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US Election 2020: Are the Amish being politicized, and could they swing the Ohio vote?

Amish children are seen eating ice cream outside a pizza restaurant, in Fredericksburg, Ohio, on Oct. 16, 2020. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

FREDERICKSBURG, Ohio (Mainichi) -- The Amish and Mennonite communities reject modern technology, and their members lead self-sufficient lifestyles. They continue to preserve the way of living observed by their ancestors who settled in the United States of America, and large concentrations of them can be found in Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states, and some also live in Canada.

    Traditionally, they haven't voted in U.S. presidential elections. But there have been reports of two rallies in support of President Donald Trump taking place in the Amish and Mennonite village of Fredericksburg in late September. Among one procession was said to be an Amish horse and carriage with pro-Trump flags attached. To find out what has been going on, the Mainichi Shimbun went to speak to people in the area.

    It's easy to identify an Amish village when you see one. Small black carriages drawn by horses, known as buggies, are out on the roads, and residents' washing is drying out in their gardens. The Amish maintain the lifestyles of German settlers who came to the United States in the 18th century. They don't drive cars or use dryers. The women wear dark dresses and white bonnets, while the men wear straw hats and grow out their beards. To avoid interference or pressure from the federal government, the communities try as much as possible to avoid using the public grid, and they have their own language, schools and religion. They bring to mind the portrayal of the Amish in the 1985 Harrison Ford movie, "Witness."

    When I visited the Amish and Mennonite community in Ohio's Holmes County for the first time in 16 years, the area looked so different. Back in 2004, telephones weren't used on the basis that they would interrupt family time, and for communication fax machines were set up in outhouses. But now, some young people had started using mobile phones and smartphones. Back then, the community eschewed the cultivator for a horse and plow, but this time I saw people on electronically-assisted bicycles, and lawnmowers being used to cut the grass at home.

    In the past, the Amish referred to Americans outside their communities as "English," meaning people who use English, and interactions with them were limited. But contact between them now has become an everyday occurrence. Many tourists can be seen purchasing specialty Amish and Mennonite pies and cheeses at food stores and restaurants, and many also stay at accommodation facilities they offer. The communities also build their own homes and furniture, and businesses to make use of their skills to produce and sell Amish furniture have expanded rapidly, all of which has seen Amish and Mennonite communities prosper in recent years.

    To find out more about the Amish and Mennonite rallies for Trump, I went to talk to people at a lumber store which has ballooned to the size of a huge DIY outlet. Andy Yoder, 71, agreed to speak with me, and said, "It was staged." He also said that only a few Amish buggies participated in the rally, and that men pretending to be Amish had used young Amish people who don't attend church. He finished by saying that many Amish people were not in favor of rallies like it.

    Traditionally, Amish people vote in local elections but refrain from taking part in presidential elections. It is thought by many among them that who becomes president is up to God. Although they pray for the elected president and many express support, they do not involve themselves in voting. To hold a rally for a specific presidential candidate goes against the Amish code of ethics.

    Since the 1980s, the Republican Party has sought to attract the Amish and Mennonite vote. Their opposition to abortion, same-sex relationships and other issues make their values conservative, and if members of the community do decide to vote, it appears they would almost all do so for Republican candidates.

    When I was reporting on the 2004 presidential election, the Bush campaign seeking reelection moved to capture the Amish and Mennonite vote. At the time, many of them did not watch television, and because many could only read their own community newspapers, there was a significant number of people who didn't even know the names of the presidential candidates. Traditional views that the Amish don't vote for the president were also strong, and it didn't look like the campaigning brought results.

    Many people in the Amish and Mennonite communities don't drive cars, and ride in horse-drawn carriages known as buggies, as seen in this image taken in Fredericksburg, Ohio, on Oct. 16, 2020. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    But today's Amish and Mennonites get information from sources including smartphones, the internet and their taxi drivers, and they've become more aware of news from across the United States. They've also started paying attention to the federal government's policies relating to the spread of the new coronavirus.

