The Washington Memo informs readers that the records are good indicators of their elected members’ stance on issues of concern to MCC and supporting churches, and may be used in correspondence or discussion with members of Congress. In five election years the Memo also suggested that readers might use the records to evaluate candidates in the upcoming election. The usefulness of the records as a guide for voters is somewhat limited, however, because the WO has never published information on non-incumbent candidates.
The records have changed gradually over 28 years. The number of congressional votes included was increased, with 9 to 11 votes for each chamber being the most frequent figures from 1983 on. The party affiliation of members was added in 1976. The number of senators rated rose to around 40 by the mid-70s and to all 100 beginning in 1985. The number of House members evaluated increased gradually to over 100 by 1985 and has remained at about 140 from 1993 to the present. Members are included if their district contains five or six Memo subscribers.
Selection of Issues
In choosing issues for monitoring and advocacy, the WO states that it is “guided by biblical themes of justice for all, with special concern for poor and oppressed people, nonviolent peacemaking, care for the earth [and] religious freedom.” In practice, the staff has made decisions on issues in consultation with members of MCC Peace Section (until 1991), a Coordinating Council which includes MCC administrators from the Akron, Pennsylvania headquarters, and MCC secretaries for overseas and U.S. programs. From the larger number of issues covered, office staff in a “time-consuming exercise” have chosen a few “major, water-shed” votes to be included in each of the voting records.
The emphasis of the WO may be identified by classifying votes placed in the records into four general categories: defense and military; domestic social and economic justice; other domestic issues; and international peace and justice. The figures in Table 1 reveal that over 40% of the 355 votes selected concerned defense matters. Domestic justice issues accounted for nearly a third of the votes followed by international (18%) and other domestic (10%) issues.
Washington Office Selection of Votes for Voting Records, 1970-1997
Defense/ Domestic Other International
Years Military Justice Domestic Peace/Justice
No. of votes 41.0 28.5 9.0 27.5
(% of total) 38.7% 26.8% 8.5% 25.9%
No. of votes 57.5 38.0 9.0 17.5
(% of total) 47.1% 31.1% 7.4% 14.3%
No. of votes 47.5 42.5 19.0 18.0
(% of total) 37.4% 33.5% 15.0% 14.2%
No. of votesb 146.0 109.0 37.0 63.0
(% of total) 41.1% 30.7% 10.4% 17.7%
a”Defense/military” consists of votes on the use of military force, levels of defense spending, specific weapons programs, military assistance to other nations and draft issues. “Domestic justice” refers to votes on civil rights, anti-poverty programs and the death penalty. “Other domestic” includes votes on education, the environment and gun control. “International peace/justice” votes deal primarily with Third World economic aid, human rights and the Middle East.
bThe total number of votes chosen was 355. Where House and Senate votes on the same issue were listed, the issue is counted only once. In the 28 cases where a vote overlaps two of the categories, each category is credited with half a vote. An example would be a proposal to shift military spending to domestic social programs aiding the poor.
One noticeable shift in the issues selected for the voting records has been a decrease in the percentage devoted to international issues. After 1980, the WO gave greater attention to domestic issues as the records more often highlighted death penalty and gun control votes.
One controversial issue consistently omitted from the records has been abortion. In a discussion of issues that led to debate within different church offices, political scientist Hofrenning reports that abortion and South Africa produced divergent views within MCC-WO. The internal conflict on abortion has apparently been resolved mostly by avoiding the issue. WO staff have offered three reasons for not emphasizing abortion. First, while denominational statements oppose abortion except to preserve the mother’s life, two of the most important statements do not call for a legislative remedy. Second, the WO questions whether there is an “appropriate legislative solution” to reduce the number of abortions. Finally, abortion has not become an important “field level” issue for MCC workers. Exceptions to this pattern were six Memo articles in 27 years on the issue. In one of these, director Franz asked readers in 1993 to urge their members of Congress to oppose the proposed Freedom of Choice Act because it might expand abortion rights.
The WO seeks to translate Anabaptist/Mennonite principles into public policy positions rather than ally with any political party. Yet the office’s allies and policy stands are more often liberal than conservative. When the office opposes the death penalty, calls for deep cuts in defense spending, supports more generous programs for the poor and favors a single-payer health care system, it finds itself agreeing with a minority of Democrats from the liberal wing of the party and possibly a few liberal Republicans. On the environment, civil rights and gun control, WO positions are often shared by a majority of Democrats but only a minority of Republicans.
