washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Elections > 2004 Election
Letter From Amish Country

GOP's Soft Sell Swayed the Amish

Unlikely Voters Cast Lot With Bush

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page A03


Early on a pale blue morning, a horse-drawn buggy clop-clopped along a farmland stretch of Route 340. A lone little Chevy compact came toward it at a Sunday pace.

From an intersection, a black SUV the size of an Indian elephant barreled up to the buggy's back, passing with a quick jerk that nearly clipped the oncoming car -- and the horse's nose.

In Intercourse, Pa., the Bush campaign bus attracts Amish attention. Some of the religion's adherents cited the Republican's Christian values as a plus. (Vinny Tennis -- Intelligencer Journal Via AP)

That's Pennsylvania's Amish country, where the 19th and 21st centuries coexist, commingle and collide on a regular basis. The Amish may hold fast to their plain ways, rejecting cars, indoor electricity, home phones and televisions. But contact with the outside world is unavoidable. Malls stand on land where corn used to grow, tourists run around the village streets, and even the old unspoken rule -- leave the Amish alone -- is gone, left in the dust of the presidential campaign, when the Republicans came calling for votes.

Yes, the Republicans, true to their vow to leave no vote unwooed, came to Lancaster County hoping to win over the famously reclusive Old Order Amish -- who shun most modern ways -- along with their slightly less-strict brethren, the Mennonites. Democrats laughed at the very idea. The Amish had no use for politics. Were the Republicans that desperate? But the GOP effort, underscored by President Bush's meeting with some Amish families in early July, did the trick.

"Yup, we voted this time," said an elder Old Order Amish man approached at his home-based quilt shop on Route 340. He had a beard that straggled down to his chest and bright blue eyes. His first name, he said, is Amos, but in keeping with the Amish edict against calling attention to oneself, he would not give his last name.

"I didn't vote for the last 30 years," he said, puffing on a pipe. "But Bush seemed to have our Christian principles."

Outside looking in, it makes sense that the Amish would pay little attention to national politics. They have their own schools (formal education for eight years), their own churches (or religious gatherings, at one another's homes) and their own rules. This has worked for them. The population of Amish and Mennonites, at more than 20,000 in Lancaster County, keeps growing.

But it seems the outside world, the "English" world, as the Amish call it, has been creeping in too closely for the plain people not to worry. In recent months, reports of child abuse in Amish country have made local papers and national news. The reality show "Amish in the City" has brought a slew of curiosity seekers asking all kinds of questions. (Do you take showers? Read newspapers? Ride buses? Yes, yes and yes.) And the plain people have daily worries as well. "We've been worrying about liquor and beer being sold in the grocery stores," said Sam, a gazebo maker and writer who said he would "get into trouble" if his last name was printed.

"We were down," Sam said, "and when the president visited, it cheered us right up. We got a firsthand look at him, and it really warmed our hearts."

In short, as Sam and half a dozen other Amish men explained (women were hard to find, and harder to talk to), Bush won votes with a time-honored campaign convention: He showed up. On July 9 his campaign bus rolled down Route 340, hoping to fire up the base in Republican Lancaster County. The Amish, watching the spectacle from the road, became part of it.

"We came out," Amos said. "We were about 70 people. One of his security said he wanted to meet us and invited us to meet with him across the road at Lapp's Electric."

"They knew we didn't like publicity," said Amos, smiling at the recollection. "So the president met with us all in an office at Lapp's. He shook everyone's hand -- even the littlest ones in their mother's arms -- and he told us all he hoped we would exercise our right and vote."

Did Bush ask them to vote for him?

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company