LITITZ, Pa. — Congressional candidate Jess King had just a few minutes to rev up a small crowd of volunteers before canvassing this picturesque town, still draped in red, white and blue bunting from the Fourth of July parade.
So in her abbreviated stump speech, she uses the same word five times: values.
“Lead with our values,” she tells her volunteers. “We have an incredible opportunity to have our values reflected in Washington.”
“Values,” here in Lancaster County, typically means one thing — faith. This is a town where the place mats at the Lititz Family Cupboard remind diners to say grace over their meals, and patrons discuss, over plates filled high at the buffet, which church to recommend to a newcomer in town.
King, running to represent this county and part of neighboring York County, knows this culture in her bones. She’s a pastor’s wife and a 12th-generation Pennsylvanian, a descendant of the Amish and Mennonite refugees who settled this part of the country.
She’s touting her faith perspective on the campaign trail — and somewhat unusually, she’s doing it as a Democrat.
Amish and Mennonites, both German traditions, migrated to this corner of Pennsylvania in the 17th century; today, there are 164 Amish churches and 91 Mennonite churches in Lancaster County, more than any other denomination. Far more adherents of both religions live in Lancaster County than any other county in the country, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives 2010 census; counties in Ohio and Indiana are in distant second place.
The Amish, often spotted in their old-fashioned clothing and horse-drawn buggies, are known for eschewing modern technology. The Mennonites, who come from the same German Protestant roots, blend more into mainstream society.
“I grew up Mennonite, and in that tradition what I learned is this isn’t survival of the fittest or everyone of us out for ourselves. The whole Bible is loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. I’ve taken that pretty seriously,” King says on the campaign trail. “My faith led me into action.”
Democrats in recent decades have a patchy record of talking about faith. While the rise of the religious right united Christian and Republican interests in the 1980s, leading to a point today when most Republican lawmakers tout their church membership as bona fides, Democrats have become cagier about religion.
“There’s some sentiment within the Democratic Party … that does say faith has no role in politics,” said Michael Wear, who led faith outreach for President Barack Obama and wrote a book arguing that Democrats should embrace religious outreach. “It’s sort of an arbitrary way to send the message that certain kinds of people aren’t permitted in public discourse, certain kinds of knowledge are less valuable. America is a profoundly religious country.”
While Republicans are more religious than Democrats by most measures — they go to religious services more often, read Scripture more often and pray more often — Democrats are religious, too. Eighty-five percent of Democrats believe in God, according to Pew research. More than 70 percent say their religion is “very important” or “somewhat important” to them, and more than 60 percent regularly attend worship services.
“When there’s a perception out there that the party is not welcome to faith, then the party suffers. When Democrats are willing to show up in all kinds of communities, they’re usually going to be rewarded for that,” Wear said. “2016 was a very good example of a year where the Democratic Party thought they could win while ignoring, sometimes explicitly so, a wide swath of the religious community. We saw how that turned out. I do think in 2018, some candidates are pushing back on that.”
That’s where candidates like King come in.
New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez published an article about criminal justice the day after her surprise Democratic primary victory in the Catholic magazine America, which began with the words, “Christ came to me emblazoned on the upper arm of my beloved cousin Marc.” Conor Lamb, the Democrat who pulled off a special-election victory in a normally conservative Pennsylvania district, discussed his Catholic faith, including his personal (if not necessarily policy-wise) opposition to abortion based on his religion.
Potential Democratic presidential contenders are dipping their toes into campaigning for the votes of the faithful already: Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has been speaking in church; and Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who was a Sunday school teacher and prays on the campaign trail, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a Christian who has studied Jewish texts and often quotes Scripture, both attended the Festival of Homiletics, a pastors’ convention.
King wears her faith on her sleeve: Her campaign website talks about her year of volunteer service, the religious high school and college she attended, her pastor husband. “My family’s been Amish and Mennonite completely, all the way back,” she says on the campaign trail.
“In general I think it’s been an asset,” she says about her faith. “They do believe you must be more conservative.”
Most Mennonites in this area are conservative, particularly on social issues such as sexuality and abortion. And the district as a whole clearly leans right. But King has aligned herself with the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party. She supports a nationwide single-payer health-care plan and a plan to reduce the cost of public colleges so any student can attend without debt. She’s been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
When she talks to fellow Mennonites, she often puts politics aside and talks about the volunteer service she did, a typical rite of passage for devout Mennonite youth. That forms the connection, conservative or liberal. “They see themselves in me and in our values,” King said.
The incumbent member of Congress she is challenging, Lloyd Smucker, was also raised in an Amish and Mennonite family, sharing the same background as many of his constituents though he no longer attends a Mennonite church, his office said.
When King is canvassing, a conservative voter asks her a highly technical question about the environmental impact of the low-technology farming practiced by his Amish neighbors. King is well-versed in all the details — and offers to tour a farm with him.
Irma Kelly, who lives in the district, heard King speak this summer. “Corporate money. Medicare for all. I was sitting there saying, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ When I left, I said to my husband, ‘I feel like I just heard a really good sermon,'” Kelly said on the day she showed up, inspired by that sermonic stump speech, she decided to volunteer for King’s campaign.
King smiled. “It’s similar to church — the values, the sense of connection.” And Kelly chimed in, “The caring for your neighbor.”
Other campaign volunteers found that religious values were a way of selling King when they went canvassing door to door. Barb DeWalt rang the doorbell of a woman named Norma, a registered Republican who said she wasn’t concerned about jobs or health care, the two issues DeWalt touted first as reasons to vote for King. Norma said all she wanted was lower taxes.
Then Norma paused. She did have one more opinion about politics: “Every time you hear Trump on TV, it’s nothing but trouble.” DeWalt replied, about King: “She has got family values. Kindness to others is really important to her.”
Afterward, DeWalt reported to King: “The Mennonites, some of the more conservative Republicans, want to listen to what you have to say.”
King smiled and rang the next doorbell.
This article has been updated.