Partisan support scores based on WO positions from 1970 to 1997 show that the average Democratic representative (72%) and senator (73%) are much more likely to agree with WO positions than the average Republicans in House and Senate (24% and 31% respectively). The average Democrat agreed with WO positions more frequently than the average Republican in both chambers in each of the 27 years. Democratic averages fell below 60% only three times each in the House and Senate and not at all since 1981. House Republicans surpassed 30% support in only 5 of 27 years, but not since 1980. Senate Republicans have been more supportive, but exceeded 30% only once after 1984.
Partisan Support Averages for WO Positions
1970-1980, 1981-1988 and 1989-1997
House of Representativesa Senatea
Period Years Dem. % Rep. % Dem. % Rep. %
1970-1980 11 67.7 30.2 74.4 39.3
1981-1988 8 76.0 20.0 69.5 29.4
1989-1997 8 75.0 18.9 73.5 19.4
1970-1997 27 72.3 23.8 72.7 30.5
aMembers are excluded from the yearly averages if they voted on fewer than half of the House or Senate votes chosen by MCC-WO.
When yearly party averages are aggregated into three longer periods in Table 2, Democratic support averages remain high (68% to 76%), but Republican scores drop to around 19% in both chambers by the 1989-1997 period.
The best explanation for the declining Republican support of MCC-WO positions is that the party as a whole has become more conservative. As moderate and liberal Republicans depart from Congress, they are frequently replaced either by staunchly conservative Republicans or by Democrats. Either way Republican averages are lowered and Democratic percentages, already high, are not changed greatly. A recent example is the retirement of Republican Mark Hatfield, “deeply religious” and “close to a pacifist,” after 30 years as an Oregon senator. Hatfield supported WO positions at an 85% rate in the 25 years that he was evaluated. His conservative Republican and Mormon successor agreed with WO stands on only 3 of 10 votes in 1997.
MCC-WO is not unique among the capital’s religious offices in advocating policies that are considered politically liberal. Many of these groups are inspired by Old Testament calls to “beat . . . swords into plowshares” and to “let justice roll down like waters” or by Jesus’ preaching of “good news to the poor.” Hofrenning classified the 32 groups in his study as liberal, moderate or conservative by their positions on five policy issues. MCC-WO was one of 24 groups (75% of the total) placed in the liberal or “tends liberal” categories.
Partisan support averages in Congress compiled for three other religious groups and reported in Table 3 indicate that MCC-WO ratings closely resemble the averages of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), but are almost a mirror opposite of the Christian Coalition’s scores. Just Life (JL), a political action committee organized by seminary professor Ron Sider and others in 1986 and disbanded in 1993, came closest to straddling the partisan and ideological divide with its “seamless garment of life ethic.”
Four Groups’ Partisan Averages in Congressional Voting Ratings
House of Representativesa Senate
Group Year(s) Dem. % Rep. % Dem. % Rep. %
FCNL 1981-88 67.4 19.2 70.2 25.1
MC-WO 1981-88 76.0 20.0 69.5 29.4
FCNL 1989-98 68.6 18.9 73.4 18.5
MCC-WOb 1989-97 75.0 18.9 73.5 19.4
Just Lifec 1981-87 65.1 41.3 62.6 33.8
1988-89 66.4 46.1 57.2 41.7
1991 61.8 37.8 64.1 39.3
Christian 1995-96 17.6 88.6 12.7 86.3
aUnlike MCC-WO, the FCNL, JL and CC records rated all House members.
bMCC-WO did not publish a voting record in 1996 or 1998.
cJL did not publish annual records like FCNL and MCC-WO, but selected 15 votes from 1981 to 1987 for its first report and combined two years in its second record. The 1988-89 record included one vote from December 1987 and the 1991 record included one vote from July 1990.
The JL scores of many Republicans improved because of their pro-life position on abortion votes, which made up one-third of each of the three JL voting records. Similarly, the JL Democratic averages are slightly lower because of the pro-choice votes of many Democrats.
The very similar partisan averages for MCC-WO and FCNL records do not mean the two offices totally agree. In their 1985, 1989 and 1997 records, the FCNL highlighted its support of U.S. contributions to the U.N. Population Fund when conservatives were trying to block the contributions because some international agencies receiving funds promoted abortion in some way. MCC-WO records omitted the issue.