    Marcus Yoder, the 50-year-old executive director of the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin, Ohio, told me, "We have a historic level of political awareness this year." Yoder, a Mennonite, said that some 13% of eligible Amish voters cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election, and that around 8% did in the 2016 contest. He expects about 15% to vote in this year's race.

    Yoder looked sad as he said, "If we vote for the president, it will change the shape of our community. It will bring division to the Amish community. It will change who we are. My concern is that the Amish will be used by the Republican Party."

    The person who planned the Fredericksburg Trump rallies was South Carolina resident Chris Cox, 51. I called him just when he happened to be visiting the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was on his last push to try and get people in Amish and Mennonite settlements in Ohio and Pennsylvania to vote.

    According to Cox, there are approximately 74,000 Amish and Mennonite people in Ohio's Holmes and Wayne counties, making them the largest of the groups' communities. He said that if some started to vote, others would follow.

    The founder and former leader of Bikers for Trump, Cox was traveling across the U.S. with the group when he learned that Amish and Mennonites generally don't vote in presidential elections. Since then he has made repeated visits to Amish and Mennonite villages in Ohio, and has deepened his connections to the communities by attending weddings, milking cows and eating dinner with them.

    Cox senses that his work is having an effect, and described the Trump rally to me as involving around 20 Amish buggies followed by 180 motorcycles. Cox also claimed voter registration among Amish people has increased greatly, and he estimates that 35% to 40% of eligible Amish and Mennonite voters will head to the polls this year, and that 70% to 85% of them will be voting Republican.

    Both Ohio and Pennsylvania are hotly contested swing states that change hands between Republicans and Democrats at presidential elections. Every ballot counts in them. Regarding a potentially higher turnout from Amish and Mennonite voters, Cox said, "It could change the politics in Ohio." His view is by no means an exaggeration.

    Marcus Yoder, the executive director of the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center, who has said he is concerned that the communities will be used by the Republican Party, is seen in Berlin, Ohio, on Oct. 16, 2020. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    On Dec. 20, 2019, Cox arranged for eight members of Amish communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana to visit the White House and have a face-to-face meeting with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. One of the invited was Ben Hostetler, 51, who helped to organize the pro-Trump rally in Fredericksburg.

    It was easy for me to find Hostetler. When he asked me with some suspicion how I'd worked out where he lived, I told him, "There's a Trump sign on your lawn." He looked a little uncomfortable, and told me, "My son put the sign out there." He later explained that his 25-year-old son has left the Amish and is now an English.

    Regarding his visit to the White House and meeting Trump and Pence, Hostetler said, "It was awesome. You could feel the presence there, the Holy Spirit in the White House." He added, "It was neat. It was a relaxing atmosphere. We didn't talk no politics. We didn't talk about Amish. All we did was sat there in the Oval Office with Pence and Trump, and we just discussed everyday way of life. Not the Amish way of life and not the English way of life. We just had conversation. We talked about Christianity stuff." Hostetler said that Pence also gave a reading from the Bible of the nativity.

    Hostetler is an avid Trump supporter. He said, "I support Trump 100%. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it, we need Trump. The Democrats are for abortion, same-sex marriage. The Democrats are leading all this rioting and looting." He added that he voted for the president in 2016, and intended to do so again this year.

    According to Hostetler, the conservative Amish who reject phones, electricity and voting in the presidential election are "low class." He himself uses a mobile phone. He went on to say, "The Amish is not a religion. Some people think it is a way of life. Christianity is the religion."

    Hostetler's thinking seemed unorthodox. But it's probable that with the accelerated change in Amish society, the number of people like him will increase. The timber processing firm he manages has seen its revenue double in the four years Trump has been in office, and it's not just his company; the village's economy has expanded exponentially. "When the English economy hurts, our economy will hurt," he said.

    In Ohio, economic activity was temporarily suppressed in the spring as part of coronavirus countermeasures. It appears many Amish and Mennonite people were unhappy with the move. With its connections to the outside world, Amish society is seeing modern culture and its political divisions rush forcefully into its way of life.

    (Japanese original by Sumire Kunieda, Integrated Digital News Center)

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