The Iowa caucuses today will kick off the 2008 US primary elections, but the Lancaster County Amish may not be too interested—at least not like they were in 2004. The issue that year of the “Amish vote” in Pennsylvania captured headlines, but the publicity, ironically, may have helped reduce their turnout in November. Donald B. Kraybill and Kyle C. Kopko recently analyzed the Amish feelings for President Bush in 2004 and the problems they had with voting for him.
The basic issue for many Amish people in Lancaster County was their perception that President Bush seemed to be a God-fearing man who shared their moral values: opposition to abortion and gay rights. They felt that his opponent, John Kerry, was a liberal who would tolerate practices that they felt were evil. Some Amish in the county considered it important to help elect a man that they felt could change the moral climate of the larger society. They believed, as the authors put it, that “God needed Amish help to elect the right president (p.179).”
The Bush campaign managers sensed that the Amish might give them a unique opportunity to gain additional support in Pennsylvania, a populous state that carries a lot of votes in the American Electoral College. The state is nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, so the thousands of highly conservative Amish people in Lancaster County, who would probably vote for Bush, could mean the difference in the state, and perhaps even in the nation. The Bush campaign calculated that the President’s stance on conservative issues and his home-spun, aw shucks style would appeal to the Amish.
On July 9, 2004, he drove along PA 340, in the heart of Amish country east of Lancaster City, where about 8,000 people, mostly Amish, lined the roads and clogged the intersections. He arrived at an Amish business building near Smoketown and talked for 20 minutes with a group of 250 invited Amish leaders. One observer said, “the president shook hands all around, took time to get their names. He seemed just like an old-time farmer (p.181).” Another man said that the President “seemed relaxed and just like an old neighbor (p.176).”
Another reported that the President said, “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job (p.176).” At a later campaign visit, he told a community leader, “tell the Amish churches how I need their prayers so I can run the country as God wishes.” Reports of these meetings, and of his frequent references to God, spread widely.
The President’s profession of his Christian faith carried a lot of weight with his supporters in Lancaster County. “I really think Bush relies on God and prays for help,” one supporter wrote enthusiastically (p.180). But not all Amish in the county, much less elsewhere, were enthusiastic enough to vote for him. Many felt that the most appropriate Amish way of dealing with what they felt were moral evils in society was to pray for God to heal the nation—not to become involved in the political process themselves. “If we pray to the Lord we depend on Him to make the right decision,” one Amish person wrote (p.182).
Other Amish were quite bothered by the idea of voting for a war president. While he was obviously popular because of his moral positions, many could see that by voting for him they were supporting the war in Iraq. How could they strongly oppose fighting, which contradicts their absolute belief in not resisting evil, yet vote for a man who had led the nation into a war?
Furthermore, the leaders of the Amish churches have traditionally discouraged their members from voting at all. While they feel they must do as the state requires, they try to not become involved in its affairs. Due to their belief in nonresistance, they refuse to serve in any military or police function, or to serve on a jury—anything that could require them to help the state punish someone. They pay taxes—and frequently pray for political leaders—but they do not hold political offices or accept Social Security benefits. Although voting is not forbidden generally, many find it to be distasteful.
As the election campaign progressed through the summer and fall of 2004, the Republicans began to over-emphasize the importance of the Amish vote, which led to a backlash in Lancaster County. Publicity about the issue prompted the Amish themselves to question their involvement, and threatened to unravel everything the Republicans had achieved. Another meeting proposed for the President and First Lady with a group of Amish leaders was cancelled for fear that the resultant publicity might backfire and turn away large numbers of potential voters.
In the end, the backlash in October may have had an impact on the voting. The final number of Amish voters was quite small. Out of 220,091 total votes recorded in the county, only 1,674 votes were cast by Amish and Old Order Mennonite voters, almost all of which were probably cast for Bush. Only 61.2 percent of the newly registered Amish voters in the county, the ones who may have been the most enthusiastic, the ones most caught up in what one had rhapsodized as “Bush fever,” actually showed up to vote on election day.
The authors conclude their fascinating article with a careful analysis of the voting patterns by district in Lancaster County. They observe that Bush lost Pennsylvania, but took the county by more than 70,000 votes. The Amish voters clearly had a very minor part to play in the county results, much less the state or the nation. Referring to one Old Order person’s observation that “God never loses an election,” the authors observe, ironically, that “God had won in Lancaster and lost in Pennsylvania!” (p.197).
No matter what happens in the Iowa caucuses today—and the rest of the primary elections this year —it is hard to imagine the Lancaster County Amish getting caught up again in a 2008 version of Bush fever.
Kraybill, Donald B. and Kyle C. Kopko. 2007. “Bush Fever: Amish and Old Order Mennonites in the 2004 Presidential Election.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 81(2): 165-205