The Distinctiveness Argument
Mennonite authors have conceded that the WO is similar, even “an identical sibling,” to other denominational offices in many ways. But these authors identify four characteristics thought to give the office a “unique flavor”: namely a more absolute type of pacifism; greater reliance on the testimony of overseas service and mission workers; the humble, quiet, low-key style of long-time director Franz; and the office’s close relationship with MCC’s Akron headquarters.
The Mennonite combination of an evangelical stance and biblical pacifism is shared by comparatively few Christians outside the Brethren and Brethren in Christ churches. Yet this theological distinction seems to yield few policy differences with most other religious offices.
MCC-WO has effectively employed Washington visits by returning overseas personnel. Whether this makes the WO unique, however, is doubtful. According to a House Foreign Affairs staff member interviewed by political scientist Allen Hertzke, the Lutherans, Catholics and Quakers were the “most active” in drawing on their international connections in an effort to influence U.S. foreign policy. Hertzke adds examples where offices of the American Baptists, Episcopalians, Mennonites and National Association of Evangelicals also made use of their global networks.
Of nine groups answering the author’s own survey on field worker testimony, three groups reported more Washington visits per year than MCC-WO. One office claiming a greater frequency of such testimony was the American Friends Service Committee, which organized its Washington Office in 1982. James Matlack, office director for 17 years, stated that “most visits are by staff based overseas,” followed by “U.S.-based staff returning from overseas trips, and lastly U.S.-based staff.”
The claim that the personal style of staff, especially that of Delton Franz, has made MCC-WO unique relies on interviews by Graber Miller with four congressional staffers and directors of the American Baptist and United Church of Christ offices. While Franz deserves full credit for his “very soft,” “very low-key” style, other religious offices seem to operate in a similar manner. A Senate committee staffer observed that many offices in the Methodist Building have a “refreshing,” “low key approach” to lobbying. And other long-term religious lobbyists have gained the respect of legislators, as did Franz. Senator Hatfield’s legislative director, for example, described the FCNL’s Ed Snyder as the “best” of all the lobbyists: “He is trusted and dispassionate. The Senator will call him.”
MCC-WO maintains close contact with MCC headquarters, as it should. This connection, however, hardly makes it distinctive. Of 30 lobbyists interviewed by Hertzke, “at least half have a direct, functional link to a church institution. Others retain important, but less direct relationships to church bodies.” Washington offices typically select issues and take stands that concur with denominational or organizational policy resolutions or statements. The FCNL, for example, is supervised by a General Committee of 240 Quakers mostly selected by 26 Friends’ Yearly Meetings and 7 national Friends’ organizations. The newer AFSC office worked for two years with a supervisory committee of laypersons, but now depends on an “on-going and constant” consultation process between director Matlack and 12 to 14 “desk” offices and the Associate General Secretary for Programs in Philadelphia.
One might think that MCC-WO’s emphasis on defense and foreign policy issues separates it from other religious offices. Yet here again, the office resembles other liberal religious organizations. Hofrenning found that these groups opposed aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, supported the INF treaty and opposed the MX missile and the Strategic Defense Initiative, as did MCC-WO. On foreign policy, a 1987 MCC Washington Memo that favored “creative” diplomacy, correcting North-South economic disparities, and use of inter-national law and UN peacekeeping forces to resolve conflicts, was said to summarize the positions of the same group of liberal religious offices.
IN THE PEWS: RELUCTANT FOLLOWERS
Political scientists who have studied religious interest groups have discovered that rank-and-file members do not always share the political views of their leaders. One study by James Guth and his co-authors contends that “mainline Protestant elites who endorsed liberal Democratic domestic programs and dovish foreign policies often became ‘generals without armies’ with little supporting fire from their predominantly conservative Republican laity.” Hofrenning, however, identifies issues of leader-member agreement as well as disagreement for mainline Protestants, fundamentalists and Catholics.
Signs of tensions between Mennonite leaders and members in regard to political leanings were visible before 1968. In 1964, for example, three MC leaders in the Gospel Herald advised fellow Mennonites to give most weight to the important moral issues of civil rights and nuclear warfare if they chose to vote. Most of the readers who responded criticized the implied endorsement of the Democratic ticket, opposed voting or found other issues more important. Thus, the Mennonite experience again strongly parallels that of other groups.
