Thirty Years of MCC-Washington Office: A Unique or Similar Way?

Article excerpt

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.

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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. (1) 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 nonmilitary 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. (2)

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. …