Amish teens rebel but most stay true to faith

Hip-hop music blares out of an Amish buggy, drowning out the clippity-clop of a horse's hooves.

It's a sure sign of an Amish teenager going through rumspringa, a German word that means "running around." It defines a period when youths, beginning at age 16, sometimes experiment with popular culture while deciding whether they want to make a lifelong commitment to the Amish church.

For many, rumspringa simply involves dating and socializing with friends. Others are more rebellious and may drive a car, smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol - all forbidden by a faith built on obedience to church rules.

But despite a brief taste of freedom, about 90 percent of Amish in their teens and early 20s choose to be baptized in the church and remain part of the community. The rate is highest since at least the 1930s.

The Amish aren't baptized until they are adults, when they can make a conscious decision about their faith. Until then, they do not officially belong to the Amish church and can't be punished by it.

For James Wengerd, 19, rumspringa was a phase in which he socialized with friends and drank occasionally.

"It's all right, but you get tired of it," he said.

Wengerd, who is a carpenter, is meeting with Amish ministers in preparation for his baptism in September.

After five months of classes, an Amish applicant kneels during a baptismal rite and agrees to renounce the world and be submissive to the church, Donald Kraybill, a sociologist at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, writes in "The Riddle of Amish Culture."

Wengerd never considered leaving the faith. "It's the right thing to do," he said of joining the church. "It's just the way our tradition is."

Wengerd lives in Middlefield in Geauga County, which with an estimated 12,000 Amish has the fourth-largest settlement in the world.

Amish youths there tend to party in large groups outdoors. They'll take a taxi to a local convenience store and buy 50 to 100 cases of beer for a barn party.

"We expect the Amish to be perfect, but kids are kids. They do these kinds of things," Middlefield police Chief David Easthon said.

It becomes a problem when they drive their buggies home, he said.

"We have caught several Amish kids in towns asleep behind the reins. Horses don't stop for traffic signals and stop signs," Easthon said.

Questions to several young people in Middlefield about rumspringa or other aspects of Amish life were met with silence or shaking heads.

Amish minister David Kline said the rebellion of their teenagers mirrors the larger society. Amish teenagers are now more likely to drink as underage drinking has increased among the non-Amish.

Kline, 58, said he never violated any laws, smoked or drove a car during rumspringa, but things are different these days.

"We went through a period of questioning do we want to stay," he said. "We never went into that wildness."

Some Amish teens drive cars in Mount Hope, which is part of the world's largest Amish settlement.

"Just telling the community, 'I'm not doing what my father wants me to do,'" said Kline, summing up the attitude of some youths.

Steven Nolt, associate professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana, said that even when Amish teenagers are engaged in deviant behavior they usually don't interact with the non-Amish.

"Whether this is going to the bowling alley or something more risky they do it with other Amish teens," he said.

So even though Amish teens experiment with modern culture, there's still a gulf between their world and the outside world, Kraybill said.

"The culture is stacked within the direction of staying within the church. It's not as clear-cut and as open a choice as it may appear to them," he said. "It's like going to a foreign country in some ways if they leave."

Amish parents want their children to stay in the community but want it to be a free choice, said Jill Korbin, associate dean in Case Western Reserve University's college of arts and sciences.

There's an unspoken understanding, however. Sometimes subtle reminders are used.

If a young person from the ultraconservative Swartzentruber sect moves out during rumspringa, his place is set at the table three times a day for meals and his chair remains empty.

Kline said this is a powerful way of telling young people they have a place where they belong.

Amish youth weren't always so willing to join the faith, said Lawrence Greksa, professor of anthropology at Case Western in Cleveland. He said 50 years ago as many as 50 percent were leaving.

The retention rate has increased gradually as the differences between Amish and non-Amish populations have increased.

"In the middle part of last century, an Amish farmer and non-Amish farmer used to have similar lifestyles except for religion," Greksa said. "As the differences increased, it made the choice clearer."

The rise of Amish schools has helped to maintain structure and reinforce values in young people. It also keeps children from socializing with non-Amish youth.

One reason for the growth of the Amish community is the retention of its young people.

Kraybill estimates that of the approximately 180,000 Amish in North America, half are under age 18. Only a quarter of the U.S. population is under 18.

Because of that, the Amish community doesn't have the problem of brain drain.

"That's what makes a thriving community," Kline said. "If you keep the young people in it."

As for the rebellion of some of their young people, he said there's not much they can do except "pray and wait up at night."