Mennonite Political Loyalties
As already shown, the policy stands of MCC-WO, reflecting the new, more activist peacemaking approach, are much closer to the views of the average Democrat in Congress than the average Republican. In contrast, the two major surveys (1972 and 1989) of Mennonite opinions have confirmed that strong majorities of Mennonites hold Republican and conservative political views.
Among Mennonites with a political preference, Republicans increased slightly from 69% to 71% between 1972 and 1989 while the Democratic minority grew from 17% to 25%, with independents declining. The Bush-Dukakis vote among Mennonites in 1988 closely followed their party identification division, with Bush winning by 72% to 27%. By comparison, Bush won 54% nationwide.
Explaining Leader-Member Differences
One persuasive explanation of leader-member differences is that most religious offices represent at least three interests in addition to U.S. church members. Political scientist Hertzke contends that the offices work for denominational institutions, uphold a theological tradition and serve a world-wide constituency which includes relief agencies with their programs and workers, missionaries and foreign members. These interests may diverge at times from the political views of U.S. members. Also, religious leaders and lobbyists connect their faith to political issues “more readily” and with “greater ideological consistency” than the average member.
For many Mennonite leaders, Anabaptist peace theology supports the positions of MCC and other liberal religious groups. Nonresistance for many lay members, however, may lead to “an anti-statist, let-us-alone variant of conservatism.”
Cultural and demographic factors also help explain Mennonite political sympathies. Living in suburban, small city and rural areas, Mennonites are likely influenced by the Republican and conservative views of newspapers, neighbors and work associates. Groups that are normally pro-Democratic are poorly represented among Mennonites: only 0.9% are black, 0.4% Hispanic and 6% union members.
Conservative political attitudes are found almost equally among GC and MC members. Excluding respondents with “no position,” only 15.3% of the GCs, with a Dutch-Russian majority, and a nearly identical 15% of MCs considered themselves “liberal Democrats” in 1989. Conservative Republican percentages were 56.4 (MC) and 50.4 (GC).
Constituency Views on Issues
Survey data on Mennonite views on specific foreign, military and domestic issues is somewhat limited. The 1972 and 1989 surveys asked no direct question on attitudes toward military spending, an important MCC-WO issue. On domestic issues, where the WO has taken clear stands, Mennonites appear divided. On welfare spending, only 20% favored increasing benefits in 1989. On capital punishment, opponents outnumbered supporters 40% to 34% with 26% uncertain.
Current WO director Byler has suggested that leader-member differences would appear smaller if issues and activities not reflected in the voting records, but popular with members, were considered. The WO, for example, has supported the Peace Tax Fund (PTF) proposal, which has not yet reached the floor of the House or Senate; arranges visits of MCC workers on Capitol Hill; and secures licenses for shipment of material aid abroad.
The level of support for the PTF outside the church’s peace activists is unclear. Clearly the sponsors of the proposal in both the 102nd and 105th Congresses were almost exclusively liberal Democrats, not the Republicans supported by the majority of Mennonites. Planning field worker visits and obtaining licenses for aid shipment are activities to which few, if any, members object.
Sources of Support
Despite the leader-member differences described, over 70% of Mennonites favored the work of the WO in 1989, an increase of 17% in 17 years. How has the WO not only maintained but enlarged its support? One answer may be that many Mennonites are not well informed about MCC’s political viewpoints. In 1997 the subscription list for the Washington Memo stood at 1256, including 110 to churches, schools, libraries and organizations. Other Mennonites may accept the office’s role, but base their own votes on social and economic self-interest or their preference for a limited government.
MCC-WO appears to draw its support disproportionately from the ranks of well-educated members. The six congressional districts with the largest numbers of Memo readers in 1997 each contained major educational institutions, denominational offices or MCC headquarters. Four of the six, however, also ranked among the six districts containing the most Mennonites.
Finally, the WO must count on the support of the academics, leaders and activists who urged the church to embrace a more activist peacemaking stance and the roughly one-fourth of Mennonites who hold liberal or Democratic political views.
