The strangeness of these bedfellows is less about Mr. Mastriano’s specific platform than the very fact of his candidacy; his willingness, stated in a prayer to God, to “seize the power that we have given to us by the Constitution and by you”; his regular touting of his military service; his enthusiasm for the militaristic and vengeful Mr. Trump; and his skepticism of the separation of church and state. This would be unremarkable were we talking about support among ordinary evangelical voters. But for Anabaptists, it’s exactly the “walk in darkness” we once fundamentally eschewed.
And this shift is not unique to Pennsylvania; G.O.P. outreach and upticks in political engagement were reported in Amish communities in Michigan and especially Ohio over the past six years. Nor is it unique to Republicans. The biggest surprise of my seven years in a Mennonite Church USA congregation was how rapidly, how eagerly many of my coreligionists were diving into political action. There, the politics were typically pro-social-justice, anti-Trump progressivism — very far from Mr. Mastriano’s culture-war Republicanism. But the accelerating rush into politics was strikingly similar.
That politicization was limited in my local church, but in the broader denomination, political engagement seemed to be on an inexorable rise. At a denominational conference in 2018, I was startled by how political much of the content was. Our confession of faith looked to God for true justice, but in one conference session after another, justice seemed a primarily political hope, often tied, explicitly or by clear implication, to voting out Mr. Trump.
I’m not alone in observing this shift among Anabaptists left and right. American Mennonites are feeling the “seduction of political engagement,” the Anabaptist scholar John Roth has noted, lamenting that often their “political witness … basically aligns with the partisan divisions of the broader culture.” Mennonite Church USA’s denominational discussion around the 2020 election simply assumed political participation, and in 2020, Mennonite pastors across six denominations addressed rising political polarization in their churches.
Political operatives have taken notice, too, and in some cases are actively encouraging Amish and Mennonite forays deeper into political territory. As The Washington Post reported in 2019, Republican activists have identified the Amish and other theologically conservative Anabaptists as potential new party members, even founding a project called Amish PAC to recruit voters for Mr. Trump. The political action committee, which took in about $200,000 for the 2020 election and has reported raising about $31,000 for this cycle, has bought billboards and ads in local periodicals. Initially, many Amish people were resistant to the idea of voting, but “since 2016, every single year, it gets a little bit easier,” an Amish PAC official told The Post. “I think behaviors are finally changing.”
Increases in new voter registrations from the Amish-heavy Lancaster, Pa., area in 2020 suggest he’s right, even if the numbers remain modest. In 2016, researchers estimated, about 1,000 Amish people cast votes in the county out of about 15,000 eligible voters. The potential, though, is there for meaningful differences in close elections. And while it’s hard to get a firm tally of potential Anabaptist voters, they easily number in the tens of thousands in a few key states.
Data from Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies put the Pennsylvania Amish population north of 84,000, with 80,000 more in Ohio, and these numbers leave out more traditional but distinct Mennonite groups. It’s the theologically conservative factions — those more likely to vote Republican — seeing rapid growth: Pennsylvania’s Amish population nearly doubled in the last two decades. Still, it remains relatively rare today for the Amish to actually vote.