ORIGINAL VISION AND CURRENT REALITY
Opening and operating a lobbying (or advocacy) office in Washington clearly represented a “controversial . . . and creative” step toward “greater interaction” between Mennonites and the U.S. government. Three decades later it appears that parts of the original vision have been achieved, but the more idealistic aspects of original thinking have not. Once the range of issues was extended beyond the draft, alternate service and relief programs, Mennonites have been unable to speak with one voice as John Howard Yoder, Dwight King and others in the 1960s had hoped. Mennonites today seem divided among the politically inactive, those who generally support MCC-WO positions, and conservative Republicans whose voting choices indicate outright disagreement with many WO positions.
Church conferences and assemblies are able to approve broad statements on major issues, but seem ill equipped to act as the “mouth” of the church on specific measures under legislative consideration. In practice, the work of the WO, like the AFSC office, “is driven by [MCC] field experience, not by denominational statements. . . .”
As a small-staff, low-budget office, the WO cannot avoid coalitions and joint statements with other like-minded groups. These joint efforts are essential for gathering information and expanding influence. The WO has also used the lobbying techniques common to other groups: informing constituents, contacting officials, and arranging meetings between government officials and appropriate church leaders and workers.
The MCC-WO has certainly fulfilled the original vision in other ways. The WO, as Yoder hoped, has relied on the church’s experience in the U.S. and overseas, frequently sided with disadvantaged minorities, and, like other interest groups, worked for incremental steps in the “right direction.” The primary task of MCC-WO is to represent Mennonite principles and the interests of MCC rather than to adopt the political views of the majority of voting Mennonites. Without the WO the dominant political voice for the church would be those voters who overlook or agree with “the stands of an increasingly conservative Republican party on military spending, gun control, the death penalty, the environment, and aid to the poor.”
. Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1994), chs. 2-6, 10; Keith Graber Miller, Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves: American Mennonites Engage Washington (Knoxville: U. of Tennessee Press, 1996), chs. 1-2; Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1998), chs. 1, 5, 9.
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. Melvin Gingerich, Service for Peace: A History of Mennonite Civilian Public Service (Akron, PA.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1949), 18, 21; Bush, Two Kingdoms, 45; C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites, 4th ed. (Newton, KS.: Mennonite Publication Office, 1957), 794; Paul Erb, Orie O. Miller: The Story of a Man and an Era (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1969), 203.
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. Lapp, “The Peace Mission,” 289; E. Morris Sider, Messenger of Grace: A Biography of C. N. Hostetter, Jr. (Nappanee, IN.: Evangel Press, 1982), 164-75; Robert S. Kreider, Looking Back into the Future (Newton, KS.: Bethel College, 1998), 69-70; Bush, Two Kingdoms, 160, 239-40; Graber Miller, Wise as Serpents, 39, 46 and n. 103 on 232; Cornelius Dyck, ed., The Mennonite Central Committee Story, vol. 3: Witness and Service in North America (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1980), 58-59. Issues not directly related to the draft and alternative service were foreign students, universal military training, MCC-Peace Corps cooperation and the Vietnam War and its refugees.
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. Erb, Orie O. Miller, 203. Miller by 1925 had “negotiated in Washington on behalf of Russian Mennonites, attended disarmament conferences, and politicked with Quakers”-Bush, Two Kingdoms, 37.
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. Lapp, “The Peace Mission,” 295; Graber Miller, Wise as Serpents, 43-46, 209-12; “Washington Office for Peace,” Gospel Herald, Feb. 20, 1968, 155-56. Lapp and Graber Miller differ on the date Metzler reopened the issue. Both Unruh (history, Kansas) and King (political science, Chicago) later earned Ph.D.s. Unruh taught at Bluffton College and King has taught at Northern Illinois University since 1978-foreword to Unruh’s The Plains Across (1979) and King letter to author, Aug. 10, 2000.
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. J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1975), 161, 258. By 1989 the GC-MC gap had narrowed to 75% to 71% on the MCC office and 74% to 73% on the “witness directly” question-J. Howard Kauffman and Leo Driedger, The Mennonite Mosaic (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1991), 138, 177.
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. James Juhnke, “Mennonite History and Self-Understanding: North American Mennonitism as a Bipolar Mosaic” in Mennonite Identity, eds. Calvin Redekop and Samuel Steiner (Lanham, MD.: U. Press of America, 1988); Driedger and Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking, 25-27.
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. Guy F. Hershberger, “A Mennonite Office in Washington'” Gospel Herald, Feb. 27, 1968, 186. Hershberger had contended in 1951 that a church-operated “lobbyist organization . . . would be a perversion” of the church’s proper role-The Mennonite Church in the Second World War (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 248.
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. Neufeld, “Christian Responsibility,” 153, 159. Neufeld also served as Peace Section secretary, 1959-1962. Like Neufeld, Sherk and Metzler also worked with both NSBRO and as Peace Section secretary.
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. Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis, “The Changing Nature of Interest Group Politics” in Interest Group Politics, 4th ed., eds. Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1995), 10.
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. Hofrenning, In Washington But Not of It, The Prophetic Politics of Religious Lobbyists (Philadelphia: Temple U. Press, 1995), ch. 4. Dates of origin for 27 groups are from Paul Weber and W. Landis Jones, U.S. Religious Interest Groups’ Institutional Profiles (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press 1994). Phone calls by the author as well as The Encyclopedia of Associations and The Encyclopedia of American Religious History produced the remaining five dates.
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. Graber Miller, Wise as Serpents, 81; Wald, Religion and Politics in the United States, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1997), 129. The four scholars are Luke E. Ebersole, Church Lobbying in the Nation’s Capital (New York: Macmillan, 1951); James Adams, The Growing Church Lobby in Washington (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970); Allen D. Hertzke, Representing God in Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbyists in the American Polity (Knoxville: U. of Tennessee Press, 1988); and Hofrenning, In Washington (1995).
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. Robert Salisbury, “The Paradox of Interest Groups in Washington-More Groups, Less Clout” in The New American Political System, 2nd ed., ed. Anthony King (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 1990), 218-19.
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. J. Daryl Byler, phone interview with author, Oct. 3, 1997. Neither the Mennonite Church 1975 “Summary Statement” nor the General Conference Mennonite 1980 “Guidelines on Abortion” seems to support a legal prohibition.
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. Just Life/88, 24-31; Just Life/90, 16-24 (Just Life Education Fund); Just Life News, Spring 1992, 1-7; James L. Guth, John C. Green, Lyman A. Kellstedt and Corwin W. Smidt, “Onward Christian Soldiers: Religious Activist Groups in American Politics” in Cigler and Loomis, Interest Group Politics, 60-61.
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. Graber Miller, “Whirling Toward Similitude? Mennonite Lobbyists in the U.S. Capital'” Conrad Grebel Review 12 (Fall 1994), 291; Robert S. Kreider and Rachel Waltner Goossen, Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger: The MCC Experience (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1988), 329-30.
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. Kreider and Goossen, Hungry and Thirsty, 325-27; Graber Miller, Wise as Serpents, 146-47. One notable example was the testimony of Patricia Erb, a missionary daughter who was abducted and tortured by the Argentine military in 1976.
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. John E. Lapp, H. Ralph Hernley and Guy F. Hershberger, “Moral Issues in the Election of 1964,” Gospel Herald, Sept. 22, 1964, 826; Ervin Stutzman, “From Nonresistance to Peace and Justice: Mennonite Peace Rhetoric, 1951-1991” (dissertation, Temple U., 1993), 205-08.
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. Burwell data from the same profile. The Mennonite Brethren, all of whom are Dutch-Russians, were only 3.5% liberal Democrats and 75.4% conservative Republicans. If ideology alone is tabulated, GCs were 26.2% liberal and MCs 25.3%, a statistically insignificant difference. A majority (60%) of Canadian Mennonites with a party preference also supported conservative parties in 1989, compared to 71% of U.S. Mennonites-Driedger and Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking, 200-01.
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. Jim Leach (Iowa) was the only Republican House sponsor in the two Congresses. Sen. Hatfield was the sole Senate Republican sponsor in the 102nd Congress. Sponsor lists were provided by Dan Chong, outreach director for the Peace Tax Fund, Sept. 11, 1998.
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. Where two names were listed on a subscription, both were counted as “readers.” Sources used to estimate district totals for Memo readers were The Congressional District Atlas, 103rd Congress of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of the Census, 1993) and Congressional Districts in the 1990s (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1993). In urban areas where zip code areas and cities were split between districts, the number of readers was divided.
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. Ken Eshleman, “Why Many Mennonites Differ with the MCC Washington Office,” Washington Memo, Jan.-Feb., 1999, 7.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Thirty Years of MCC-Washington Office
* Kenneth Eshleman is Associate Professor of Political Science at Messiah College, Grantham, PA.